By Neil deMause
On the surface, today should be a happy one for Milwaukee sports fans -- or at least Milwaukee sports headline writers -- as 79-year-old Bucks owner Herb Kohl has announced that he's selling the team to a pair of hedge-fund billionaires from New York. Colin McGowan has already nicely summarized the rosier interpretation, which goes something like this: Old rich guy sells struggling local NBA franchise to a pair of young rich guys, everybody involved promises to help build a new arena to keep the team in town, and maybe now the team will actually win something for the first time in a generation.
I hate to be the guy who throws cold water on people's hopes and dreams (full disclosure: I don't actually hate to be that guy when it's called for, which is all too often), but from my reading, that does not appear to be the full story. Rather, it looks more like the sale of the Bucks to its young saviors is, if anything, likely to be the first step in a ramping-up of the team's demands for public funds to replace the 26-year-old BMO Harris Bradley Center -- and if those aren't forthcoming, there may be renewed threats to take the team out of town.
We'll get to the explanation in a minute, but first, a bit of backstory for those who haven't been paying much attention to the Bucks since they won their only championship behind the artist soon to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 1985, Kohl, heir to the department store chain that bore his family name, threw in $18 million of his personal fortune to buy the Bucks, saying he wanted to keep the team from being sold to out-of-state buyers who would move it out of town. One year later, Milwaukee broke ground on a new arena, with the $90 million price tag covered by the unusual method of a grant from local philanthropist Jane Bradley Pettit, making the Bradley Center one of the last pro sports facilities in the nation to be built without taxpayer help.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and a whole lot of first-round playoff exits to 2004, and we find Kohl -- by now a U.S. senator, because what else are you going to do when you already have a giant pile of money and a sports team? -- looking to replace his team's now-not-quite-as-shiny home, complaining that it wouldn't make sense to remodel the facility because it was close to the end of its "useful life." Kohl has never been precisely clear about what his gripes were about the then-teenaged arena -- not enough luxury suites and too small a footprint to jam in lots of restaurants seem to be the leading theories -- but ever since then, he's kept up a quiet campaign to get a replacement built. And since he has no intention of paying for a whole new building himself, and Jane Bradley Pettit died in 2001, that leaves the Milwaukee public as the next candidate to have their piggy banks broken open.
Kohl, however, is at a disadvantage when it comes to playing the usual arena-demand game, which requires at least veiled threats to leave town if your demands aren't met. As a Milwaukee institution who bought the team in the first place to keep it from moving, fer chrissakes, Kohl rightfully wouldn't want to be the first former U.S. senator from Wisconsin to be burned in effigy if he played the usual move threat blackmail. Instead, he's stuck with oblique warnings about wanting to avoid the "drama" of an uncertain future in which "we" could "lose the Bucks." With Milwaukee still fuming a bit at the sales-tax hike that was narrowly approved to fund the Brewers' new stadium in 1995 (the state senator who switched his vote after a last-minute meeting with the governor was later recalled from office by voters), Kohl's words haven't been enough so far to raise the estimated $400-500 million nut needed to build a modern arena with all the bells and restaurants.
Enter Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, the two hedge-fund billionaires who, pending NBA approval in the next couple of days, will become the new owners of the Bucks. Though Kohl had originally indicated he'd be holding onto a share of the team, he is actually unloading 100% of his ownership to Lasry and Edens for an eye-popping price: $550 million, or about $145 million more than Forbes thought his team was worth. He also announced that he and the new owners would split the cost of $200 million toward a new arena, and that the sale agreement included a requirement that the team stay in Milwaukee -- something that prompted dour headlines in Seattle, which had been casting eyes at the Bucks as a possible replacement for the Sonics.
Looked at another way, though, this is less of a breakthrough than a negotiating tactic. Kohl is "donating" $100 million from his sale windfall toward a new arena for a team he'll now have nothing to do with, while Lasry and Edens are buying the Bucks for $450 million and promising $200 million of their own money toward an arena, albeit with half of that funneled through Kohl. (There are additional tax implications, I'm sure, but let's leave that aside for the moment.) And as for that promise to keep the Bucks in town, it came with an important caveat: "Ultimately, if we don't get to a new arena, yes, we will lose our team," Kohl told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel yesterday.
In other words, the Bucks have gone from a situation with a local owner who had said he'd pay for about half of a new arena if the public covered the other half or else they'll leave town, to one with two out-of-town owners who say they'll do the same. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what the Journal Sentinel calls a "game-changer."
It's always possible, of course, that Lasry and Edens will find a way to raise some more private funds, and/or Milwaukee will figure out how to chip in a couple hundred million dollars toward a new arena without cutting too deeply into its own budget (the latest plan is something called a "Super TIF," which is exactly as nutty as it sounds), and Sidney Moncrief will find the fountain of youth and everyone will live happily ever after. But make no mistake: The sale of the Bucks is only the next phase in the battle over arena money in Milwaukee, not the end of it. And if Wisconsin officials try to hold the line on public subsidies -- something many are already gearing up for -- Lasry and Edens could end up following in the footsteps of Mario Lemieux as owners who went from savior to threat-monger in record time.
Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.