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Can Milwaukee afford its pro sports teams?

Milwaukee ranked sixth among "over extended" pro sports markets in America, according to a recent study.

Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal reported this market has a $21 million deficit between its income base and the cost of doing business in pro sports. By the way, Phoenix and Tampa Bay- St. Pete's, two Sunbelt growth communities, ranked as the first and second most over extended markets.

Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Denver ranked third through fifth. Then came Milwaukee, followed by Cincinnati, Buffalo, Indianapolis and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

The study calculated each market's capacity for pro sports by taking the metro area's total personal income and subtracting the amounts of money needed to support its existing teams. Total personal income is the sum of all money earned by residents of an area in any given year.

For those of us who have covered Milwaukee sports for a long time, the study is hardly startling. As salaries in pro sports have skyrocketed, and other costs have risen almost as quickly, it has become much more difficult for the Brewers and Bucks, even the minor league sports in town, to compete.

The Brewers hoped -- and still do hope -- additional revenue from Miller Park will help them, but they still lack a competitive product on the field. Herb Kohl has operated the Bucks more as a community service than a true, for-profit business. Now, he is making it clear he'd like to sell the team.

Additional evidence of financial struggles among other teams and events will be offered later in this column.

Now that all you local sports fans are really down in the dumps, here are a couple encouraging things. First, the Packers came out No. 1 in a somewhat similar study done by ESPN Magazine. See more on it later in this column.

Also, despite the hard, cold realities, pro sports can still make it in this market in my opinion if a few things are done:

  1. Owners of the teams are willing to operate like the major investors in the Brewers and Kohl, with no expectations of big profits but with an appreciation for the importance of sports in keeping the image of Milwaukee as "major league." It would really help if some local corporations could convince their home offices that it also would be a fine example of corporate citizenship to invest in the teams.
  2. Some sanity is brought into the salary structures of pro sports on a national level. Bud Selig has been saying that for more than a decade, and primarily has caught nothing but grief. Without this, Milwaukee will always be challenged.
  3. TV revenue in all sports is shared in a similar manner to the NFL. Without the pro football system, the Packers would die in Green Bay. A system similar to that of the NFL in MLB and the NBA would greatly help the Brewers and Bucks.
  4. Venues must be kept current and up-to-date. Once the roof is fixed, Miller Park provides that for the Brewers. We need to find a way to update the Bradley Center without further burdening taxpayers.
  5. Those people who run the actual sports operations of the local teams — Doug Melvin and Ned Yost with the Brewers, and Ernie Grunfeld and George Karl with the Bucks — have little margin for error and have to make even wiser personnel decisions than their competitors.

Finally, of course, you sports fans out there have to keep coming. I saw in the late 1970s and 80s just how good a sports market Milwaukee can be when fans have entertaining teams to watch. Certainly, your patience has been tested since then. But, without you, Milwaukee dries up as a sports town.

BC Renovations

Any definite plans for renovation of the Bradley Center have been put on hold, but talks need to get real serious about merging the BC with the Wisconsin Center. Officials of both venues also should at least consult with Tim Krause, who had a plan for a privately financed soccer stadium downtown. He basically was rebuffed the first time he brought the plan to officials.

What Milwaukee could really use is a true Sports Authority, or some other type of coordinating body for all sports. Jim Fitzgerald first suggested such a body when he owned the Bucks. Brewers' president Ulice Payne alluded to such a regional organization concerning the area's sports facilities this week. Attempts have been made, and even now the Wisconsin Sports Development Corporation exists in Madison, but we have never really had an organization with the clout it needs.

Badger Showdown

The uncertainty over the BC plans likely is playing a role in the possible move of the Badger Showdown holiday hockey tournament. UW showed a profit of $128,338 from the tourney held Dec. 29-30 at the BC. That's the lowest profit in the 14-year history of the event.

Attendance at the Showdown has fallen from a high of 35,382 in 1992 to 13,966 in 2002. Bank One, the primary sponsor of the event, has announced it won't renew its contract, so UW officials are thinking about moving it to the Kohl Center in Madison.

Wave buys Rampage franchise

Minor league sports also are struggling in this market, in these tough economic times. The Rampage soccer franchise was behind on its rent at the soccer complex in Franklin and folded this week. But, Krause reached an agreement to take over the franchise, which now will be called Wave United.

Krause deserves credit for stepping up to the plate, to borrow a cliché from baseball, and for that reason should be included in the mix when solutions for the sports situation in Milwaukee are discussed.

ESPN Study

If you're tired of all this negative stuff, check out ESPN Magazine, which ranked the Packers as the top franchise in all of pro sports. The ESPN ratings were based on a poll of fans, telephone surveys of fans and a financial review of the franchise.

Hot Tix

The hottest ticker at the Bradley Center this weekend is for the Marquette game against traditional rival DePaul at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The Wave hosts the San Diego Sockers at 7:05 p.m. Friday at the BC. The Bucks host the Denver Nuggets at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. UWM plays Wright State at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Klotsche Center.

Of course, the hottest tix are for the big game in San Diego, but most of us in Milwaukee will watch it from our homes or local pubs. Expect the Raiders to make saps out of Warren Sapp and the Bucs.

Gregg Hoffmann writes The Milwaukee Sports Buzz on Fridays for OMC.


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