"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com – brought to you by Stoli Vodka, Altos Tequila, Fireball, OR-G, Jim Beam, Plymouth Gin and 2 Gingers – is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs – including guides, the latest trends, bar reviews, the results of our Best of Bars poll and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!
Long before 30 wins at the all-star break, before Giannis Antetokounmpo was headed to the NBA All-Star weekend and a blockbuster five-player trade, the Milwaukee Bucks were riding the momentum of a trade for a new head coach and the drafting of Jabari Parker.
There was hope for the future, but the present could be exciting.
So, the organization reached out to a staple of the Milwaukee community and economy – its bars – in an effort to literally grow its fan base one person at a time, or at the very least expose the team to that bar’s own mini-community game by game.
In late October, the "Bucks Bar Network" was born.
The partnership didn’t require much. Bars would have to purchase tickets and provide Bucks season ticket holders with drink specials – on games days or not – but the team would throw its marketing weight behind the bar, whether it be for events or exposure.
The goal, however, was to start laying the bricks that would make up a new part of the Bucks fans base, even if it was just one brick (one person, one bar) at a time.
"That’s the underlying foundation of it in terms of most of the promotional things we’re out doing," said Dustin Godsey, the vice president of marketing for the Bucks. "It’s about connecting and being involved in the community in an authentic way. It’s not us creating crazy events or doing things – it’s literally getting out to bars and having people go out and watch games. It’s really about developing that sense of community and being a part of Milwaukee and being a part of Wisconsin in a way that’s accessible for everybody."
There have been a few special events, most notably the viewing party of the game in London, England on Jan. 15 at Three Lions Pub, located at 4515 N. Oakland Ave. Nearly 300 fans packed the English pub – noted for its soccer viewing – on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of winter.
And, it’s perhaps a great example of the Bucks trying to cultivate a fan base in a place not necessarily known for having the team on its television screens.
"Obviously we’re a British pub or whatever, but we’re also in Wisconsin, so why not support all the things within it?" said Luca Musker, the general manager for Three Lions Pub. "We are all English or whatever, but we’ve all been here for years now and we’ve adapted to the Packers fan, the Badgers fan, the Bucks and Brewers, all that stuff. The main concentration when we first opened was to build that soccer crowd in being British, but I’ve come to learn that it’s not just that what people want to see. Even when it comes to things like March Madness. Really, with the Bucks we felt it would be a good idea."
Muster says they’ll get some fans to come in specifically for Bucks games, but noted they have had more success in its ticket packages and running shuttles.
The same can be said at Leff’s Lucky Town, which is located at 7208 W. State St. in Wauwatosa. General manager Mike Szohr said the team has sold out three "tailgates" already (where fans pregame at the bar, then shuttle over to the BMO Harris Bradley Center) and have a fourth planned.
At the start of the year, Leff’s intention was to only do two such events.
"Part of the reason that we were successful is that we’re a part of the bar network and they’re doing a lot of marketing for us and we’re promoting," Szohr said. "The product on the court speaks for itself."
Ah, yes. The team itself. The Bucks are currently in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and the young players have not only provided highlights, but wins. Toss in all of the off-court news about a new arena, there is a definite buzz around the organization as a whole.
And that always translates to increased interest.
"Being a season ticket holder it is very easy to see the growth in interest and excitement over the new team, the prospects of a new building, new ownership and a playoff bid this year," said Chris Surges, the owner of Rumor Upbeat Lounge. "I know last year I couldn't give tickets away. I’d leave two tickets on the bar for anyone to take and come back an hour later and see four more there."
"It certainly helps in everything," Godsey said of the team’s on-court success. "It’s as much about the sort of team – I think it has that community feel to it. It’s a group of guys that the city can really rally around."
That’s not say these bars are suddenly packed to the gills on game nights.
An OnMilwaukee.com photographer visited several bars in the network along Wisconsin Ave. last weekend and found few fans at three different establishments.
"In terms of regular games, you get the odd person coming in with the cards that they have saying that they are a part of the MVP bar network (the season ticket holders), but I wouldn’t say it’s all the way driven more people to come out for the game," Musker admitted.
"Some things have been successful, but the actual bar network thing itself, it may not have brought as much to us as it may have elsewhere."
Surges wanted Rumor Upbeat Lounge to be a network participant as he’s trying to draw the sporting fan to its 20-foot projection screen and six flat screens and utilize its shuttle to local events, but he admitted that the live postgame radio show does help attract more patrons.
"I will say the network itself hasn't added a ton of business, but the live shows we've done have definitely brought in additional and new business," Surges said.
But, each bar has said they value the partnership and the way it functions, and they look forward to remaining a part of it for as long as the Bucks continue to do it.
"I think it definitely has a future," Godsey said. "It’s just really kind of been a unique partnership with bars. They’ve liked it. We are, we’re always doing things and looking for locations out in the community to go out and do things, so it’s nice just to have people that have already bought in and we know that because they’ve partnered with us, it’s a little bit of an investment back and forth with each other."
And, for the organization, the 2014-15 version of it is just the beginning as the franchise looks to expand its fan base not only in Milwaukee, but throughout Wisconsin.
"It’s actually expanded out beyond Milwaukee," Godsey said. "We’ve got a bar in Sheboygan. We’ve got a bar in Janesville.
"That’s almost the next step, is how do we get somebody in Madison that we can have kind of be our go-to bar. How can we get into Green Bay? That sort of thing, to sort of expand past the city into kind of a state-wide thing. We’re constantly looking and we’re getting feedback from the bar operators and, I think, if anything it’s something we’re going to see expand."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.