New owners face challenge in creating excitement for Bucks
Community support key to team’s future in Milwaukee

By Rich Rovito - Special to The Freeman

April 23, 2014

MILWAUKEE - Herb Kohl’s pending deal to sell the Milwaukee Bucks to a pair of wealthy East Coast businessmen is generating some long-absent excitement around the downtrodden NBA franchise, but the prospective new owners must endear themselves to the community if they are to gain support for a new arena to serve as the team’s home, according to a local marketing expert.

“A major challenge for the new owners is how to build excitement around the Bucks,” said Felicia Miller, associate professor of marketing at Marquette University.

The Bucks finished with the worst record in the NBA this season, winning only 15 games against 67 losses. It also set a mark for futility for the franchise, which got its start in 1968. The Bucks played before sparse crowds on most nights at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the team’s home court since the 1988-89 season.

After a run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001, the Bucks have generally struggled on the court ever since under the ownership of Kohl, who purchased the franchise in 1985 for $18 million.

Despite the Bucks’ struggles, Kohl, who served as a United States senator from 1989 to 2013, remains “intertwined into the fabric of Wisconsin,” Miller said.

The 79-year-old Kohl has agreed to transfer ownership of the NBA franchise to Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry, who some local residents and Bucks’ fans are likely to view as rich Wall Street financial wizards “solely concerned about generating a return on their investment,” she said.

Lasry is the billionaire chairman of Avenue Capital Group, a private equity firm based in New York City.  Edens’s Fortress Investment Group is a publicly traded hedge fund, also based in New York City.

“They will have to be sensitive to the unique dynamics of the Milwaukee area,” Miller said. “What you don’t want is two venture capitalists just looking to make money.”


Winning team vital

Putting a winning team on the court also likely would go a long way toward gaining public support for the franchise and a new arena, which almost certainly is needed if the Bucks have any long-term chance of remaining in Milwaukee, she said.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has stated that a new arena is a requirement for keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee long-term.

“The Milwaukee market is a tough one for the NBA,” Miller said. She noted that the franchise is forced to compete with the Milwaukee Brewers, the immensely popular Green Bay Packers and successful local major college basketball programs for attention and, more importantly, consumer dollars.

Having a bona fide star for the franchise also would go a long way toward boosting the Bucks’ image. The Bucks have a few young, marketable players, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson and Brandon Knight, and are guaranteed of having one of the top four picks in the upcoming NBA draft.

However, the franchise’s roster doesn’t have anyone with the star power of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers or even the Brewers’ Ryan Braun, whose play on the field this season has fans already willing to overlook recent transgressions, which included a lengthy suspension last season for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Nonetheless, keeping a professional basketball team in Milwaukee with the possibility of a new arena is likely to generate excitement for the region, Miller admits.

“I think the outlook is optimistic,” she said.

Other small market teams, including the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, have enjoyed considerable success and could be models for the Bucks, Miller said.


Kohl made best deal, says MMAC president

The sale of the Bucks was inevitable, said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

“I think (Kohl) did everything in his control to set Milwaukee up with the best opportunity to keep an NBA team in Milwaukee for the foreseeable future,” Sheehy said.

He admitted that the sale price of $550 million “surprised just about everybody,” especially given that Forbes recently valued the Bucks at $405 million, dead least among the 30 NBA franchises.

“I’m convinced (Kohl) didn’t make the deal just to maximize the sale price but to find a credible buyer committed to creating a winner here in Milwaukee,” Sheehy said.

Sheehy briefly met with Lasry and Edens.

“I think they are committed but let’s not fool ourselves. The commitment comes as a partnership,” he said.

Some form of a private-public arrangement will be necessary in order to get a new arena built, Sheehy added.

Kohl has pledged a $100 million gift and the new owners have committed to contribute at least that much for the development of a new arena.

“My priority has always been and will continue to be keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee,” Kohl said. “This announcement reinforces that Milwaukee is and will continue to be the home of the Bucks.”

A new arena is expected to cost at least $400 million. The Bucks have a lease with the Bradley Center through 2017.

“If we don’t build a new facility, we won’t have an NBA team,” Sheehy said.


Funding remains at forefront

The MMAC arena task force is exploring funding options for a new facility. Among the considerations is a tax-incremental financing district to fund a new sports arena. Taxpayers in southeast Wisconsin also could be asked to pay a regional sales tax to help fund a new arena.

“Any solution will include some level of public financing,” Sheehy said.

The task force had studied whether a major renovation of the Bradley Center would be sufficient but determined it would be prohibitively expensive and not create a long-term solution.

“It will just not create a world-class facility that will keep an NBA team here,” Sheehy said.

Keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee would allow the region to retain a “unique asset” that creates an economic benefit thorough job creation, tax revenue, brand equity and improved quality of life for the community, he added.

The MMAC’s arena task force’s next step will be to “huddle with the new owners and re-engage on a game plan,” Sheehy said.

Edens and Lasry described themselves as “lifelong basketball fans who are committed to the success of the Bucks and the identity of the team as a part of the city of Milwaukee.”

The deal is subject to the approval of the National Basketball Association Board of Governors.