Bucks president Peter Feigin on Milwaukee’s “awesome great magnet”

The US$524 million Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center in downtown Milwaukee is the latest addition to the National Basketball Association's ultra-modern arena roster.

Bucks president Peter Feigin on Milwaukee’s “awesome great magnet”

Last Sunday marked one year since the Milwaukee Bucks broke ground on their new arena, a US$524 million multi-use development currently named the Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center.

Located just a stone’s throw from the Bucks’ current home, the 29-year-old BMO Harris Bradley Center, in downtown Milwaukee, the Populous-designed project will comprise a 17,500-capacity National Basketball Association (NBA) venue as well as the Bucks’ new training facility, a public plaza, a medical centre, and retail, residential and commercial spaces.

For both the Bucks and for the city of Milwaukee, it is hoped the new development will have a transformative impact when it opens for business ahead of the 2018/19 NBA season. Having embarked on a major rebranding effort in 2015, the Bucks agreed a long-term lease in April 2016 that will keep them in Wisconsin’s largest city for the next 30 years, paving the way for work to begin on the construction of an arena project that, with a US$250 million contribution from local taxpayers, has been trumpeted as a catalyst for the wider regeneration of downtown Milwaukee.

Twelve months on from the arena’s official groundbreaking ceremony, and with construction work gathering pace ahead of next year's grand opening, SportsPro caught up with Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin to get a progress report on a project he calls an “awesome great magnet”, one he hopes will put Bucks basketball and the city of Milwaukee on the global sporting map for many years to come.

SP: This Sunday 18th June marks a year since you broke ground on the arena. How’s the build going so far?

PF: I think the overarching, great news is that we’re on budget and on time. Some of that is because we had a very mild Wisconsin winter, which allowed us to come out of the ground, do a lot of the steelwork and a lot of the infrastructure work on schedule. That was one of the real risks about the whole project.

For us, it’s really a race to get the structure enclosed by the fall and I think we’re on schedule to get this closed up before mid-November, which would put is in a very good spot to hit completion by August of 2018.

What major construction milestones lie ahead in the coming months?

In pure construction, we’re in the middle of putting the trusses up so that’s one of the last big milestone events. We have nine big trusses that span the roof; three of them are up currently. It should take the next three or four months to complete that.

Once those are up and in place, we can actually start closing the building in a big way. The next real big movements are big things in the interior. All the stadia is 100 per cent up, concrete internally is 98 per cent poured. Really the big milestone is the topping off and the enclosure of the roof.

You’ve enlisted Populous as lead architects for this project. What are some of the defining characteristics and features in terms of the design concept?

The major themes of this arena are transparency, socialisation, the ability to easily navigate the building optically, so you can actually see where you’re going. There are no hidden corners. It’s an open concourse, so not only is it open from a huge glass facade to the east, but it’s an open concourse where you can stand, socialise and eat away from your seat and still see, hear and smell the game. We’ve designed this so that the concourses are as attractive to be in during the performance or a game as your seat, in some cases.

The development is being trumpeted as a catalyst for the revitalisation of an area of downtown Milwaukee. In what other ways will it have an impact?

It’s a complete transformational economic development. What people don’t realise is this is a 30-acre development. The arena is about seven of the acres, of which we’re in construction a little bit over 65 per cent of the land. Incremental tax generation, job creation, building of retail and residential and commercial and entertainment spaces - it’s a much bigger ecosystem than just the arena.

The arena, for us, is the catalyst. How do we create this awesome great magnet, and how do we redefine sports and entertainment in the capital of Wisconsin, make it a destination and, once we have that, make it experiential and terrific so that people want to stay there and come back?

Feigin says the Bucks' new arena will have "no hidden corners", with open, airy concourses allowing for easy navigation.

Presumably that’s one the reasons why local authorities saw fit to invest US$250 million of taxpayer money into this project. Given public funding for sports venues remains something of a sore subject, what’s the reaction among locals been like?

The value proposition from a pure economic standpoint really proved to the state, the county and the city what the return was. A lot of that can be proven just on the tax revenue, but, even more importantly, what our owners’ larger vision was - to really create a destination and at the same time transform a major swath of land in the city that desperately needed it and was kind of abandoned for really over 20 years.

Public sentiment has been just incredible - the enthusiasm, the excitement, the speed at which things are being built. We’ve got overwhelmingly positive support from every sector. It’s no longer bipartisan. Everything is very geared towards the excitement of a new, great building and landmark opening for the city of Milwaukee.

What’s the timeframe for other aspects of the development? Will it be a number of months before everything besides the arena is completed?

It’ll happen pretty quickly. Directly outside our main entrance we have a public plaza, which will be designed and finished in a way to have events such as outdoor concerts and festivals, as well as an entertainment block.

As of today, the entertainment block is coming from conceptual to reality. We have a couple of letters of interest signed with some large entertainment and retail providers that will really change the landscape of what Milwaukee and Wisconsin is used to. We want to use those as destination points too.

As this opens, we’ll have our team’s training centre, which is a 55,000 square foot building that will be done and completed in the next four weeks. We’ll have a medical office building and clinic that’s run by the Froedtert medical centre completed, which is another 40,000 square foot building. That building is pretty neat - it literally aesthetically redesigns the entrance to Milwaukee.

On McKinley Street, there are 30,000 cars that come off the highway. They’ve always been visually grabbed by what was brownfield. Starting in two months, they will see a completely manicured, beautiful branded entrance to the city.

