The funding proposal for the Milwaukee Bucks arena cleared a major hurdle on Tuesday when the Wisconsin Assembly approved the $250 million bill by a 52-34 vote. After months of fierce debate, the arena deal passed the Wisconsin Legislature with surprising ease. Ultimately it was unlikely bipartisan support and a social media-fueled grassroots effort that delivered the necessary “yay” votes; but the secret sauce of the bill’s success can be attributed to something historically surprising: The Milwaukee Bucks having a legitimately exciting future.
Before the 2013-2014 season the Bucks – as was the status quo under the ownership of Herb Kohl – were ready to compete for a #8 playoff seed and early postseason exit. The Bucks were usually successful in this endeavor, but they failed spectacularly this time around, winning a meager fifteen games. Yet this unintended failure was the best possible outcome for Milwaukee because it “earned” them the #2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft and rights to select prospective superstar Jabari Parker.
The drafting of Parker was preceded by Kohl selling the team to Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry in April for $550 million (fun fact: four months later the LA Clippers were sold to Steve Ballmer for $2 billion). Edens and Lasry developed a relationship with then Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd during their previous stint as minority owners of the team. This connection helps the Bucks lure Kidd – who was unhappy in Brooklyn and seeking an escape – to the Cream City. The process of Kidd’s hiring was executed poorly and involved the Bucks firing head coach Larry Drew, but this was forgotten when the Bucks immediately showed vast improvement.
With the Kidd running the show and a core of young talent – highlighted by Giannis Antetokounmpo – the Bucks made a 26-game improvement during the 2014-2015 season, finishing with a 41-41 record. This was good enough to earn a #6 seed in the playoffs, where they spooked the Chicago Bulls in the first round before succumbing in six games.
These recent on-the-court developments were incredibly well-timed for the Bucks. As we’ve just seen, it’s not easy for a professional sports team to garner support for $250 million in public funding for an arena ($400 million after interest). But it’s especially hard for a terrible team to gain such support. Though it’s not a perfect comparison, the hopelessly terrible mid-90s Milwaukee Brewers needed an 11th hour change of heart from George Petak to secure public financing for Miller Park. If there Brewers were more promising at the time, a deciding vote may not have been necessary.
There are many legitimate reasons to be opposed to public financing for stadiums. At the risk of being cynical, perhaps the most powerful is “because the team is not any good.” Thanks to a serendipitous change in fortune, the Bucks were able to eliminate that objection. This just might be the unsung reason they’ll be the Milwaukee Bucks for decades to come.