Milwaukee is known for a few things outside of Wisconsin, but something that newcomers often find surprising is not just the city pride, but the pride in supporting local, be it beer, coffee or retail. Owned, operated and produced in Wisconsin are badges of honor.
Businesses come and go, of course, but a staple in any major metro market are its professional sports franchises. Few things create a sense of community like athletics.
Since the end of last basketball season, the Bucks have sought to forge a deeper connection to a city it’s called home for 45 years. It’s one thing to represent the Cream City on your jersey, but a whole other to embrace the culture. It’s hard to do, frankly. Pro sports is big business, and big business often doesn’t align with hyperlocal interests or tastes.
The Bucks found a way to not only align them, but combine them to help create the "Milwaukee Originals" T-shirt line.
"It was really about strengthening that tie and really wanting to be not just something that people do in Milwaukee but really a part of Milwaukee in every facet," Bucks vice president of marketing Dustin Godsey said.
"That’s where doing things like the court unveil at the Milwaukee Art Museum or switching up locations and how we do press conferences to partners that we’re working with (come in), but it’s really re-establishing that tie to the past but in a very forward looking way."
When it comes to NBA licensing there is a provision that allowed for individual teams to create unique apparel, but to do so the team can only sell that merchandise at its home stadium. This has been utilized for years, mostly for promotional T-shirts and quick turnaround items to capitalize on "in the moment" slogans.
The Bucks realized this presented an opportunity on a different level. Rather than come up with designs on their own however, they reached out to one of Milwaukee’s most favorite cottage industries – the T-shirt makers.
Sconnie Nation, Brew City, Milwaukee Home and Wiskullsin were brought together by the Bucks to use that loophole to promote not only their unique brand of design, but create original looks never before seen at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
"It was super exciting – I was like, holy sh*t it’s happening!" Milwaukee Home’s Melissa Thornton said with a laugh. "That’s really how I felt. I felt like this was amazing, not only for my brand but I get to share what I’ve created on a bigger scale and on the scale of the NBA. This can only open more doors for me and for everybody else in the city because this city is really about being local. We’re really Milwaukee proud and for the Bucks to embrace that, it’s like wow, where do I go from here now because that’s pretty high."
It was an unusual decision by the Bucks, since most of the city’s T-shirt makers often have to work around licensing agreements to produce sports-related apparel, or flat-out break them and risk finding themselves at the receiving end of cease-and-desist letters and other threatening communication.
"The Bucks were really interested in fostering this kind of scrappy, we’re from Milwaukee, let’s pull it up from the bootstraps marketing image of the team," said Troy Vosseller of Sconnie Nation, who all parties credited with suggesting the other three designers to the Bucks.
"Not being a major market city, they wanted to embrace that. One of the ways to do that was tapping into organic fan support vis-à-vis our four companies, our four brands, as a way of showing this entrepreneurial nature amongst Wisconsin which they think is mirrored in the team itself, in the franchise."
Perhaps the most high-profile example came in 2010 when Vosseller and Frank Keppler of Brew City started producing "Fear the Deer" shirts as the Bucks raced to the postseason, leading to a back-and-forth between the organization and the shirt makers as to who actually owned the phrase.
"I think it’s unprecedented for them to sit and take time with four, really, rogue, unlicensed T-shirt dudes," Keppler said.
Wiskullsin has also had its fair share nasty emails from sports teams.
"It was so good to be on the good side, or happy side, or one of those emails," laughed Wiskullsin owner Joey Wisniewski. "Not only were we doing something together, but they were coming to us and to me, it felt like. It really helps. It really makes me feel really positive about it and positive about for what the Bucks are doing.
"Really, it’s about helping Milwaukee and the Bucks and obviously we all get a benefit too. It was just really nice to be on such a positive side of an email from a professional sports team."
What was also unique about this project is it brought the four shirt makers together for the first time, at a lunch at Café Benelux and Market. Vosseller and Keppler knew each other, as did Wisniewski and Thornton, but never had the quartet sat down in one space with a common mission.
"When I first met everybody, I said you know this is kind of unprecedented," Keppler said. "We’re the guys usually doing the knock off shirts in a funky way and you guys are bringing us to the table."
"It was really kind of cool," Thornton added. "It felt like we were more collaborative and excited as a whole."
There was one restriction however, and one the Bucks thought might bring the project to a halt before it got going. While the licensing provision allowed the team to do this, it wouldn’t allow the T-shirt makers to sell these designs on their own web sites or in store, and the Bucks wouldn’t be able to push them online either.
Despite that limitation, no one balked at the opportunity to work with the Bucks.
What the limitation does do, however, is create an air of exclusivity for each design – which all parties hope add to the appeal. And, the designs were meant to be worn socially – not just to games or the gym or while washing the car.
"I said to them, selfishly, at lunch – look, I want you guys to come up with something I’m going to wear around," Godsey said. "I’m not putting on a Bucks T-shirt to be a company guy, but something that’s actually going to fit and certainly aiming at a particular demographic, a group that’s not going to wear a Caron Butler shirsey."
Godsey noted that the NBA has produced more apparel for fans looking for a less sporty look, but with this project "Extending into a more fashionable sort of world was definitely important to us."
As for the designs themselves, Bucks presented an idea of their own at first but the four shirt designers scuttled it and basically told the franchise that if they wanted a truly local representation of the team, they had to drop the reigns.
While the team held final approval of the designs, that’s exactly what happened – so much so that in the Wiskullsin rib cage design the team told Wisniewski to distress the logo to truly fit the look.
"I really think it’s a brilliant touch," Vosseller said. "It allows us to use a canvas we normally couldn’t use, so that’s really fun for us as T-shirt designers, but it’s smart of the Bucks because now you have four new megaphones promoting your team and the shirts themselves in these ticket bundles they’re trying to promote. I think all around it’s a win-win."
The four T-shirt makers – and the Bucks – hope the project is successful enough during this trial run to incorporate similar collaborations with local businesses in the future. At the very least, it’s fostered a true sense of community in an area of business that is often adversarial.
"The efforts they’ve done so far seem much more organic," Wisniewski said. "They’re reaching out to an older generation that loved that MECCA floor. I’m 31 and I remember seeing that MECCA floor. And they’re reaching out to a younger generation saying we want to have something that you can guys can call your own and something that’s a little bit different. So it’s kind of a blending of both of those. I don’t know if you see a lot of teams do that."
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.