If you don't believe this is the most critical year in the modern history of University of Wisconsin Athletics, you're either uncaring, naïve or playing footsie with reality.

It's not about one sport, although the fortunes of Badgers football in next five months represent the biggest piece of the puzzle.

It's not about one person, although the wisdom, attitude and whereabouts of UW athletic director Barry Alvarez will be monitored more closely than at anytime since he stepped down as football coach in 2005.

It's not about one consumer trait, although bang-for-the-buck is poised to blow past brand loyalty as the dominant theme among most Badgers fans.

Don't confuse this moment with the early 1990s, when UW Athletics was in debt up to its eyeballs and had its own laugh track in terms of national reputation. Getting out of that mess was a Herculean proposition that took more than a decade to complete.

This is just one year we're talking about. But it's layered with issues of trust and economics, with developments so potentially monumental that many of the gains made during the late stages of the 20th century could be lost.

It all starts with football, of course. It's the primary breadwinner for UW Athletics, projected to bring in just over $17 million of an $83 million operating budget in ticket sales alone for 2009-10.

Attendance at Camp Randall Stadium will continue at a sellout pace this season and beyond if the Badgers put on a quality show under fourth-year coach Bret Bielema. That will allow UW officials to raise football ticket prices for 2010 - that hasn't happened the past two years - and things should be OK despite a gnarly economy.

But if the Badgers continue to trend downward under Bielema - his teams have gone 12-1, 9-4 and 7-6 overall - then we'll all find ourselves at the same fork in the road.

Alvarez will have a major decision on his hands: Stick with his hand-chosen successor and risk a mass exodus of fans, or make a change that erodes his sizeable legacy.

UW fans will have a major decision on their hands: Keep investing in a stock that underperforms, or look for other things to do with their dwindling discretionary income.

Both decisions would be worth millions of dollars.

Tough economic times have already chipped away at support for UW Athletics. Major donors and advertisers have scaled back because their bottom lines demand it. Some businesses have doubled up on suites at Camp Randall in order to save money. Some fans have cut back on their allotment of season tickets.

In the midst of all this, UW chancellor Biddy Martin saw fit to prohibit UW Athletics from getting more than $400,000 in sponsorship revenue from beer makers.

Note to self: Find out how much licensing revenue UW gets from shot glasses sold with the Bucky Badger logo on them.

Alvarez has $30 million in savings and grand plans for UW Athletics - including two major capital projects - but both would be jeopardized if the football program he built from scratch crumbles some more.

The trickle-down effect on the other 22 sports would be massive, which is why the coming year in UW Athletics will be unlike any other.

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