You had to see this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel lead coming:
In what civic leaders and elected officials called a game-changer and a new era for Milwaukee, former Sen. Herb Kohl announced the sale of the Milwaukee Bucks to two New York hedge-fund investors for $550 million, and said he and the new ownership team each will commit $100 million toward a new, multipurpose arena.
The team’s sale had been rumored for weeks, but what was not known until now was how much money for a new arena would be offered by Kohl, a lifelong philanthropist, and the new owners, who were introduced Wednesday afternoon at the BMO Harris Bradley Center as Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens.
“This is a major step forward in my goal in keeping the Bucks here,” said Kohl, who bought the Bucks for $18 million in 1985 and has owned the team for 29 years.
The $550 million sale figure stunned many who follow sports transactions and must have brought smiles to the faces of NBA executives, given Milwaukee’s small-market status.
In January, Forbes magazine, which compiles valuations of professional sports teams, said the Bucks were the least valued team in the National Basketball Association at $405 million.
Nearly a year ago, the Sacramento Kings, in a larger market, were sold for $535 million.
Marc Marotta, chairman of the BMO Harris Bradley Center board of directors, heralded the news that Kohl had committed $100 million and Lasry and Edens had offered to provide at least $100 million more toward a new facility.
“This announcement provided new momentum for the project,” Marotta said. “This is a huge, huge commitment for our city and the state of Wisconsin. It will present opportunities obviously for the future. … and it will help our community for years and years and decades to come.”
Lasry told a large gathering at the Bradley Center that he and Edens “want to build a great team and a beautiful arena.”
“We are looking forward to the experience of being an owner,” Edens said. “We have a big vision for the Bucks,” adding that fans deserve a winning team.
“For Wes and I it really is a dream come true,” said Lasry, who said he and his partner hoped to bring a championship to the city in the next five to 10 years.
Edens is the co-founder of the Fortress Investment Group LLC, based in New York, and a self-described basketball fan. According to federal Securities & Exchange Commission documents, the firm has $61.8 billion in assets under management. He is a graduate of Oregon State University.
Lasry is the chairman, CEO and co-founder of Avenue Capital Group. As of March 31, the firm had $13.6 billion in assets under management. Lasry is a native of Morocco who moved to the United States. He is a graduate of Clark University and holds a law degree from New York Law School.
Lasry ranks as one of the wealthiest Americans in the country, according to Forbes magazine. The magazine reported in 2013 that he had a net worth of $1.5 billion, good for a ranking of 352 on the list of the wealthiest 400 Americans.
The first thought that comes to mind is that this is proof positive that Wisconsin needs more millionaires and billionaires — you know, the evil 1 percent. Without Herb Kohler, there are no world-class golf courses in the state of Wisconsin, and no national-class golf tournaments being played in Wisconsin. Without Kohl, the Bucks would be in Sacramento, or Kansas City, or Seattle. Apparently Wisconsin has to import its billionaires — Lasry and Edens, and before them, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio.
The second thought is that this the second time I’ve been (happily) proven wrong about the future of a state pro sports franchise. In 1996, I predicted that the Brewers would become the Carolina Distillers or perhaps the Mexico City Cerveceros after they left over the state’s inability to finance a new stadium. Eighteen years later, the Brewers play in Miller Park, which includes a retractable roof, perhaps the best $100 million that has ever been spent on a building in this state’s history.
I predicted that the Bucks were heading to Seattle because I thought it highly unlikely that Herb Kohl would find a megabucks owner to take the Bucks off his hands, yet keep them in Wisconsin. (In 2003, Michael Jordan reportedly was part of an ownership group that wanted to buy the Bucks, but move them closer to Chicago. Kohl vetoed the deal.) It appears, barring a last-second disaster, that Kohl will accomplish his goal.
The next step is to get a new arena for the Bucks, for which Kohl is pledging $100 million and Lasry and Edens are pledging $100 million. Michael Hunt asserts:
Edens and Lasry did not become billionaires on bad business decisions, so their long-term commitment to Milwaukee with their team hinges on shovels going into the ground in the next year or so. This is not an or-else situation, but it’s clear the Bucks cannot stay without a new building.
