Several years ago I took a group of Japanese educators on a tour of several private schools in Milwaukee. Their interest in school choice brought them to Milwaukee, but it was professional sports that first brought the city to their attention. Every one of them knew exactly three things about the city aside from our school choice program:
- The Brewers play baseball here.
- Prince Fielder plays first base for the Brewers.
- The Brewers are in a different league than the Yankees.
Their knowledge of the Brewers made for a nice icebreaker, but was also indicative of the power of professional sports. I feel safe in assuming these men from the other side of the world had not heard of Louisville or Albuquerque, both cities roughly comparable in size to Milwaukee but without professional sports.
The exposure Milwaukee receives from being a NBA and MLB city is a huge asset worth fighting to keep. The successful effort led by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce to extend the life of the Bradley Center (excuse me, the BMO Harris Bradley Center) deserves praise. However, everyone acknowledges it is a temporary solution, without a new arena the NBA will leave Milwaukee.
Losing the Bucks would not be a tragedy, but it would be shame. Wisconsin Senator and Bucks owner Herb Kohl put it well during his pitch for a new basketball arena:
“I'm not saying it's the most important thing in the world, our families, our jobs, education, the economy, there are many things that one would rank as higher than this in priority. But you know, I think we're pleased that we have the Packers in Wisconsin, we're pleased that we have the Brewers in Wisconsin. It elevates the quality of our life, as well as our economy in our state. And I think the same thing could be said about continuing with a franchise in the NBA."
The elephant in the room is how a new arena will be funded. Senator Kohl has vowed to make a substantial contribution, and the corporate community’s purchase of naming rights to the current arena is a positive sign that they too will contribute. Extending the Miller Park sales tax has been floated as one way to close the gap between private donations and the actual cost of a modern arena.
As George Petak will attest, such an approach will face substantial opposition. Frankly, the opposition has plenty of good ammunition. New stadiums are generally not directly responsible for significant job or income growth. However, the intangible benefits of professional sports such as exposure do not translate well into economic models. How do you account for someone’s initial calculus of whether a place is well suited for his or her business or desired lifestyle?
Admittedly, my enthusiasm for doing what is necessary to keep the Bucks in town is emotional. If you were in Milwaukee in 2010 for Game 6 against the Hawks or during the big three’s 2001 run you likely know what I am talking about. In those moments, the city’s racial and economic divisions took a backseat to the excitement and unity that only a successful sports team can bring.
Those moments are special, infrequent, and worth a .1% sales tax to me.
June 11, 2012