We also have - and it will be completed by this November - a 1,250 spot parking structure that will be connected to the arena. We have a 100 apartment residential structure, as well as the public plaza, the arena and what we call the ‘Live Block’, which will be a series of three buildings that will include entertainment, a beer garden and retail.

Work is currently ongoing to enclose the arena roof, including the instalment of nine vast steel trusses.

Across North America, we’ve seen other sports teams use new arenas as a way to establish and build a new identity - the Sacramento Kings’ high-tech Golden 1 Center comes to mind. Given that the Bucks rebranded two years ago with a refreshed and more modern look and feel to the franchise, is a similar thing happening here?

Without a question. Obviously the physical plan is a massive upgrade, where you have the best of the best by default. We’ve taken examples in Orlando and Sacramento - they’re perfect models for what has been successful, creating and transforming an area of land that is in desperate need of it.

For us, to be able to provide up to 200 events annually, to be able to provide ease-of-use parking, provide a neighbourhood in this area of Milwaukee is extremely transformational for what existed.

I think the model you’re seeing - you’ve seen it in Toronto and at the Staples Center and LA Live - is how do you create density and activity over 365 days and use the excitement and attractiveness of a sports and entertainment centre as a magnet to bring people around? The event space, the plaza, the residential and commercial buildings are all part of this new vision to create a sustainable neighbourhood.

Sustainability is obviously a key theme of the modern-day sports venue. What specific innovations are you integrating into the arena? 

We’ve done best practices, so we’ve taken everything from storm water management to solar on our training facility to the ability to create large places for bike sharing opportunities in and around the district. Every aspect, to the way we dispose of food, to the way our ground swells are going to be designed.

Corporate partnerships and sponsorships have reached a level that this team and this city has never seen before. We’ve really redefined the way professional NBA basketball is positioned in Wisconsin.

What kind of impact do you expect this development to have on the Bucks’ bottom line?

Traditionally, over the last ten years, I would say we’ve been at the lower end of NBA metrics - in performance, in attendance, in ticket sales and premium sales. Now we have 34 luxury suites, of which we have five left to sell, which is incredible testament to where the excitement is and where we are.

Our event-level seating, which is the 10,000 lower seats in the arena, is 80 per cent sold for the new arena, which is great. Corporate partnerships and sponsorships have reached a level that this team and this city has never seen before, with four founding partners who have signed on and we will have a naming rights partner down the road as well. We’ve really redefined the way professional NBA basketball is positioned in Wisconsin.

How are discussions going on the naming rights front? When do you think you’ll be in a position to finalise that deal?

Honestly, as quickly as possible because obviously the sooner the better. We want them designed into the structure of the building in a really aesthetically pleasing, strategic and smart way. I would say our expectation is we should come to a close in the next 60 to 120 days with some of the prospects we’re talking to.

The interesting thing is when you talk about this facility, you really talk about what the international attractiveness of it is. The NBA, specifically, has become such an international property, and on a branding and impression level, 75 per cent of our prospects have more of an international presence than a domestic presence, especially in China and other places in Asia as well as Europe.

We happen to have the emergence of what I would say is one of the best five players in the league, with Giannis Antetokounmpo. By default, his Greek background as well as his African background has made him an international superstar, which has obviously been great for the organisation because we get that interest in the partnership availability as well.

The US$524 million arena development is located just a stone’s throw from the Bucks’ current home, the 29-year-old BMO Harris Bradley Center, in downtown Milwaukee.

You mentioned you’ve already signed some founding partners. What’s your target in that regard and how close are you to hitting it?

I think we’re halfway there - our target is to get around eight founding partners. We define those as people with significant investments of upwards of US$2 million a year over long-term, and that they have an ownership with some physical assets in and around the arena and the district. Then we’ll have one naming rights partner, which traditionally gets branding on the building and other landmark pieces around the arena.

What price tag have you put on the naming rights and how will the value of the deal compare to other recent builds in the NBA?

If you look at the most recent, Sacramento could be a good comparable. It’s actually a much bigger market than Milwaukee but our expectation is to easily be equal to or greater than Sacramento. They [signed their deal with Golden1 Credit Union] a couple of years ago, and I think the NBA is at a period of time where there is such tremendous health and growth, especially internationally. The proposition that we’re selling continues to grow in value, so we’re not really getting push back with how we’re positioning ourselves.

Are you also looking to fill your jersey sponsor slot ahead of the new season? 

We’re working on finalising our patch sponsor as soon as possible as well. Per the rules, that can eventually be a longer-term proposition but to begin with it’ll be a two-year proposition to cover us for next season and the following. 

Members of the Bucks ownership are among those who have invested in eSports and the team will be participating in the NBA’s new 2K eLeague. Are there plans in place for the arena to host competitive gaming events in future and, if so, how will the venue accommodate the specific demands of those events?

The timing has given us the advantage - and, again, everything pivots and changes so quickly - but we’re designing this with the infrastructure in mind, everything from where we can create gaming areas and tournaments to how we would project them. We’re certainly creating an events centre for e-gaming.

We’re actually contemplating doing, in one of the retail spaces in the plaza, an e-gaming lounge to really attract people and gamers. We’re one of the 17 teams that have committed early to the NBA 2K League. We understand that audience and how important it is and we’re looking at ways of streaming different tournaments.

All three of our owners are invested in eSports, they see the promise of it, and like everybody else we’re trying to navigate what the future is without really knowing. But we think we’re good on the infrastructure and the platform of using the arena as one of the great gathering places designed for eSports tournaments.

Feigin was speaking to SportsPro's Americas editor, Michael Long