PantherU

A Letter to Marquette fans

This post originally appeared on the Marquette section of the Brew City Ball forums, was re-posted on the PantherU section of the forums, and now it is posted here.

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I’m going to paint the picture from our point of view, so you guys at the very least understand where we’re coming from.

A few years ago, Mike Lovell – then a total novice at running a university from an athletics standpoint – looked to commissioner Jon LeCrone from the Horizon League to help replace Rick Costello, driven out in disgrace for not firing a soccer coach who made Bobby Knight look tame and well-tempered. LeCrone set up UWM with his friend and former colleague, Andy Geiger, retired and most recently the AD at Ohio State.

On the surface it was a big get. This guy was the AD who brought Ohio State back to prominence, the guy who hired Jim Tressel and Thad Matta. It showed that he was a name that drew attention – when George Koonce was introduced, you had a couple local TV guys. When Costello was hired, very few local media personalities showed up. When Geiger showed up, they had to change venues because the local sports media came out to see it. Below the surface, plenty of fans questioned whether or not he was well-equipped to run a mid-major in the present.

Geiger’s only move of any consequence was to move the Panthers to the on-campus Klotsche Center for the 2012-13 season. This was a huge decision to make for someone who was an interim AD. To get the Klotsche Center ready, they spent $1 million “beautifying” the building. You know, fresh coat of paint, new temporary chairbacks on the west bleachers, makeover for a concession stand, etc. The big additions were two video boards that could be moved up into the rafters when they were not used. At the end of the day, though, the Klotsche Center seats under 3,000 people. Season ticket holders were…I guess the best word is “livid.”

Geiger had made the move without consulting the basketball coaches, donors or season ticket holders. His response to any criticism was that “college basketball belongs on college campuses.” That’s such a non-answer and a stupid one at that. Marquette plays off-campus and there’s no problem there. Plenty of schools play off campus, and some of them are the best programs outside power conferences. It was indicative of a guy who had no idea of the differences between mid-majors and the highest of high-majors.

I had been told by people who work for the program that Geiger had made the decision to move to the Klotsche Center without so much as walking upstairs to look at the arena inside the KC. What you need to realize is that the Klotsche Center is not like a smaller version of the Al. The Klotsche Center was built in the 70’s as a student-use recreational facility. It wasn’t built for a Division I basketball team – hell, it wasn’t even built for an NAIA team. At the time, the Panthers were D-I independents and played whatever times they could get at the Arena downtown, so even in the 70’s they didn’t see the Klotsche Center as a viable home for an intercollegiate basketball team. At times we were forced back to campus in poor economic times – after we dropped from D-I to NAIA D-II in 1980 to the early 90’s when we went back to the Arena, and also from 99-03 when we played at the KC.

On the day that the ticket office hosted an open house for fans to come and pick out their seats, I roved around and listened to their reactions. Their voices were almost universally negative. Many people voiced disappointment, some were just dejected, a few were downright angry. One had been a top 10 donor the last time I had access to the university’s Millennium donor database (Summer 2010), and he straight up yelled at ticket manager Brian Morgan that he had given too much money to the university over the years to watch the program “disintegrate in a shithole.” He was far from the only angry one, but definitely the one that stuck out in my mind because of his stature in the Milwaukee business landscape and how loud and red he got. Our season-ticket holder base plummeted.

I sure wasn’t happy about it – I’ve clamored for years to return to campus, but the Klotsche Center is inadequate. What I’ve wanted is a real arena, preferably by North Avenue, to maximize all the possibilities for entertainment there. One of our architecture alumni actually used that for his thesis, which we wrote a story on HERE. I could live with the Klotsche Center for the meantime if the endgame was to either purchase the Arena downtown or to build a new arena on campus. Perhaps gutting the Klotsche Center and creating a small arena out of its shell would be possible, like Loyola did to the Gentile Center. Obviously we would want something larger than Loyola’s building – the Valpo game this past season got something like 7,000 fans – but anything between 6,000 and 8,000 could be doable if we dropped the floor of the arena down to the first level or even dug further. However, the university’s study for building an on-campus arena found that it wouldn’t be possible because we couldn’t pay for it or raise enough funds to do it.

So, we’re stuck with two options today – play in the Arena downtown, or play in the Klotsche Center. Fans largely don’t like the Klotsche Center, student attendance fluctuates based on the game’s importance and not because of where it’s played. There are no amenities nearby. In the cold, you have to get into a car to drive the five blocks to the closest bars, with fans splitting between North Avenue and Harry’s bar or Oakcrest Tavern on Oakland. Recruits HATE the Klotsche Center for games. Now compare that to the Arena – fans almost universally love it, there’s easy access for fans who come from places other than the East Side, there are plenty of bars and restaurants to go for pre-game or post-game. Recruits love it – they love the idea of playing where Kareem and Oscar played. The only long-term advantage for the university is saving money in the long run – money that wouldn’t come close to piling up for arena costs for decades.

You can see why the university and its constituents would want to fight for the Arena’s existence. That’s why you hear crazy ideas like the Panthers as primary tenants in a new Bucks arena. From our standpoint, we see the Journal floating what the Bucks are looking for – closer to downtown among them – and we see the Bucks willing to make us homeless so they can be one block closer to downtown. It’s hard for us to stomach when they already own land large enough for an enormous arena immediately to the north of the Bradley Center.

