Gameday. Parents and students alike packing State Street and Regent Street. Grills firing up. Music blaring from houses and cars. A staple of not just University of Wisconsin-Madison culture, but the city of Madison’s culture.
But something is missing: a link in the arms swaying to the Varsity fight song. Someone is left out from what most would contend to be an integral part of the Wisconsin experience.
Brooke Evans, a homeless student and prominent student activist featured in the New York Times and Glamour Magazine, as well as being a Letters and Science representative at the Associated Students of Madison, is trying to change that. By making athletic events more financially accessible, she is hoping to fill in the missing link.
In starting the conversation, Evans is attempting to pilot a ticket donation program through the Working Class Student Union in which students, who would normally sell their ticket above face value on Facebook ticket exchanges, can donate any home game tickets to underprivileged students who would normally never be able to afford one.
Evans used to be one of those students.
Until 2014, Evans had never been to a game, and had it not been for a chance raffle contest at Fresh Market grocery store, she would have never been able to go.
“What they had at the time was that you could win travel and ticket admission to go to the Badgers away game at Purdue. Because the only two Fresh Market stores are at Purdue and Wisconsin,” Evans said.
Instead of spending hours on the floor next to the frozen aisle at Fresh Market, Evans took the entry pad booklets with her, desperate for a taste of the community that offered a weekly getaway for the average student at UW.
Knowing that she could never afford a ticket, her hope to attend a game hinged on this raffle.
“I was still living on a floor on West Doty Street, and in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, I would fill out these entry pads,” Evans said as she paused, remembering a time when she lived day by day, floor by floor. “I must have filled out several hundred.”
Financial stress among college students is very high. The majority of students are worrying about paying for college, and many cut back on buying textbooks, meals and socializing.
According to a Wisconsin Hope Lab study — where Evans formerly worked as a student researcher, 37 percent of college students reported worrying about paying for college very often or extremely often, compared to 28 percent of students who never or rarely worry about college finances. The remaining 34 percent sometimes worried about college expenses.
The burden of stress related to college finances will then force students to constrict their budgets.
According to another Hope Lab study, those budget constraints can impact necessities such as housing and food. For example, 42 percent of college students reported cutting sizes or skipping meals entirely while 15 percent cut sizes of or skip meals almost every month.
Socializing, though, is the single biggest thing financially strained students sacrificed, coming in at 70 percent of students who reported cutting back on their social lives.
“We don’t drink socially,” Evans said of underprivileged students. “We normally try to budget for something super cheap at Riley’s [Wines of the World] and enjoy it ourselves. There aren’t really ways to find each other, you don’t really celebrate being poor together.”
According to Evans there isn’t any programming in place for students who are poor or in low financial standing, thus this isolation affects personal and academic well-being.
Relating these HOPE lab numbers back to gameday, something very real to Badgers across the state, for students like Evans, it is an outside-looking-in kind of moment.
“So when you think about it in terms of a cartoon, you’re this person in grey or white. It’s almost like you’re a ghost in midst of State Street where everyone is in red and you can’t understand for the life of you why everyone is in red,” said Evans. “What drugs are you on? What is this thing you are on? How do I get it?”
What Evans wanted was a piece of the Wisconsin pride and energy that came from what she believed to be a crucial part of the Wisconsin experience.
University of Wisconsin-Madison student activist Deshawn McKinney, President of the Wisconsin Union and a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, was one of the first students to donate his ticket to Brooke’s ticket donation program. McKinney believes that getting underprivileged students the option to go to these games opens up the possibility for a more welcoming community, one in which these students do not otherwise access.
To be a part of that community is a powerful force.
“I think it’s not to feel like an other, right? To have the privilege to walk around and not feel like people are looking at you or when they’re looking at you, they’re not thinking negative things about you,” McKinney explained. “That you can walk away feeling like you’ve had the full college experience. You can leave having no regrets that you can fully take advantage of opportunities. I think there is also an element of feeling like you can dream.”
Taking advantage of the opportunities on campus is something UW administrators are hoping students access in their time here.
“I’m a firm believer in, and I said this often, you don’t know if you don’t like green beans unless you try them,” said Dean of Students Lori Berquam.
Knowing that many students do not come to a school solely based on sports and athletic events, Berquam believes allowing first year students of all varieties the opportunity to be a part of the game day community could be a worthwhile endeavor in achieving a part of the university’s new Wisconsin Experience.
Evans also knows that the athletic community may not be for everyone, but also questions if it is something every student should have access too, regardless of socioeconomic status.
“We’re coming here for an education. We aren’t coming here with legacy help or with anything else,” Evans said. “We aren’t coming for the spirit and the community. We’ve never felt it before and I guess it’s an interesting question because do we have a claim to access that community, is it something we’ve bought? Is it a good, a brand, a name, a title that is part of the Badger way?””
Berquam and her staff have floated the idea of creating some sort of event surrounding the first home football game of the year, that connects athletics to higher education. Opening this event up to all first-year students, Berquam would hope that it would be a good opportunity to try out one of the major aspects of UW.
“Maybe you’ll like the football game and maybe you won’t,” Berquam said. “But this is an opportunity for you to have this part of your collegiate experience.”
One of the ideas floated was to open up the first home game of the season to all first-year students, regardless of if they got into the lottery for student season tickets. This would take a massive change in the way tickets are distributed. If UW athletics would adopt an idea like this, Berquam sees a great opportunity for part of the Wisconsin Experience to be accessed: empathy and humility.
