Committee recommends dissolving Mendota Gridiron Club, citing changing fundraising landscape
In 2009, the Mendota Gridiron Club feted 60 years of support for the University of Wisconsin football team with a sold-out banquet.
It appears that any 70th birthday celebration will have to be of the posthumous variety.
The Mendota Gridiron Club’s executive committee will recommend at a Jan. 8 board of directors meeting that the nonprofit group of Badgers football boosters be dissolved, according to executive director Eric Mott.
Members of the group’s board of directors this week received a letter notifying them of the meeting to formally approve the shutdown as of Jan. 31, 2019.
“The Mendota Gridiron Club is proud to have supported the Wisconsin football program for close to 70 years,” Mott wrote in a statement issued in response to requests for comment on the decision.
“The dynamics of fundraising in college athletics, however, have changed to the point where the Club is unable to successfully continue to financially support the football program.”
Mott declined to answer questions about the pending dissolution of a group that has around 1,500 members and has contributed millions of dollars to Badgers football since being formally organized as the Mendota Association in 1949.
“Based on discussions and analysis over the past year, the Executive Board and staff have concluded that it is no longer financially nor logistically feasible to continue the regular operations of the corporation,” the letter to the board of directors, dated last Thursday, reads.
Karen Heidel, the Mendota Gridiron Club’s director of operations, also declined comment.
Some current and past members of the club’s leadership seemed resigned to its demise as a victim of change but celebrated its contributions to the UW football program over the years.
“All I can say is the group is as enthusiastic as ever,” said Wayne Esser, who stepped down in 2011 after 40 years as executive director.
According to its tax filing, the Mendota Gridiron Club donated more than $780,000 in 2016 to the UW Foundation, which maintains donation accounts for UW Athletics. Tax records show a drawing down of the club’s net assets in recent years, from more than $92,000 at the end of 2013 to $1,014 at the end of 2016.
A summary of the plan of dissolution included with the letter to members of the board of directors estimated club assets of $50,000 and liabilities of $42,000.
The 2016 filing showed that the club has two employees. It operates out of offices inside UW Athletics’ Kellner Hall at Camp Randall Stadium.
There are 48 members of the board of directors, and by state law a majority must vote to approve the group’s dissolution.
The club contributed toward the construction of the McClain Center in the late 1980s and toward multiple football office renovations. It also at one point paid parts of coaching compensation agreements.
“I’m so proud of what we accomplished,” Esser said.
In recent years, club money went toward providing barbers to cut hair for players in the team’s training facilities and iPads to house players’ playbooks, said past president Dan Douglas, a club member for more than 40 years.
But Douglas said the board of directors hasn’t met in two years and financial records haven’t been opened up like they were in the past.
“We don’t know where the money goes anymore,” Douglas said.
In interviews, club members also noted a decrease in attendance for mid-week events during the football season since they were shifted to coincide with coach Paul Chryst’s radio show.
The club has hosted golf outings and other events around the state in addition to weekly meetings. In 2016, those gatherings produced more than $98,000 in net income, according to the club’s tax filing.
Members also said the connections between the club and the coaching staff weren’t as tight under Chryst and predecessor Gary Andersen as they were under previous coaches.
Over the last two decades, the role of booster organizations has been shrinking as UW put itself in the lead role for fundraising through its Athletic Development Office.
The NCAA slapped UW with two years of probation in 1999 for poor tracking of booster funds, including unauthorized spending.
Still, in 2001, the school had 13 athletics booster groups, including the hockey Blue Line Club and the volleyball Sideout Club.
By the end of the 2005-06 school year, the total was down to five. The Blue Line Club and Hoop Troop, the booster group for women’s basketball, faded away in the following years. The National W Club was dissolved as a nonprofit organization in 2016 and now exists as a letter-winner service outfit that produces the Crazylegs Classic and other events.
With the Mendota Gridiron Club’s pending departure, only the Badger Basketball Boosters stand to remain. No changes are planned for the basketball group, operations manager Laura Strang said.