People are scared that our only viable home could go up in smoke. It’s why big donors, university officials and politician alumni are meeting to plan out strategies. They’re all very scared of the possibility that we could be made homeless because our house is on preferable land. It’s not necessary – there are 5 or 6 other spaces the Bucks could pursue – but preferable. It seems that the Bucks have declared that with their pursuit of the Journal Sentinel building.

My guess is, Marquette doesn’t really care where it goes as long as they remain Tenant #2. I see that the Journal Sentinel is quick to point out that the Boston Store-Surface lot-Parking Structure space between 5th street and the Grand Avenue is too small. I also know that between 5th street and the Grand Avenue on the south side of Michigan Street is a vacant office building that used to be the home of Blue Cross Blue Shield. Shutting down Michigan and 4th Street in that area would be possible, and adding the vacant lot and 1/3rd of Zeidler Square would be big enough for their gargantuan basketball arena.

It would also extend Marquette’s campus east to the Grand Avenue mall. Having the new arena there would bring new life to the Grand Avenue. It’s also surrounded by all the amenities they’d want. ESPN 540 be a stone’s throw from the arena. I wonder why the Journal Sentinel won’t bring up the former Blue Cross building with that site, but then again I remember that they have skin in the game. The Journal has an economic need to shed its headquarters, and playing up the Arena space makes their building prime real estate for developers.

We also see that space north of the arena and wonder why it’s not viable. I understand there’s no development around there, but couldn’t that development be spurred on by manipulating the tax code and getting rid of any taxes in the area around the arena construction for say, 5-10 years? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like the Park East corridor is always going to remain an empty plot of land unless some of its space or the adjacent space carries with it a huge development – like an arena. You guys probably don’t want to hear about the Grand Ave or the area north, so I’ll stop there about other options.

There is an alternative, and that is using the fundraising for this huge arena to also raise money for another building. Plowing the Bradley Center, UWM Arena, Theater and Journal building is a lot of demolition just to build one big arena and some retail/restaurant development. The Panthers, Wave and plenty of non-sports entities will be displaced. This shouldn’t be met with “too bad” or “UWM is irrelevant so who cares” but rather an eye for how to fix problems created by your dream facility.

I think the alternative is helping the other teams build a new home. I’ve heard a suggestion to have a small arena next door to the big arena, but that’s just ridiculous to me – each arena draws attention from the other one. UWM can’t build a building on its own – they’ve done studies that have told them they’d only be able to raise about $8 million for a new arena – but if the powerful business leaders and teams are going to displace the Panthers, then helping them build their own home is a way to make everyone happy. And the city gets two arenas.

Which it needs. Believe it or not, the Arena and Theater play an important role in the city. If this new Bucks stadium is built, the next largest venue in the city is the Al McGuire Center. There are plenty of musical acts and others that are far too large for the Al but way too small for the 18-20,000 seats the new Bucks arena is going to be. In sports, the Panthers and Wave fit that mold. But the Arena and Theater also have housed plenty of other acts – Disney on Ice, Tripoli Shrine Circus, etc. – that we sports fans don’t think about on a daily basis. Plenty of those acts wouldn’t be able to be done in Milwaukee – Disney on Ice and the Shrine Circus each take up full blocks on the calendar that the new Bucks arena would not be able to accommodate because it’s at the same time as the MU/Bucks/Admirals season. That’s lost revenue downtown.

Building the Panthers a new arena doesn’t break the bank, which is the good thing about bringing big money to a mid-major. We don’t need $200 million for a new arena. To get a comparable experience for the Panthers on the east side, the construction of the building would probably run something like $40 to $60 million, money that we couldn’t come up with but is a tip in the jar compared to the money used to build this new Bucks arena.

I imagine during construction, the Panthers would play the majority of their season in the Klotsche Center with select big ticket games being played at the Bradley Center – Wisconsin, Green Bay, Valpo, games for which we would turn people away at the door of the Klotsche Center. Fans who don’t like the Klotsche Center will live with it if they know there’s a brand new facility being constructed on North Avenue next to one of the city’s best bar districts.

That’s how you make it happen. Because making all parties happy is how it gets done. You know how it doesn’t get done? Pissing off several entities – the Wave, the Panthers, city business leaders who think we’re cutting off our nose to spite our face with this space. This is the kind of move in 2014 that will drive this to litigation, because that seems to be the way everything is solved lately. Litigation could drag years, long enough to make the new arena moot when the Bucks become the Seattle Starbucks. I’d prefer to avoid all that by working a solution that makes everyone happy. I think bringing this to courts would be shameful. But do you expect anything less out of a guy like Frank Gimbel?

If that future includes the UWM Arena’s demolition, so be it. But let’s avoid all the negative energy and come up with a solution that makes sense for everyone. We don’t always need to be at each other’s throats. We could be complementary to each other in finding a solution to this arena problem. We don’t need to turn this into an ugly fight, with the Bucks/MU/Journal on one side and UWM/Wave/WCD on the other side. Let’s work together and make it work for everyone. Except Frank Gimbel. I’m all about cutting out that guy’s power, as long as it doesn’t also screw me over.

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