The NBA genuinely wants continued representation in Milwaukee, but the league is putting pressure on the franchise to get an arena deal done. Large-market owners are only willing to support their small-market brethren with revenue sharing to a certain extent.
So now it becomes a matter of trust that the extraordinary financial commitments by Kohl and the new owners toward the building won’t languish on the table in another unseemly political fight.
But you know this town. The Bradley Center was paid for with a $90 million check more than a quarter-century ago and still the thing almost didn’t get built while obstructionists argued about where it should be placed. It would seem like a half-price arena would be palatable to even the most skeptical, but this is a place that nearly rejected a freebie.
It also becomes a matter of trust that community leaders and politicians come up with ways to find more private money and make the sales pitch palatable and progressive. One way would be for Edens and Lasry to add local investors, a real possibility.
Another would be to join forces with the Wisconsin Center and make the arena part of the downtown entertainment infrastructure with further development, because in the end this is more about extending this city’s cultural reach than sustaining a basketball team. …
Pretty soon they’re going to have to come together to get this right, because not since the Pettit family’s unprecedented gift has this city been presented with such an opportunity to grow, prosper and remain in an exclusive club in which membership is limited to 30 worldwide.
Before Wednesday, the chance to build a modern arena and keep the franchise seemed like a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer. It’s not a slam-dunk yet, but it is a contested layup, so close to happening that it’s OK to feel that the longtime angst over this issue has run into a solid pick.
I’m not sure whether the next step comes before or after the arena, but it is as important. The new owners need to almost start over with the Bucks. (Save the colors — green was to symbolize the Packers, and red was to symbolize the Badgers.) Forget about the arena for a moment — the Bucks have been so bad for so long that you can easily denote the glory eras of the franchise
- 1970-74: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Dandridge and (by trade) Oscar Robertson. Milwaukee’s only NBA title, and a thrilling 1974 Finals loss.
- Late ’70s-late ’80s: Don Nelson as coach, Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson by draft, past-their-prime-but-still-effective Bob Lanier and Jack Sikma by trade. The Bucks were the fourth best team in the NBA; unfortunately two of the top three, Boston and Philadelphia, inevitably ended Bucks seasons.
- 2001: George Karl as coach, Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson and Ray Allen by draft, Sam Cassell and sixth-man Tim Thomas by trade. A seven-game loss in the Eastern Conference finals to the 76ers.
Other than a few additional playoff berths (four of five Karl’s successors, Terry Porter, Terry Stotts, Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan, got one playoff berth each), that’s been it. Since the Bucks have been in existence since 1968, you’ll note there’s more gory than glory in those periods, particularly in the 1990s. It’s remarkable that according to always-accurate Wikipedia, the Bucks actually have won 51 percent of their games in their history, including this season’s 15-win slaughter.
The Bucks’ problem is a simultaneous lack of talent and charisma. There is literally nothing compelling about the Bucks (including players with any kind of Wisconsin connection, even to sit on the bench), unless you think tanking games to possibly get the NBA’s number one draft pick is fun viewing. In part because of that, and in part because of failure to promote the Bucks outside Milwaukee, few people outside the 414 and 262 area codes could care less about the Bucks. And that’s a problem when you have 41 games times 18,000 seats to fill. (And to no one’s surprise, the Bucks didn’t fill the seats very well — they were dead last in per-game attendance, at 13,487 fans (some of whom probably dressed as empty seats) per game, and third from the bottom in percentage of home seats sold. They were also fourth from the bottom in road average attendance, which means that fans of other NBA teams knew the Bucks sucked too. Put it together, and the Bucks were the least viewed team in the NBA this year.)
The Bucks have problems similar to small-market teams in all major pro sports leagues not named NFL. The NBA’s salary cap, you”ll note, is not effective enough to prevent the Bulls’ dynasty in the 1990s, the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant wave, or, now, the Heat from dominating the league. The Bucks do not have the ability to write a check to acquire a player to undo previous bad player decisions. Similar to the Brewers, the Bucks’ margin of error is considerably smaller than bigger-market NBA teams, so they have to build from within and make the right player decisions — including whether to let someone go because he’s become unaffordable — nearly all the time.
