Milwaukee Bucks owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry will sit in their courtside seats when the franchise plays its home opener in its new downtown arena Friday.
Bucks president Peter Feigin, who oversaw the arena project, doesn’t think he’ll be able to sit, not even for a second.
“I’ll be sure everyone is having a good time,” Feigin said. “I’ll have the dumbest smile on my face for three hours. If I could forecast, it’ll be a night I’ll never want to end.”
It will be a spectacular night for the Bucks at Fiserv Forum, a 17,500-seat arena designed solely for basketball and complete with all the amenities: intimate atmosphere, craft food and beverages from national and local companies, a prime social gathering spot and a panoramic view of the city.
And to think, had a new arena not been built, the franchise might have relocated to another city and be playing elsewhere Friday or getting ready for their final season in Milwaukee.
As the owners tell it, the Bucks’ new arena was tied to the franchise’s future in Milwaukee.
“Either the team had to build a suitable venue that’s appropriate for the NBA or they had to move,” Edens told USA TODAY Sports.
When Lasry, Edens and ownership partners bought the Bucks for $550 million in 2014, the purchase agreement included a clause allowing the NBA to buy back the team for a potential relocation if the new owners didn’t get a formal arena construction plan in place.
“We were going to do everything we could to stay in Milwaukee,” Lasry said. “That was ultimately something that was outside our control in that the NBA wanted a new arena, and if we couldn’t get one, they would have forced us to move.”
Pressure was on.
“When Cortez was trying to move across Mexico, the first thing he did was burn ships so there was no going back,” Edens said. “That’s how I viewed it. I felt we had every reason to be optimistic that we could get it done and failure was simply not an option. That was my position. I just don’t say that. That’s how I felt. I never really felt we were in jeopardy of it not happening.”
Lasry agreed: “For me, I never wanted to be anywhere else, and the simple reason is I like going to games there. We were going to do everything we could to stay in Milwaukee.”
Though former Bucks owner Herb Kohl pledged $100 million to the new arena complex and Bucks ownership put in $174 million, convincing citizens that $250 million in public funding should go to an arena is not an easy sell in any market let alone a Rust Belt city.
Feigin went to work, meeting community, local and state leaders and explaining the Bucks’ position.
“It’s really blocking and tackling,” Feigin said. “We thought this was a challenging, uphill battle in the legislature and in Wisconsin’s state budget, and it actually got taken out of the state’s budget at one point. At times, that gives you the doom and gloom.
“Our response to that – typical of the culture our owners have created – we went to the statehouse and set up camp and make appointments with 99 of the assembly people over 48 hours to have sit downs and one-one-ones to tell our story about how this arena is a game-changer and how it’s a positive for the state.”
The franchise has its new arena, and it is a spectacular venue, the centerpiece of revitalized downtown area that includes new entertainment, residential and commercial offerings.
No detail was overlooked in building the arena, down to handrails and bathroom fixtures. Feigin shared his favorite story about small details.
“It’s a Wisconsin story,” he said. “I remember meeting David Kohler from Kohler Plumbing, a Wisconsin company. I was talking about where we were. We want clean bathrooms, great food and friendly people. That will put is in the top five of user experience, and David said, I can help with the bathrooms in a big way. People probably think I’m out of my mind but I want to show off the bathrooms on every level.”
Members of ownership toured more than 20 arenas and stadiums to develop the arena they wanted.
“What we wanted was a basketball-first arena,” Edens said. “You have to have an orientation when you start. What I mean by that is, if you tend to have basketball and hockey as your primary tenants, you’ll have a different design than if you have just basketball. What I wanted was a place where teams didn’t want to play because our place was surrounded by fans right on top of the court. The best example of a basketball arena in the NBA is at Indiana. The fieldhouse there is terrific.”
The Bucks built an arena with 10,000 seats in the lower bowl and wide open concourse where fans can congregate and watch the game and buy food and beverages – much like an open outfield concourse at a baseball stadium.
“That’s going to be one of the favorite places for people to go and hang out,” Edens said. “They don’t feel they’re shut off from the action if they go out to get a beverage.”
The Bucks also sold 10,000 season tickets, a significant increase over the 2,500 season tickets sold four seasons ago.
Beyond the new arena, the Bucks are a promising team with potential to be among the best in the East Conference. All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is just 23 years old and an MVP candidate, and Khris Middleton is on the cusp of becoming an All-Star. New coach Mike Budenholzer is expected to increase last year’s win total of 44. Can he push the Bucks to 50 or more?
That’s the direction owners believe the franchise is headed. They built a new practice facility and a new arena, investing in the franchise in ways that elevate not only the fan experience but the player experience, too.
“We wanted to make sure everything was first class. Here’s our commitment to Milwaukee. We’re here for the long term. We’re not trying to save money,” Lasry said. “Our goal is to win a championship, and to do that, we’re going to do everything to be the best. We think we have the best fans. We’re in a phenomenal city. So, let’s have the infrastructure to support that.
“Now, we’re second to none relative to any city where there’s an NBA franchise. We have a state of the art practice facility. We’ve got a state of the art arena. Now, it’s our job to get the players, the front office and coach to win a championship.”