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WisBiz In-Depth: Bradley Center's Makeover Could Pay Off with Bucks' Lease

By Gregg Hoffmann

MILWAUKEE - A Bradley Center spokesman says a $6 million makeover for the 17-year-old facility could pay off in a significant way before the holidays.

Bradley Center spokesman Evan Zeppos said recently that a new lease with the Bucks could be signed “before the turkey gets its next slit,” or possibly by Thanksgiving.

“We’ve had amicable talks, and documents have been exchanged,” Zeppos said in a recent interview. “The ink definitely is in the pen, and I believe we are approaching the dotting of the I's and crossing of the T's stage.” The lease could be in the three- to five-year range with options for more, he said.

The Bucks’ franchise is the Bradley Center tenant that has been affected the most by competition from newer sports venues in other markets. So, the updates, and possible additional enhancements in the future, are keys to any lease agreement. Remodeling and enhancements, which will cost an estimated $6 million when done, were unveiled when the Admirals and Bucks opened their sports seasons earlier this month.

Changes, most of which are completed, include:

  • Enhanced video and audio systems, including a 360-degree LED display, 40 LCD flat panel television screens throughout the center so no action is missed, and an upgraded arena sound system;

  • Themed quadrants that feature wall panels, corner displays and new concession stands that reflect Milwaukee’s brewing history, Milwaukee’s waterways, sports and musical images;

  • An all-new, approximately 1,600-square-foot cocktail lounge is being constructed in a former 200-level corner concourse and designated smoking area, which features a BACARDI bar;

  • A new and expanded retail store operated by EMI, the Bradley Center’s new merchandising partner. It features the latest in Bucks, Marquette and Admirals items as well as other hot NBA apparel;

  • A 400-level lounge called “Numbers 400,” which is one of only a few lounges of its kind in the NBA. It has unique food and cocktails in a private setting for upper-level season ticket holders;

  • An expanded Courtside Club to serve more than 800 season ticket holders that features a second entrance, nightly dinner buffet, two bars, halftime and post-game lounge area and more;

  • “Club Cambria,” which offers a Bucks season ticket, and hors d’oeuvre buffet, beverages and private concierge in a club-like setting to subscribers; and more.

The changes were made after the Bradley Center has taken some hits in recent years – primarily from NBA fans -- for becoming somewhat outdated. The facility, which was a gift from the late Jane Bradley Pettit and is privately funded, was opened in 1988 and is one of the nation’s oldest NBA arenas.

It remains Milwaukee’s top entertainment destination with more than 1.6 million visitors annually. It hosts home games of the Bucks, Marquette University Golden Eagles men’s basketball and Admirals, as well as numerous concerts and other entertainment options. In the last few months the Bradley Center has attracted top-tier concerts including Paul McCartney, Neil Diamond, the Rolling Stones, and U2.

“The Bradley Center is a facility that serves Southeast Wisconsin residents and visitors alike, and we want and need their experience here to be a positive one,” said Steve Costello, president and CEO of the Bradley Center. “The enhancements being made now will improve that experience for years and will allow the Bradley Center to compete in the coming years as not only a great sports venue, but as an all-around quality entertainment facility.”

According to Costello, many of the enhancements will provide the opportunity for more corporate sponsorships at the Center, including new national business partners such as Cambria, Bacardi and others.

“Our facility is nearly 18 years old but by keeping it well-maintained, fresh and exciting, we can extend its life as one of the Midwest’s top-quality entertainment venues. That is good for all of our tenants, patrons and sponsors,” said Costello.

Costello has served as president and CEO of the Bradley Center since October 2004, but has been with the facility operations since its opening. The Bradley Center is run by the Bradley Center Sports and Entertainment Corporation, a not-for-profit organization formed by the state to accommodate the Pettits’ donation. Ulice Payne chairs the board that also includes Ned W. Bechthold, Virgis W. Colbert, James L. Forbes, Michael F. Hart, Douglas G. Kiel, Gail A. Lione, Joe Sweeney and Rolen L. Womack, Jr.

The NBA challenge

The improvements certainly give the Bradley Center new life for the short term, but questions still continue for the long range. Expansion and improvements have been discussed for quite some time, primarily at the urging of Bucks’ boosters.

U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, who owns the Bucks, has always gone out of his way to praise the maintenance of the Bradley Center and staffing, but has noted that the facility now is one of the older venues in the league.

“Our fans often tell us that they want unique experiences when they attend a Bucks game. These new entertainment offerings and enhancements help us fulfill our fans’ wishes and will benefit all Bradley Center visitors,” said John Steinmiller, vice president of business operations for the Bucks, in a release before the Bucks’ home opener on Nov. 5.

Zeppos said the improvements to the Bradley Center were done for all the tenants. “Marquette is going into the Big East this season and has additional needs,” he said. “The Admirals are under new ownership and have more corporate sponsors. So, we made these improvements for all our tenants, but the Bucks certainly are key tenants.”

The Bradley Center will make about $400,000 profit for its fiscal year in 2005, Zeppos estimated. Because it is governed by a not-for-profit board, that revenue is routed back into operations and improvements. “If we make money, it helps our tenants because we invest in the facility,” Zeppos said.

