Bringing the Big Ten Conference women’s rowing championships to Devil’s Lake State Park on Sunday is the culmination of years of wishing, hoping and planning on the part of University of Wisconsin officials.
The wishing and hoping started with the idea from Badgers women’s coach Bebe Bryans and men’s coach Chris Clark that Wisconsin could offer a high-level racecourse worthy of holding major events.
The planning since UW last year won the right to host the Big Ten regatta on the cliff-lined lake near Baraboo has been in the hands of an event management team that’s used to putting on major outings like home football games and the Crazylegs Classic.
“It’s extremely similar to what we do in Madison,” said Shane Burgess, associate director of events for UW Athletics. “But we’ve just got 45 miles in between.”
For the past week, Burgess and Alex Knecht, assistant director of camps and events, have been among a crew of workers that have turned the park’s south shore into a temporary rowing festival to accommodate what they say could be up to 3,000 spectators.
As concrete was being poured Wednesday as part of the final renovations to the Red Oak Shelter that will serve as the event headquarters, tents were starting to go up and UW staff members were unloading trucks of equipment that came from campus.
The logistical challenges are plenty for an eight-team regatta that will be live-streamed on BTN2Go.com and repackaged for broadcast on the Big Ten Network a week later.
“What I’m very fortunate to have is infrastructure in place where I’m being told, don’t worry about anything; coach your crew,” Bryans said.
The broadcast plans provided some of the more delicate challenges for UW and Department of Natural Resources officials.
Unlike other sports where there are fixed places to install cameras and wiring around the playing surface, the 2,000-meter rowing course at Devil’s Lake is in the middle of the water.
One solution ran face-first into another problem. The TV production could use a camera mounted to a drone to follow the boats as they race from near the north shore to the south, but the aerial devices are banned in state parks.
Organizers went to high levels of the DNR to get clearance for the drone to be a key part of the broadcast coverage. It’ll launch from a pontoon boat in the middle of the lake.
They’ll also have a camera on a lift at the finish line and one in a chase boat that will follow the action. Gas-powered boats are not typically allowed on Devil’s Lake, but UW again got permission to bend the rules for the event.
“Pretty much if there’s a rule here,” Burgess said, “we, unfortunately, break it — with permission.”
The video feed wouldn’t get outside the park if a solution hadn’t been drawn up for another logistics hurdle: There are no internet connections at the lake’s south shore facilities that are serving as championship central.
The answer was at the north shore, which has a high-speed connection, and in air fiber technology that uses two dishes to beam the signal across the water. Burgess and Knecht tested the system at the park last month after initially trying it out across Lake Mendota in January.
“That’s been one of our more interesting adventures,” Burgess said.
UW’s coaches for years have seen potential in a fair course between the 500-foot Devil’s Lake State Park bluffs that serve as wind barriers on the water.
Rowing events on the lake go back at least to 1877, when a reported 5,000 spectators watched a series of boat races.
The Badgers men’s team moved a 2012 race to the park because of a poor wind forecast for Lake Mendota. Both men’s and women’s programs scheduled a set of races there in 2015, and the women’s team has scrimmaged at the park in addition to hosting other competitive events.
It’s only marginally a home-course advantage for the No. 11 Badgers, however.
“Our seniors have probably raced there four or five times, so probably the same as they’ve raced anywhere else,” Bryans said. “The course is remarkably fair, which is one of the things that makes it a really good place to race. So their knowledge of the course won’t matter here. But the fact that it only takes us 45 minutes to get there, that’s a huge deal.”
The regatta is scheduled to include seven races — one every 20 minutes starting at 9 a.m. Sunday. But organizers will be watching the weather and can shift the start time to try to avoid the worst of what is forecast to be a cool, stormy day.
Out of all of the logistical concerns — including bringing hundreds of cars in without creating massive traffic backups — the weather is one that event planners have no control over.
They hope they have covered everything else, from parking the boat-laden trailers that are coming from around the Big Ten to sanitizing the launches to prevent the spread of invasive species. About 60 volunteers, many of them former Badgers rowers, will be part of the effort to keep things in order on race day.
UW and the Big Ten have each put forward about $50,000 to run the event, according to a UW spokesperson.
When it’s done, after Burgess, Knecht and their crew take it all apart, UW officials will weigh whether to make a run at hosting other conference- or national-level events at Devil’s Lake.
“I know that it’s going to be good enough that they’re going to want to be able to showcase our talents again,” Bryans said. “The lake is superb, the setting is magnificent. And once people see what Wisconsin can do on a rowing standpoint — because we’ve seen it in so many other sports — I think that that may hopefully outweigh the expense and the effort it took to put it on.”