The Bucks’ best teams were the early ’70s teams because of their two hall-of-fame players, Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson. The Bucks’ second-best teams were the next group because of their coach, Nelson, who outcoached his opponent nearly every night whether or not the Bucks won. I’d say that’s how the Bucks should approach things — find the next iteration of Nelson, Karl, Pat Riley or Phil Jackson – but Kohl thought he was doing that with Mike Dunleavy, who had coached the Lakers to the NBA Finals. Dunleavy was a useful player with the Bucks, but a trainwreck of a coach with the Bucks.
Pro sports teams not only need to have a successful product; they need to have an entertaining product. Stadiums quite obviously are designed today to extract the maximum amount of money possible from fans’ wallets. That is one of the two major failings of the Bradley Center, which is what you’d expect from an arena designed in 1988. The other Bradley Center problem is terrible sight lines for basketball, which is what you’d expect for a stadium designed for hockey in days when it appeared as though the NHL might locate a franchise in Milwaukee. The Bradley Center was a gift from Jane Pettit, who owned the Milwaukee Admirals at the time, and so the Bradley Center was designed for hockey, even though the Bucks have always drawn more for more games than the Admirals. (If the Bucks were simply to rebuild the Kohl Center in Milwaukee, that wouldn’t be the worst thing to do.)
The Bradley Center’s capacity of 18,717 isn’t the issue, even though it’s in the bottom third of NBA arenas sizewise. (The Milwaukee Arena, which the Bradley Center replaced, seated just 11,000, which made it one of the smallest arenas. But the Arena, or MECCA, was packed nearly every night because of the quality of the team at the time.)
Beyond where you watch the game, there is the issue of what you watch and where you watch or listen when you’re not at the game. Teams either have to be entertaining or successful, and preferably both, though Wisconsin football and basketball observers know that fans will put up with boring play if the result is a win at the end of the game.
As for those not at the game, the Bucks’ lack of following outside Milwaukee is analogous to the Brewers before Miller Park opened. There’s no issue with a basketball arena of whether the game will be played, though the issue of your getting to the game in bad weather is part of the endless joys of living in Wisconsin. Until Fox Sports Wisconsin and its predecessor, Midwest Sports Channel, came on the air, Bucks road games were only on TV until the postseason. The Chicago Cubs, whose following is wildly disproportional to their historic success (my grandparents weren’t even alive the last time the Cubs won a World Series) due to their home games having been on TV for decades, and the Packers prove you have to get the game to the fans whether or not they’re at the game.
And speaking of which … Bucks announcers Ted Davis (radio) and Jim Paschke (Fox Sports Wisconsin) deserve credit for having to sit through some awful basketball, but neither remind anyone of Hall of Fame announcers Chick Hearn, or Marv Albert, or Joe Tait, or Johnny “Havlicek stole the ball!” Most, or Hot Rod Hundley, or even the best NBA announcers of today, like Ralph Lawler of the Clippers. And certainly not the incomparable, indescribable Eddie Doucette.
The issue is not whether Davis is competent, or whether his predecessor, Howard David, was; they certainly are. The issue is that, at least on the occasions I’ve heard Davis, the seeming lack of caring about the result of the game. Whether announcers like it or not, the standard announcing style of the Midwest isn’t Vin Scully-style neutrality. (Hiring Wayne Larrivee, who formerly announced Bulls games, would be a fine decision. As Badger fans heard during the NCAA Final Four Teamcast, Larrivee wants the team for which he’s announcing to win, without being Ken “Hawk” Harrelson about it.)
It’s easy to say that the Bucks need more owner money, because they do (Forbes magazine rated the Bucks as the lowest-value franchise in the NBA), but that’s not the only thing they need, and that’s not sufficient by itself. The Bucks need to produce more money by themselves, and they need to spend it more effectively than they have under most of Kohl’s tenure as owner. The Bucks aren’t going to become a big-market franchise, and you can say what you want about the farce that is the NBA’s salary cap, but money doesn’t do much good if it’s not spent on the right people and in the right places.