In three short seasons, the Madison franchise has become the crown jewel of the Northwoods League.
The marriage between the Mallards and summer collegiate baseball has been a perfect union for a city that has watched minor league baseball painfully come and go. The old ball yard at Warner Park has been spruced up, transformed into the “Duck Pond” by flags, banners, promotions, a little paint and a party deck known as the “Duck Blind.”
More than 71,000 people (at a league-high average of 3,776 per game) have flocked to the Mallards’ games this season, already eclipsing the team’s own league record for home attendance. And that’s with 12 regular-season home games remaining — causing team officials to ponder how to reward Spectator No.100,000.
The Mallards got to show off their place Wednesday night when Madison played host to the Northwoods All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.
“I think the story in Madison is really unparalleled,” said La Crosse Loggers owner Dan Kapanke, whose expansion team ranks second in league attendance and has its own success story brewing. “I think that’s a phenomenal story. Madison has had teams before that have had failed experiences. That creates doubts in the minds of the fans. They had to turn that around and they have.”
Northwoods League president Dick Radatz Jr. credited Mallards owner Steve Schmitt, general manager Vern Stenman and the team’s staff for Madison’s success.
“I always thought Madison had ultimate potential and I think it has more,” Radatz said during a break in Wednesday afternoon’s All-Star luncheon at Warner Park. “I made the comment on the ride from Chicago (Wednesday morning), I’ll bet anybody in this car within two years, (Schmitt) will put 7,000 people in this place.’ Not on an average, but some night he will do this. My question to Steve is: How high is up with this guy?’
“You saw this place. To see how it is, compared to three years ago, it’s amazing. It truly is amazing. I was down for opening night and it’s evolved since then.”
Said Stenman, who saw a single-game record 5,776 attend last Friday’s game at Warner Park, while another 4,310 were there Wednesday: “We’ve grown a lot faster than I anticipated, and I’m the biggest optimist in the world.”
To say the Mallards are a business model for every team in the league might be an overstatement because population bases differ, Radatz said. But he believes teams can implement ideas from the Mallards.
Schmitt also wasn’t sure Madison was a model, but said: “It would be, of course, a compliment if any of the teams in the Northwoods League wanted to pattern themselves after the Madison Mallards. That’s fine. We are not perfect, but, hopefully, we’ll get a little better every year.”
While everything appears ducky, Schmitt downplayed his team’s success.
“I don’t know if you can say we have done so well,” he said. “I don’t know if you can determine successful yet. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like we are rounding first base and we are chugging for second base and we don’t have a stand-up double or anything yet. So, we are in the early stages. The way I look at this every year, I’ll never expect to be perfect. I try to get a little better every year. The main concern is to keep it fan-friendly. … My concern is to keep smiles on the faces of the fans from 2 years old to 92 years old.”
Factors in the Mallards’ success include affordable prices for concessions and tickets (many tickets in Madison are $3 to $6, free for ages 5 and under), numerous promotions and hustling play by non-paid college players. That the first-half champion Mallards have been winning also has helped at the gate.
“There is a nostalgic feel,” Stenman said of the developmental league. “It is baseball how you remember it as a kid.”
City of Madison officials have proven to be allies, Stenman and Schmitt said, leaving the Mallards’ brain trust excited about next season when improvements will be made to stadium lights, restrooms and a concessions stand.
“Madison has set the bar pretty high,” Kapanke said. “We are just striving to get there — on and off the field.”