Essay: Big League

Jun 16, 2015

Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank says the proposed new arena is emblematic of how things have changed in Wisconsin politics:

Here is an uncomfortable truth for those of us who cherish Milwaukee and Wisconsin: Any major league sports organization starting afresh would bypass the state when considering where to put its franchises. The wonderful combination of circumstances that lead to the Packers, Brewers and Bucks setting firm, deep roots in Badgerland are no more. The Packers are a fluke, the only holdover from a time when instead of billionaires wanting a toy or investors looking for a steady cash flow, football teams were owned by small-time operators working on a shoestring mostly for the love of the game.

The Brewers came to Milwaukee through a fortuitous combination of luck – historically inept management of an expansion franchise in Seattle – and pluck – the single-minded determination of Bud Selig. Only the Bucks followed an arguably normal path to the big time. They joined the National Basketball Association as an expansion franchise in 1968, a time when Milwaukee was still one of the largest metro areas in the nation and one that seemed to have considerable potential growth. At the time, they were the only major league team based here, although the Packers did play a few games a year at County Stadium.

Now, Milwaukee is neither big enough nor bustling enough to attract a new major league team. Not only has growth stagnated in the metro area, but other cities have forged ahead of it. In 1968, who would have thought that 40 years later, every major league sport would have a franchise in Phoenix, Denver or Miami? That Milwaukee is no longer major-league bait argues strongly for doing what we can to retain the big league teams we have. Any city that aspires to be great needs a broad variety of first-rate cultural and educational options, and that includes sports teams.

Unfortunately, how officials are approaching building a new arena for the Bucks illustrates the problems the state and area face in trying to regain their former relative status. Simply put, the Bucks arena has become the only major new program that the current political climate in Wisconsin will allow. Everything else, from road construction to education to staffing at state agencies, is being cut in the budget Gov. Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature are carefully fashioning.

That follows their decisions to close a large train manufacturing plant on Milwaukee’s North side, insuring hundreds of well-paid jobs moved to Illinois, rejecting money for a high speed train that would have more closely knit Wisconsin’s economy to the thriving urban centers of Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul and spurning millions in federal dollars to pay for health care in the state. The Republicans claim that cutting government expenditures is the surest way to stimulate economic growth, even though experience in Kansas, another state that is testing this theory, argues strongly otherwise.

An exception to all this is the Buck’s arena, which has gained the support of Walker and other local leaders under the argument that keeping the team will cost taxpayers less than letting it, and the economic value it creates, leave. For some reason, though, that argument is set aside when cuts are made to one of the state’s largest economic engines, the University of Wisconsin System, or the train factory is closed, or high-speed trains are rejected or federal money that would relieve the economic stress on the health care system is foregone.

Conveniently for Walker’s ambition, all these economically short-sighted decisions allow him to burnish his credentials with right-wing Republicans who have outsized influence in selecting their party’s presidential nominee, a position Walker greatly covets. That may benefit Walker in the short run. But in the long run, the decisions to cut government except when it comes to supporting a basketball arena means Wisconsin will have a much harder time once again becoming the kind of economically vibrant place the major leagues covet.

Essayist Avi Lank is a former reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel and later the Journal Sentinel.  He’s also coauthor of the recent book, The Man Who Painted the Universe.