In 2004, the Bradley Center provided more than $10 million in revenue to the major tenants of the facility, according to the board’s annual fiscal report. Tenant shared revenue was the most significant support at $4.7 million. Additional support to the teams came from providing $1.2 million in un-reimbursed staging costs and services, including food service, ticketing support, video production, and providing first aid, ushering, security services and more.

The Bradley Center also provided signage and sponsorship rights worth more than $1.0 million, purchased $2.8 million in suite tickets and provided $0.3 million in miscellaneous team support.

More revenue could come from property to the north of the Bradley Center, often referred to as the old Ambrosia site, which is owned by the corporation. Zeppos said a conservative estimate on the worth of the site would be around $10 million.

The Bradley Center board could sell it, lease it for related entertainment venues or do other revenue-enhancing things with it that could help bring the Bradley Center closer to current NBA standards. “That will be the next phase,” Zeppos said.

A group that wants to build a soccer stadium downtown is interested in the same piece of property. Zeppos said the board would not “shut the door on anything,” but at this time he doubted the soccer stadium would be a top priority.

The matter of who would pay for the expansion and the improvement of the Bradley Center has always been a question. After the bitter fight over financing for Miller Park, most observers believe public tax money would be a very tough sell, especially since the Bradley Center was built with private funds.

At one time, a merger between the Bradley Center and the Wisconsin Center District – which runs the U.S. Cellular Arena, the Midwest Airlines convention center and The Milwaukee Theater -- had been discussed. The WCD does get tax money and might have been able to use some of it for expansion of the Bradley Center.

But, the board of the two groups had their disagreements. The Bradley Center board had wanted to build a theater on the former Ambrosia site, but the WCD built the Milwaukee Theater. That venue went well over its budget and is losing money. The WCD recently reported the Milwaukee Theater has lost about $187,730 in the first eight months of 2005, and media reports say the facility has not made revenue projections for its first 23 months of operation.

In a 2002 report entitled “Keeping the NBA In Milwaukee,” Mark Kass, then a freelance writer and now editor of The Business Journal, wrote: “But despite a high-profile summit in 2002, months of negotiations, pressure from top elected officials and renovation projects for both facilities that are lagging, the two boards are no closer to a merger today than they were almost two years ago.”

The same could be said now, almost three years after Kass’ report. “The talks with WCD have been on the back burner for six to eight months for two or three reasons,” Zeppos said. “We are always willing to talk about coming together, but we feel there are some significant issues that have to be addressed with the WCD first.”

In 2004, Payne sent a letter to the WCD saying the Bradley Center board remained open to a merger, but felt that certain governance issues and the financial status of the WCD had to be addressed before further talks could progress.

Tenants Feedback

The Wave moved from the Bradley Center to the U.S. Cellular Arena a couple years ago, but that was more because of the availability of dates and the fact some of the soccer team’s crowds looked lost in the facility, which can seat more than 18,000 fans.

An Arena Football League team also once played at the Bradley Center, but it eventually folded. Owners of that team, called the Mustangs, claimed the Bradley Center board tried to push their franchise out of the facility.

Other tenants of the Bradley Center seem satisfied with the current facility. “If you would go around the league, this building would be right on top of the list,” Jon Greenberg said when he took over as president of the Admirals.

“Mrs. Pettit built it. Our goal is to make this the best place in the league to play. We don’t have a desire to play anywhere else. We don’t want to play next door (U.S. Cellular Arena). We believe we can draw the crowds that won’t make playing next door feasible anyway. This building can definitely work for us.”

Harris Turer, who heads the group that bought the Admirals from a trust that ran the team after Jane Pettit died, said of the Bradley Center: “It was built for hockey. It’s a great hockey facility. We have no interest in playing anywhere else. If they want to make updates to things I’d be all for it. We love it here. Jane Pettit built this place. This is Jane Pettit’s team.”

The Bradley Center has earned status as an "A-list" indoor concert venue from Pollstar, a music trade publication. The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger said at a recent concert this "building built for sports" is, indeed, "an intimate room - a place where magic can be made.”

Anybody who knows the history of the Bradley Center understands that some controversy has surrounded it since before the first shovel hit the dirt for the groundbreaking. When the Lloyd and Jane Pettit first proposed funding the facility, it was projected to be built by the then County Stadium site.

But, the Brewers objected and downtown interests wanted the facility closer to restaurants, bars and hotels. So, a search that went on for months ensued, and the current location finally was selected.

Many felt the Pettits built the Bradley Center, not only to provide the Bucks a facility bigger than the old 11,052 capacity Milwaukee Arena, but also to woo a NHL team to Milwaukee. The latter never materialized.

You still hear somewhat far-fetched stories about the Bradley Center today. One of the proponents of a soccer stadium once wanted a pro sports management company brought in to run the stadium and to supplant the Bradley Center board. Again, that never materialized.

Some have proposed the facility be converted into a casino and a new sports venue be built. Rumors circulated a couple years ago that Michael Jordan wanted to abandon the Bradley Center and build a basketball facility in Racine or Kenosha counties, if a group he headed bought the Bucks from Kohl.

“We (the Bradley Center board) are not responsible for building a new building,” Zeppos said. “That is for the greater community to work out. We have a building that is well-maintained and is serving the community. We feel the recent improvements allow us to better serve our tenants, and we have potential for additional moves that will allow us to continue to do so. We are committed to developing a downtown sports and entertainment district.”


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