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Prospective Bucks owners committed to winning

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Charles F. Gardner, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
April 20, 2014

MILWAUKEE—Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, the two New York-based prospective owners of the Milwaukee Bucks, are in it to win it.

And that goes with their strong belief that a new arena will be built to replace the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

In their first interview since former Sen. Herb Kohl announced last week he had sold the Milwaukee Bucks to them for $550 million, Edens and Lasry made it abundantly clear they want to build a world-class basketball organization and get an arena built as soon as possible in downtown Milwaukee.

Focused, hypercompetitive and self-assured, the two are outsiders, just as Mark Attanasio was when he emerged from Los Angeles to snap up the Milwaukee Brewers and turn it into a successful franchise.

Both Lasry and Edens are perfectly aware of the anti-tax environment surrounding the arena debate that could derail any version of a public-private partnership many believe will be needed to build a new, multipurpose arena. But they say the combination of Kohl’s $100 million gift toward a new arena, and their own commitment to spend at least $100 million more will make the project happen.

“We don’t believe that getting an arena built is anything but an absolute positive outcome for everybody,” Edens said. “There’s no real energy or value in coming up with alternatives. We are going to build an arena. We are going to be part of the community. The Bucks are going to be a great basketball team. That’s our goal and that’s what’s going to happen.”

And Lasry? “I couldn’t have said it better.”

The pair also have a timetable in mind. “I think getting something designed, financed and ready to come out of the ground in the next 12 months is a very aggressive but a very realistic timeline, so long as there is engagement locally, which I believe there will be,” Edens said. “So as soon as we are mandated as the owners, we will jump into it with both feet and get after it. I think it’s a challenge, but it is a tremendous opportunity.”

Both Edens and Lasry said they would meet with community leaders and citizens to explain their vision of a new, energized franchise and a new arena they believe will revitalize downtown Milwaukee. Both said they would put in as much time as is needed and both said they would have homes in Milwaukee.

“There are a number of different constituencies that care deeply about both the arena, downtown Milwaukee, you know, the Bucks as part of the community,” Edens said. “There’s a number of different elements that need to be paid attention to. And I think the first thing to do is meet with people and solicit their views and opinions on how things work. And then synthesize it into a common vision that people can get behind.”

The pair are fervent in their belief the public will embrace an arena if they know it will benefit the community economically. Some sports economists have challenged that assertion, arguing there is no evidence a new facility provides a positive economic impact on urban economies.

“The value proposition at the end of the day is what will carry the day,” Edens said. “It’s not about asking for a public handout, or asking for incremental taxes, that’s not what people are responsive to. In my judgment, they shouldn’t be. It’s really about what impact a new arena can have on the community. You keep the Bucks in the community. Revitalize the downtown…It has to be a positive economic result for taxpayers to feel good about getting behind it.”

As part of their plan, the two say they will bring in local investors not just for the franchise but for a new arena. That suggests the two are looking for additional private capital to finance a new arena. A Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce arena task force, working in conjunction with the Hammes Co., is exploring several financing ideas, including the possibility of a supersize tax incremental financing district.

“That is something we will definitely pursue,” Edens said of bringing in local money. “Especially with two owners who don’t live in the city. Having an integrated group of investors who are in the community is a huge positive and something we are really interested in.”

The two know what they are getting into: A team that finished the season with the worst record in the league, the lowest attendance in the league, a small market with minuscule TV ratings. In their business, that’s what is known as a distressed asset.

But it’s a distressed asset with the chance to make a splash in the upcoming NBA draft.

“Part of this for us, you can only go up,” Lasry said. “If you look at this, if we do the right things, if we pick the right players, if everything works the way hopefully it will and we can follow the model of San Antonio or the (Oklahoma City) Thunder … I think everybody wants the same thing we do. Everybody just wants a winner. If you’re winning, people show up. If you’re losing, people get discouraged.”

Lasry knows the Bucks won their only championship in 1971. But for younger fans, the target of any sports franchise, that’s ancient history.

“When you’re talking to your kids about the glory days, your kids look at you and say, ‘You’re fricking crazy,’ “ Lasry said. “When you talk about the Knicks in New York, they’re like, ‘The Knicks suck. They haven’t done anything lately.’ “

In Milwaukee, Lasry said, older fans likely remember the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. Lasry suggested those days are only history. “When you are talking to younger people, they look at you and say, ‘Don’t you know they have the worst record?’" Lasry said.

Edens put it differently. He said he and Lasry love the role of underdogs. And they believe the timing is right for the rebirth of the Bucks.

“The notion of buying into a team at this time in some respects is perfect,” Edens said. “There is no doubt there is a tremendous fan base in Milwaukee and in the Wisconsin area for sports. All you have to do is look at the attendance figures for the Brewers. Go to a Packers game. There is no doubt there is a huge fan interest for it. We just have to create a product that everybody is excited about.”

As potential co-owners, Lasry and Edens said they had the same world view and would make business and basketball decisions as a team. They’ve known each other for 20 years and dismiss any notion that decision-making will be compromised. There will be no alpha male here, they say.

“Our view is unless we both agree, nothing will happen,” Lasry said. “If we disagree, one of us should convince the other. But I think we very much look at the world the same way.”

“For me, when we look at it, you need to have excellent management,” Lasry said. “When I look at companies like this, especially owning the Bucks, I think we have an obligation to the city, to the fans, to everyone. But at the same time…I think our view is we want to build a world-class organization.”

Edens put it differently and more bluntly. “We don’t pursue investments for practice.”

On their initial impressions of Milwaukee:

Lasry said “everybody was exceptionally nice.” “It actually gave you a nice feeling about everything.”

Edens: “I’ve been fortunate to have been there when there isn’t snow on the ground, so I know how nice it can be. It’s a great Midwestern city. It’s the classic city (in which) the downtown over time became less relevant as you built up the suburbs. I think it’s a great opportunity for the city to kind of reinvent itself from an urban perspective.”

On meeting and working with Kohl:

Lasry: “You meet a lot of people in life and in business. He’s one of those individuals who is just like a real gentleman. You know he’s a man of his word. You enjoy spending time with him. I view him as sort of what we all should be. Public servants, he dedicated his life to try to help the community.”

Edens: “As you can imagine, there was a lot of discussion throughout the process over the commitment to Milwaukee. The senator from the first minute of the first meeting made it very clear that his number one objective was to see a new arena built, a long-term lease signed by the Bucks and make sure there was a long-term commitment to the city and the state of Wisconsin.”

Edens called Kohl an extraordinarily generous man. “I think he is such a humble person and Milwaukee is incredibly fortunate to have him as their patron…What he’s done is selfless.”



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