The Beloved Badger Bash

The pregame party has grown from low-key to high-powered.

Members of the UW Madison marching band play in a half circle around director Corey Pompey

UW Marching Band director Corey Pompey ushers in a new era for the Badger Bash at Union South. Bryce Richter

Fifty years ago, Badger Bash — the ultimate pregame festivity for Wisconsin football fans — was born.

When the original Union South opened in 1971, former Wisconsin Union manager Merrill “Corky” Sischo noticed a sea of Badger fans passing through the building for food and drinks before home football games. He connected with Mike Leckrone, then the fresh-faced director of the UW Marching Band, and together they threw the first official Badger Bash outside Union South in 1972.

The event started as a low-stakes opportunity for the marching band and pompon squad to warm up in front of a small audience. But by 1974, more than 3,000 fans were packing Union South’s grounds. They came for increasingly razzle-dazzle performances as well as brats and beer. In the early years, the event extended to after the game, with polkas and jazz by the Doc De Haven ’58 band in the Carousel room.

“As the crowd continued to grow, the performance became more ‘formulated’ but was still very relaxed,” Leckrone said shortly before his retirement in 2019.

Today, Badger Bash’s recipe largely remains the same. The free tailgate begins two and a half hours before every home football game, hosted by local celebrity emcees. Classic Wisconsin tailgate fare is still served, alongside more than 100 food and beverage options. (Bloody Mary bar, anyone?) The marching band, UW Spirit Squad, and Bucky himself take the stage around 90 minutes before kickoff with a preview of the halftime show and a plentiful helping of hip-swinging UW hits. The event is rounded out with kid-friendly activities and rivalry-related competitions. And fans without a ticket to the game can stick around and watch on the big screen at The Sett.

Badger Bash has become so beloved that the new Union South was practically built for it. The southwest plaza is roughly double the size of its predecessor, and architects specifically designed the space to accommodate the band’s staging needs.

In 2019, Corey Pompey made his public debut as the marching band director at the home-opening Badger Bash. The band delighted the crowd with the usual Badger hits, including the “Beer Barrel Polka.” But Pompey also introduced contemporary songs from the likes of Adele, The Killers, and Cardi B. Welcome to the new era of Badger Bash.

Published in the Fall 2022 issue

Tags: Athletics, Badger, Campus history, Food, football, music, sports, Student life, Students

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