Milwaukee Bucks Arena Will Sellout Nightly…If Bucks Can Win


If you build it they will come. Those few simple words have fueled the aspirations of countless business owners, automakers, sports franchises big and small, and of course–real estate developers. For the Milwaukee Bucks the word “build” carries a dual meaning–starting with their talent pool. Everyone can agree that the Bucks are well on their way to “building” a winner. But that winner will be playing elsewhere if the Bucks don’t build a new arena.

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The Bucks and their fans enjoyed a major boost this past week when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced his so-called “Cheaper to keep them” financial outline for the new Milwaukee Bucks arena. Though it’s not a completed deal yet, all signs are pointing to the arena getting built. That’s somewhat of a miracle in itself given the state of the Bucks in the last half-decade.

Since the 2010-2011 season the Buck’s reported attendance has never ranked higher than 23rd (2011) in the league and has hovered around the doom pit ever since coming 26th, 27th, 30th, and 27th in the years since. The Bucks’ highest attendance in recent history came in the 2001-2002 season when they ranked 12th in overall attendance (18,178) and 7th in percentage (97.1%). That season followed their surprise Eastern Conference Finals run and marked the high water mark in recent fan support.

Will a new arena alone bring the Bucks back into the upper echelon of NBA attendance? A study of recent arena-building franchises says it takes much more than a sparkling facility to fill the seats. It takes sustained success–perhaps even rampant success (see: Warriors, Heat, Mavericks, Bulls) to get fans in the seats…but even that may not be enough.

Take a look at the Charlotte Bobcats. They brought NBA basketball back to the Charlotte area in 2004 and gave them the sparkling fresh Time Warner Cable Arena to play in. Their attendance that season? 28th in the league, with a paltry 14,431 fans per game, filling just 60.6% of the new arena per game (Per ESPN).

Why such poor attendance numbers for a state with rich basketball history and housing the rebirth of an NBA franchise? Easy–an 18-64 record.

Why such poor attendance numbers for a state with rich basketball history and housing the rebirth of an NBA franchise? Easy–an 18-64 record. That’s the sort of record Bucks fans can relate to.  Yet even in the Bobcats’ most successful season (2009-2010) they made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and still ranked 22nd, with 15,824 per game.

It wasn’t until this past season, after they re-branded as the “Hornets”, that the modern Charlotte franchise cracked they top twenty– finishing nineteenth. Go figure.

Success doesn’t necessarily mean fans will flock to the arena either. Take a look at the Memphis Grizzlies for example. In the 2003-2004 season they finished with a record of 52-30, but ranked just 25th in the league with 15,188 fans per game.

Even at the pinnacle of the Grizzlies’ success they ranked just 20th in the league with 15,704 fans per game.

One year later they opened their current facility–the Fedex Forum–finished with a 45-37 record, but still ranked just nineteenth in attendance with 16,862 fans per game. Even at the pinnacle of the Grizzlies’ success, the 2012-2013 season wherein they reached the Western Conference Finals, the Grizzlies ranked 20th in the league with just 15,704 fans per game. Head-scratching numbers, to be sure.

Those are startling numbers for Bucks’ fans, given the similarities between Milwaukee and Memphis in terms of market size (25th and 29th). The worry is that even if they have a new arena that Bucks fans will continue neglecting their team–like Memphis has.

Milwaukee is different. They have tenure (est. 1968), they have a world title (1971), thirteen division titles, and of course–the NBA’s best mascot.

Bucks fans have proven that should their team reach that level of success then they will show out in droves to support their team. They could even be perennial mainstays in the NBA’s top-ten in attendance figures should the tandem of Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo reach their otherworldly ceilings and are given a new arena to play in.

Like the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Since their relocation (from that city with greedy eyes on the Bucks) in 2008, the Thunder have lived in the top ten of attendance percentage and have sold out every single game since the 2011-2012 season.

Why should that matter to the Bucks? Because the Thunder have the NBA’s third-smallest Nielson market size. Smaller than the Buck’s fifth-smallest market size. And you can bet there’s not a day that goes by in which Seattle fans don’t regret allowing their team to leave and enjoy the success they deserved in another city.

Bucks fans won’t let that happen–as demonstrated by the recent upstroke in fan support. If they can pack 10,000 fans into Schlitz park to see new uniforms you can bet they can sell out a new Milwaukee Bucks arena nightly.

Especially if Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo can carry the Bucks to unfathomable (but rapidly becoming more realistic) heights.

But first they must prove they’re winners to truly capture the Milwaukee market.

Next: Bucks Block Party a Sign for Optimism in Milwaukee

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