For sports fans, late summer and early autumn are the best time of the year. The baseball season is sifting the contenders from the pretenders, and the launch of pro, college and prep football seasons means that cautious optimism rules over cynical realism, at least for a few weeks. Even the hoop-heads are getting antsy with news that the Badger basketball team has been spotted running "The Hill" at Elver Park.
Such excitement also elevates local sports bars, which last weekend processed the onslaught of fans looking to wet their whistles before, during and after the Badgers' football home opener.
"This is what we always call the start of our year," says a harried Kelly Dallman, general manager of Lucky's Bar & Grille on Regent Street. "It starts in September with football and ends in March with college basketball and state basketball."
Lucky's, one of my favorite stops, offers delicious Bloody Marys garnished with pickled veggies and a beef stick. It also has an impressive 42 TVs, a draw for fans whose rooting interests might lie outside the state.
"It's funny how many other teams' fans we get here on Sundays," says Dallman. "It's probably two-to-one Vikings fans to Packer fans."
Last Saturday, the red-clads were pouring into and out of Lucky's outdoor beer garden, as they were at a handful of other establishments in the vicinity of Camp Randall Stadium.
For many fans, game day wouldn't be complete without a visit to Luedtke's Stadium Bar, just across Monroe from Camp Randall. Here, in its sprawling beer garden, rock music pumps out of gigantic speakers and empty beer cans litter the ground.
"There's really no way to count the people who come in and out, but it's literally in the thousands," says general manager Kathy Semenchuk, a veteran of 15 football seasons on Monroe Street. "There's a real flow on game day where people come to your place and have a few drinks and then move on to the next place, have a few drinks.
"It's not like you get a group that stays for 10 hours. People come before or after the game, and then we always have people without tickets who come down during the game just to be part of the atmosphere of the day."
In Madison, of course, there's no huge parking lot adjacent to the stadium to foster a tailgating scene. Instead, most fans park some distance away and walk to and from the game, with several opportunities to stop for a libation on the way.
The resulting experience is similar in many ways to New Orleans' Bourbon Street or the fan mile at last summer's World Cup in Berlin. It's led many observers, most recently ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt, to dub Madison the country's greatest college sports town.
But residents of the Regent, Vilas and Monroe-Dudgeon neighborhoods, which surround Camp Randall Stadium, aren't nearly as enamored of the game day beer gardens, many of which fire up as early as 8 a.m. Their protests have led to tighter regulations for places like Lucky's and the Stadium Bar. According to Semenchuk, her beer garden must close at 10 p.m. This is a problem for night games, like this season's tilt against Iowa Sept. 20, which kicks off at 7:30.
"I think everybody down here would like to stay open until midnight, just on those late games," she says. "When we close the beer garden, nobody can even be out there, even to use the port-a potties."
For sports fans seeking something completely different, Brocach, the Irish bar and restaurant on the Main Street side of the Capitol Square, is showing Rugby World Cup games, starting this week. Not traditionally a sports bar ("We're more about conversation and liveliness," says owner Don Gautreau), Brocach had good luck hosting fans of World Cup soccer last summer and hopes to have the same experience with rugby.
"Those World Cup games were all available on free TV, so everybody could have watched them at home," says Gautreau. "But certain people want to come out to an Irish pub and enjoy the game in that kind of atmosphere.