Local group hoping to bring winter sports festival to Rhinelander
While many around the State of Wisconsin are mourning the passing of the Badger State Games, the 25-year amateur sports competition that last month announced its end, a small group of people in Rhinelander are seeing the news as an opportunity for Rhinelander to move to the forefront.
The news that the Games were ending was not shocking to most people. As participation waned in recent years and competitions were spread across the state, after for years using Wausau as a home base, the event had become somewhat stale. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t potential there, an idea that Brian Wild of Rhinelander is banking on.
Wild is heading up a group that has begun to explore the idea of bringing a winter sports-themed, multiple day event to the Rhinelander area. He believes that Rhinelander is perfectly suited to host such a competitive event.
“We have the infrastructure all right here, with ice rinks, downhill ski hills, cross-country ski trails and plenty of frozen lakes,” said Wild, who’s an accountant at Northland Accounting in Rhinelander. “Things are still very early in the process, but we keep on asking ourselves ‘Why not Rhinelander?’ It could really be great here.”
Wild knows first hand the value that winter sports tournaments can bring to a community. As the treasurer of the Rhinelander Ice Association, (RIA) he’s seen the more than 1,200 “heads-in-beds” that large hockey tournaments can bring in during a two month period when the RIA used to host several hockey age brackets as part of the Badger State Winter Games. The organizers of the games pulled hockey from the Wausau area a few years ago, transferring all games to the Milwaukee market, to subpar results.
“They took a very good thing and ruined it by giving it to Milwaukee,” said Wild. “They had a couple very lackluster tournaments down there, and decided to pull the plug. We were hoping that Badger State would decide to bring the hockey back north, but instead they ended the whole event.”
Wild said he was notified of the end of the Badger State Games by Brett Aylesworth, the director of the RIA. While Aylesworth saw the news as a negative at first, Wild soon had him on the phone to talk about what he believed was a great opportunity.
“I told Brett we should look at this an opportunity to do our own thing up here,” said Wild. “I asked him if he thought we could host something like that in Rhinelander, and he said if we get enough community buy-in, it could happen. That’s where we’re at now.”
From the point of view of the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Badger State Games were no longer a good investment-as too many day-trippers led to not enough people spending time in hotels. Wild said that an event with local oversight would be able to attack those issues head-on.
“When we host multiple day hockey tournaments here, whole families are coming, and staying for several days,” said Wild. “I believe we can schedule this to bring a lot of people here, and urge them to stay for several days. My goal would be to have several different sporting tournaments happening at the same time.”
Wild mentioned the Camp 10 Ski Area and the multiple well-groomed cross country ski trails as ideal locations to host races and tournaments that would fall under the large event umbrella. He even suggested that a world class ice fishing tournament in the Rhinelander area could be a potential fit.
“There are so many possibilities if we can just get people to the table to work on it together,” said Wild. “I’m not talking about stepping in to take over someone’s event, but instead schedule things together and joint market them. I think its very possible.”
If there was anything that made the Badger State Games special, it was the fact that it was an amateur competition, something open to all. Many competitions also were held within easy driving distance from Wood and Adams counties. What replaces it, even if it’s more profitable for the region, likely won’t have the same type of broad-based ability to encompass multiple sports, multiple generations and multiple skill-levels without buy-in from people who truly understand the sport.
Wild also noted that part of the reason the Badger State Games worked for so many years was that they were often run by volunteer commissioners who took charge of organizing the individual events in sports they were passionate about. That meant, if there was a person who had a passion for cross-country skiing, curling, snowshoeing or any other winter event, they needed to be identified and brought together.
“Many of these sports already have amateur clubs in the area,” said Wild “There’s no reason any of them can’t organize a publicly accessible amateur competition on their own under one large event.”
Wild has had several conversations with Mitch Mode, the owner of Mel’s Trading Post and an avid cross-country skier. Mode said that while facilitating such an event would take a lot of work, he believes that there is enough interest in the individual winter sports in this area to potentially pull it off.
“We see hockey tournaments and cross-country ski races around here all the time, but I don’t think anyone has ever really talked about bringing those things together into one large event,” said Mode. “It definitely has the potential to make a big mark if it can be run correctly.”
Wild pointed out that, should an event be organized and have success, it may open the door to other similar style events in different seasons. “If a Hodag Winter Sports Festival works, there wouldn’t be anything stopping a Hodag Summer Sports Festival,” said Wild. “Any time you can bring hundreds of families to the area, it’s going to be a good thing for the community.”
Wild has had several conversations with representatives from the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, which have been receptive to the idea. His next hope is to talk with representatives from the City of Rhinelander to gauge interest and support in the plan. He said he’s trying to move ahead quickly, though, as he’s sure people in other towns around the state have similar ideas on hosting sports-themed festivals.
“I know we’re not the only people around that see this as an opportunity,” said Wild. “I just think this would be the best place for an event like this. I can’t think of anywhere better.”
Editor’s note: To express interest or show support for this idea, Wild urges people to contact the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce at (715) 365-7464.