Our Views: 'Game-changer' for club in need of change

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Friday, April 18, 2014

You wonder whether the late Jim Fitzgerald, who sold the Milwaukee Bucks for $18 million in 1985, could have imagined the team would someday sell for $550 million.

That's right. Herb Kohl, who bought the Bucks from Fitzgerald's ownership group 29 years ago, announced he's selling the team for $50 million north of a half-billion dollars.

Of course, Janesville's Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane spent that same $18 million in 1986 to buy the Golden State Warriors and sold the team in 1995 for $142 million. Given that rapid rise in value, maybe $550 million isn't so stunning.

Besides, Kohl is pledging $100 million of his take toward a new multipurpose arena, which the league demands to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee. Assuming they clear league approval, new owners Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens are pledging at least $100 million more toward the project.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called the deal and pledges a “game changer.” That's great because the game the Bucks are playing isn't so good. They had the league's worst record this season at 15-67—a new franchise mark for futility. Even Wednesday's sale announcement couldn't inspire this moribund bunch to cap the season with a victory that night.

Fitzgerald's reign was brighter than Kohl's. The club made the playoffs seven of nine seasons under “Fitz” and compiled a .591 record. In Kohl's 29 seasons, the team made 14 playoff appearances—though rarely making it out of the first round—and compiled just a .458 winning mark.

Kohl proved to be a smarter investor than he was a team owner. Too seldom did his hired help consistently defend the paint and put the ball through the hoop. Still, credit the former U.S. senator for his deep desire to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee.

Kohl is doing the city a favor both with his pledge and by selling to investment billionaires with the money to make that happen. Lasry and Edens have few connections to Milwaukee, but they're basketball junkies who spoke enthusiastically about keeping the club in the city, building a new arena and even—please grab a chair, long-suffering Bucks fans—winning championships.

The team's sad-sack season gives Lasry, Edens and fans a big nugget of hope in the form of the best odds of landing the No. 1 pick in a talent-rich draft of college players.

A new arena perhaps costing $400 million is no done deal. Counties surrounding Milwaukee that got sucked into a sales tax to fund baseball's Miller Park—a tax that continues today—want no part of another. That's understandable.

Even Kohl realizes public financing is unlikely before November's election, given the volatility of voting for a tax. One way to make public funding more palatable might be a “super TIF.” In a traditional tax-incremental financing district, property taxes generated through new development pay for public improvements. A super TIF would also capture new state income and sales taxes.

Critics will argue that with so much poverty in Milwaukee, tax money should not help billionaires build a new playground to pad their riches. However, if Lasry and Edens think the Bucks are such a value, Milwaukee civic leaders and our elected officials must consider the economic development value and jobs that a new arena could create in a downtown cultural and entertainment district.

This week's news could indeed be a game-changer not just for the Bucks but all of Milwaukee.

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