It sounds like Herb Kohl is looking for Herb Kohl.
“Just when it seemed the political community would be unable to quickly reach a consensus on how to save the Bucks, much less build them a new and larger facility in which to play, business people in the private sector stepped in and literally saved the day.”
Sound like a familiar situation? That quote is from a long time ago: March 6, 1985. That was a paragraph in the Milwaukee Sentinel a handful of days after Herb Kohl reached a deal to purchase the Milwaukee Bucks and keep them in town.
A very real fear existed in 1985 that the Bucks could soon be on the way out of Milwaukee, even while the team was enjoying a yet to be replicated run of success. They had won an NBA championship just 14 years earlier and seen stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Sidney Moncrief. Don Nelson was a fixture in the local bar scene and farming communities. The Bucks WERE Milwaukee. They just needed a new place to play.
That part should sound familiar. The Bucks are something of a team on the brink. They have an aging owner and a very uncertain future. But now, in 2013, Herb Kohl is looking to secure some certainty.
“When I bought the Milwaukee Bucks back in 1985, it was for one reason-to keep the team here. To this day, that remains a top priority.
Over the next several months I will be considering broadening the ownership of the Bucks as a way to strengthen the franchise and keep it in Milwaukee.
In addition to committed ownership, it is imperative that we get to a new 21st century sports and entertainment facility in a timely manner, not only for the Bucks but also for the more than 1.5 million visitors who attend nearly 200 events held there each year.”
While Kohl is a proud man and a notable ambassador for Wisconsin, the Bucks toil largely unnoticed and under-appreciated in their own city. Attendance lags, games are untelevised at a shocking rate and a group of fans has taken out a billboard challenging ownership’s tactics. It seems a much grimmer situation, nearly 30 years later. And we haven’t even touched on a very different political climate in which the approval of public funding can end a politician’s career.
So, as Jim Fitzgerald did in 1985, Kohl is looking to the private sector to find someone he can pass the torch onto.
“I believe ultimately when we get to a new facility there needs to be a healthy private sector contribution, in addition to what may or may not be needed from the public sector.
“But I think there needs to be a demonstration to the public that there are private interests willing to step up. I think there will be a greater likelihood of public acceptance of some level of support if there is a healthy private component.
“And I’m trying to put all these pieces together in a way that makes sense for the future of the Bucks in Milwaukee.”
Who will save the day this time? Who is the next Herb Kohl? Who will allow Kohl to play the role of Jane and Lloyd Pettit, the philanthropists who donated the $90 million Bradley Center in 1988?
There doesn’t seem to be as obvious a candidate as Kohl once was, especially given Kohl’s absolute insistence that the Bucks remain in Milwaukee no matter what. He wasn’t just a guy who enjoyed basketball in his hometown and didn’t want to see the NBA leave. It wasn’t on a whim that Kohl decided to buy a team. He was a successful business man who had long wanted and cared about pro basketball in Milwaukee.
He tried to get Milwaukee an ABA team in 1967 before the Bucks arrived. After that proved unsuccessful, he had an application in for an NBA team that was eventually withdrawn when Wes Pavalon and Marv Fishman secured a franchise that would eventually become the Milwaukee Bucks in 1968.
Now, even if someone was as committed as Kohl from a passion standpoint, the list of people that qualify financially who can afford to front a group that’s looking to purchase a basketball team is far more difficult to get on. Kohl bought the Bucks for roughly $20 million in 1985, a price Fitzgerald called a discount, which would be around $44 million in today’s dollars. Seattle’s Chris Hansen was looking to purchase 65% of the Sacramento Kings at a valuation of $625 million to bring them to Seattle … and that wasn’t enough.
No, Kohl isn’t looking to sell the majority stake in the team. But it seems logical to believe he’s looking for someone who can eventually take over that role. It takes multiple fortunes to buy a basketball team or even to be a featured partner and there are some people in Wisconsin with that sort of money. John Menard Jr., Herbert Kohler and various members of the Johnson family are all billionaires that hail from Wisconsin. Craig Leipold married into the Johnson family, owns the Grand Ole Opry and the Minnesota Wild.
But passion for the Milwaukee Bucks? That’s what seems to be lacking. Outside of Leipold, none of the richest Wisconsinites have been mentioned as potential partners and Leipold has said he’s not interested in owning the Bucks.
Of course, whether or not business people are particularly passionate about the Bucks might not matter as much as whether or not they are particularly interested in an asset that accumulates profit. Which, Kohl said on Monday, the Bucks do.
“Every NBA property is a valuable property,” he said. “With the new collective bargaining agreement and the revenue sharing program that are now in existence, every NBA team that is well managed can make some money. We’re one of those. We are in a position, as well as other small markets, to show a profit.”
That makes the Bucks more attractive than they were a few years ago, which means interest in the team certainly wouldn’t be limited to those who live in Wisconsin and make lots of money. Kohl left the door open for a non-local ownership group, but he did not leave the door open on the team leaving Milwaukee. He was adamant about that point, insisting “there is no way (he) would allow people under the Milwaukee Bucks tent unless they have full level of commitment to keeping the team here.”
It’s a good thing he’s open to exploring his options, because it’s not entirely clear who in the Wisconsin private sector could eventually be a majority owner. So, if there’s not an obvious, sure thing fix in the private sector, is there any hope that the public will make the Bucks a more desirable franchise locally by providing a new arena? Early signs aren’t great.
In the last few months, county boards in Ozaukee, Racine and Waukesha counties have already taken stances against any regional tax to finance a new arena in Milwaukee. The cooperation of these counties was crucial to the construction of Miller Park. Wisconsin State Senator George Petak out of Racine changed his mind at the last minute when he was convinced without a new stadium, the Brewers would leave town. He voted yes on a .1 percent sales tax increase and was recalled months later.
If it came down to one vote and one man’s decision to get Miller Park built, getting financing for a new arena in downtown Milwaukee seems as daunting a task as climbing Mount Everest, even with Kohl pledging to contribute significant funds. Even if Kohl contributed, percentage wise, as much as he did to get the Kohl Center built in Madison on campus of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee would need to raise over a hundred million dollars.
In 1985, Kohl stepped in while politicians were attempting to figure out a way to raise money for a new arena and purchased the team. Not long after, the Pettit’s stepped up in a similar way and donated an arena, totally privately funded. Kohl seems willing to play a role similar to the one Lloyd and Jane Pettit did.
But who will play the role of Herb Kohl?