The first game of the season is so crucial due to the fact first-year students arrive on campus only a few days prior. A sense of community could be built early in the life of the young Badgers.
“I think that would be a really great precedent setting of leadership from athletics…in what I would see as contributing to the Wisconsin Experience there is developing that level of empathy and humility for each other,” Berquam said. “But also creating a sense of camaraderie, sense of spirit, and team with the first year student class in bringing them together as a group.”
For Berquam, Evans’ ticket donation program seems like a clear and great idea that could also spur community growth and involvement.
“Seems like a win-win. And that should be what we are looking for, is the wins that we all get,” Berquam said.
As the Hope Lab data showed, financially-strained students already worry about things as simple as where their next meal will come from, or rather, which meal they might have to skip.
Getting these students to be a part of the community, however, may ease these pressures.
“If you feel a part of the community, you don’t have those extra pressures or worries,” McKinney said. “You don’t have to take on the burden of advocating and working for improvements. Then your academic success, your social success, all of those things will be increased.”
But of course, it is not up to administrators like Berquam, but the Athletic Department to pick up on ideas like the ticket donation program or opening up the first home game to all first year students.
As a homeless student, this was what Brooke Evans sought to give her peers—an opportunity.
“We are working together with [Dean Berquam] and her office on some kind of initiative aimed at engaging first year students around the weekend of that first weekend,” Justin Doherty, Wisconsin senior associate athletic director, said. “But I don’t have any specifics right now; I think it is still in that conversation stage.”
When asked about the possibility of implementing Evans’ ticket donation program from within the athletics department, Doherty did not immediately say if it would be a program Athletics would get behind.
“It would be something we would need to hear more about and evaluate. I think our primary responsibility is the sale of our tickets and that takes a lot of our resources, and I would say if people have other proposals or ideas, we hear things from students and fans all the time about things we can do and ways we can improve things and I think we are always willing to hear ideas,” Doherty said.
One of the ways UW athletics gains insight into student opinion is through their Badger Athletic fan board, but according to Evans, problems exist with that forum.
“They have a Badger Athletics fan board that welcomed primarily those who could afford season tickets and who have been to multiple games.” Evans said. “It didn’t welcome those for whom tickets have never been accessible to provide feedback and insinuated we couldn’t be Badger fans if we didn’t pay the outrageous prices for tickets.”
As Athletics, according to Doherty, is primarily concerned with the sale of their tickets, accessibility regardless of socioeconomic status of the students is less of a concern than making sure the seats are filled on gameday.
When asked about student accessibility to athletic events, Doherty pointed to full seats at the Kohl Center of a good indicator of being in a good spot.
“I think it feels like it is at a pretty good spot right now, I think if you went to the Kohl Center for a men’s basketball game, I think the student section is good,” Doherty said. “I think they most of the time fill most of the seats.”
“One thing I would emphasize is that we do really appreciate and love the enthusiasm the students have for the athletic events,” Doherty continued. “It would be awesome if we could accommodate every student that wanted to purchase a season ticket during those windows where they are available, but the reality is the number is where it is and that’s just what we are dealing with right now.”
One of the reasons for high ticket prices that keep underprivileged students from attending games is the unregulated way in which students sell their tickets. UW athletic events sell student tickets in two ways: season student tickets and single game tickets. For more popular sports like football or men’s basketball, there are rarely single game student tickets available for face value, as season tickets sell out at blistering speeds. Often times, students buy the season tickets for those sports and end up selling some of the games in the season package, or the whole package, at marked up prices.
For instance, the 2016 UW football game against Ohio State student ticket could have garnered well over $100 on the Facebook student ticket exchange, while face value for that ticket was just over $20.
Berquam and UW administrators have had candid conversations with students and understand the gross unfairness of the price gouging that occurs on the unregulated ticket exchange.
“We have on more than one occasion talked about this with Athletics, in terms of our concerns about the selling of student tickets for more than the face value,” Berquam said.
Though it seems those concerns are falling on deaf ears.
“I think that is a little bit of a difficult thing for us to police as you term it. I think if the notion is that you are ripping off a fellow Badger, then I think that the seller should consider that and the buyer should consider that frankly,” Doherty said.
Jason Klein, a student who sits on the athletic board, sees the unregulated ticket exchanges as the big problem.
“If you really want to go to a single game and can’t afford season tickets, you’re forced to go through this extra process that takes extra time and extra money just to be able to acquire a ticket,” Klein said.
Klein has been working for the past couple years on ways to solve this issue, saying, “It’s extraordinary that you look at the student section for some of the games this year and you know that a good portion of those students paid more for those tickets than the adults sitting around them.”
Without UW Athletics stepping in to regulate the ticket exchange and with a proposal for first-year student engagement only in the conversation stage, Evans is the only one offering a window into Badger athletics for underprivileged students.
For the time being, students struggling to navigate the financial reality of college are on the outside of gameday, looking in.
“I look at these people and how happy they are with athletics and I think, ‘I have never been that happy in my life as a Badger’,” Evans said. “I have never been as happy as they look.”
Special thanks to Brooke Evans, Deshawn McKinney, Jason Klein, Justin Doherty, and Dean of Students Lori Berquam for their help with this story.