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Bucks' Low Attendance and Losing Record Make Difficult Sell for New Arena

LaToya Dennis

The Milwaukee Bucks have the NBA's second worst record so far this season, as well as the fourth lowest attendance record in the league. But some in their hometown hope a new arena could open a new chapter for the team.

Since the team moved into what was then the new Bradley Center in 1988, 15 of the Bucks’ seasons have been losing ones and the club won its division only once. And today sometimes, hundreds - if not thousands - of seats at home games are empty.

At the same time, many Milwaukee leaders have been calling for an updated arena. But others are asking why the public should fund a fancy new sports venue for a wealthy team and league. An article in Milwaukee Magazine estimates a new arena could cost around $500 million.

In fact, some have already said no to using public dollars to fund an arena. A panel of Waukesha County lawmakers voted this week to oppose a regional tax.

One supporter John Kocher was at the Bradley Center midweek watching the Bucks host Detroit.

“I just love our city so I try to support what is us. And we’ve had some great players come out of here. You now, it’s just like any fan of any team,” Kocher says.

The Milwaukee Bucks are hoping to get a new home come 2017

Kocher says no matter what type of season the Bucks are having, he’ll support the team, and would not mind helping pay for a new arena. Another fan who says he’d open his wallet is 31-year-old John Lampe-- and even in the midst of tonight’s lousy game and empty seats.

“Right now, if the Bucks are playing poorly, which unfortunately they are, the seats are going to be filled by the basketball playing. But if you have something else, that can draw the fans in, it will add more people to the stadium,” Lampe says.

For instance, Miller Park, where the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team plays, has everything from indoor play areas to a restaurant to shops. Ever since the Brewers moved in, the team has been more successful on and off the field.

Robert Baade is an economics professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois. He says what Milwaukee’s NBA team is actually seeking is an arena with luxury amenities to attract corporate sponsors.

Economics Professor Robert Baade argues the Bradley Center is economically obsolete.

“We’re really talking about an arena that may not be physically obsolete although those who are asking for public funds to build a new stadium will argue it is that. It’s economically obsolete, I think is a more appropriate description,” Baade says.

Baade says while a new arena could draw more corporate support and fans, it would take a winning team to keep them coming.  The Bucks ranks 27th of 30 NBA teams when it comes to attendance.

“All of us who study the economics of professional sport know that the key to high attendance is a team that’s on the floor competitive. And given that the Bucks are currently not competitive, and attendance is flagging, we do have some issues,” Baade says.

Perhaps the biggest of which is convincing critics that a better arena must come first. President of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce Tim Sheehy is onboard. Sheehy says while the Bucks are a big part of the push to build new, people must realize the issue is about more than the team.

“What Milwaukee has to do is figure out whether or not the asset of NBA basketball and the asset of a downtown entertainment center which attracts people to concerts and all sorts of events during the course of a year, whether that value is worth the investment in a new arena,” Sheehy says.

At the beginning of 2013, the Bucks were worth $312 million, according to a Forbes analysis on NBA teams. If the community doesn’t budge, the Bucks will leave town, Sheehy says. The team’s lease is up in 2017. Despite the possibility of losing an NBA team, supporters of a new arena may have a difficult time gaining broad support for using tax money.

“It is a global brand, one that has value to Milwaukee. I don’t think it is our defining characteristic or our defining value, but it certainly puts Milwaukee in an elite class of cities across the globe, and we think there’s a value to that,” Sheehy says.

Back at the Bradley Center, fan John Kocher can see an upside to having even a bad team. The Bucks would then be near the top of the list when it comes to grabbing college players, next year.

“It looks like they’re in the market for a really nice draft pick,” Kocher says.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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