The Milwaukee Bucks have—obvious exception aside—been a depressing team to watch this season. The defense that made them one of the surprise teams of 2014-15 has completely disappeared. The gamble on Michael Carter-Williams as the point guard of the future has been a disaster, as Carter-Williams has lost his grip on the starting role and is scoring just 10.4 points per game on a brutal 42.7 percent shooting. This was supposed to be the year Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker teamed up to push the young Bucks another step further. Instead, the Bucks are 10-17, last in their division, and 13th of 15 in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
Bucks attendance has dropped down a bit to 14,689 per game since last season, making the Bucks a better draw than only the Nets, Timberwolves, and Nuggets. More people are paying to watch the Philadelphia 76ers try to lose than to watch the Bucks try to win. And since attendance tends to be a lagging indicator of team strength, with fans often planning their arena trips well in advance, in all likelihood attendance will further decline as the shine of last year’s playoff trip fades away.
This team, if you recall, is what the state of Wisconsin recently decided was worth spending $250 million of state funds on for a fancy new downtown arena. It was easy to get excited about this team and the future its owners could sell behind budding stars like Antetokounmpo and Parker, the big contract extension for Khris Middleton, and the major free agent acquisition of Greg Monroe. But when the Bucks are losers, as they have been this year, they become an afterthought in Wisconsin, at best a distraction until the next Packers game.
That gets to an important question about the whole Milwaukee Bucks arena issue that hasn’t been resolved to my satisfaction yet: How many Bucks fans are there, actually, in Wisconsin? If the state is going to spend $250 million—a number that is expected to come out to $400 million or more over the next 20 years, and, if the local history with Miller Park means anything, could be far, far higher—shouldn’t the people footing the bill actually want it first?
The Bucks are consistently one of the lowest-drawing franchises in the NBA by any measure. They have been in the bottom five in attendance for four consecutive years, drawing fewer than 15,000 fans per game each season. Despite a 323 percent bump in ratings driven by last year’s exciting young squad and the excitement of Antetokounmpo and Parker, the Bucks still only reached 20,000 household televisions on an average night. In a state with a population of almost 6,000,000, the proportion of people watching, caring or thinking about the Bucks in Wisconsin is pretty small. Even accounting for the small media market that is Milwaukee, the Bucks are regularly near the league’s bottom in percentage of arena seats sold, and television broadcasts have reached as few as 5,000 homes per game as recently as 2014, when the Bucks were the worst television draw in the league. The smallness of this Bucks-interested proportion of the state population was only confirmed by an April poll from the Marquette Law School (question 31) that found an overwhelming 79 percent of respondents were against spending $150 million in public funds on a new Bucks stadium.
The way things work today, none of that actually matters. Bucks ownership’s push for a new downtown arena cleared its final political hurdle in September, when the Milwaukee Common Council approved $47 million in city spending on the project by a 12-3 vote. This came in addition to the $250 million in state funding—$100 million above the total used in the Marquette poll question—approved by both Wisconsin’s Assembly and Senate in previous months. All told, the public will be funding at least $297 million for Bucks owners Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan, a trio worth a combined $6 billion according to Forbes. Wisconsin citizens will not have had the opportunity to cast a single vote on whether or not these three Brooklyn billionaires, men who have farmed out design and marketing opportunities and even front office jobs to their fellow Brooklynite friends and family.
Gov. Scott Walker with a chart purporting to prove that by spending on a new Bucks arena, taxpayers would save money; photo via AP
This is the reality of the stadium building process: The citizen has no voice. This is a trend that is set to continue in near future. In August, the St. Louis Rams won a decision in St. Louis Circuit Court ruling that an ordinance requiring a public vote on a new stadium was invalid. The law had “sections too vague to be enforced” and “their sum makes a task for us which at best could be only guesswork,” Judge Thomas Frawley wrote in his decision.
The ordinance in question was drawn up specifically to prevent what is about to happen. It was approved by a public referendum in 2002. As Fred Lindecke, one of the ordinance’s original proponents, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “The law is as clear and straightforward as you can get. It covers every kind of technique known to man for getting into the taxpayer’s pocket. And it says very clearly, without ambiguity, that people have a right to vote before any of their tax money is used to build a stadium.”
Unfortunately for St. Louis taxpayers, the NFL Task Force, a group of high-powered businessmen and attorneys dedicated to keeping the Rams in St. Louis, at whatever cost to the public, was on the case. Their highly paid lawyers managed to highlight every incongruity and contradiction with existing state laws and the powers vested to the Regional Sports Authority tasked with constructing the new stadium. The result was a 40-page decision from Frawley, sifting through claim after claim. The broadness Lindecke and other ordinance supporters thought would protect the city from loopholes wound up under attack from the NFL’s legal team. Some of the NFL’s claims were dismissed, but their lawyers’ coverage was so thorough that there was enough for Frawley to strike down the ordinance. Technicalities won over the public’s voice.
“The people voted,” Lindecke said. “And now the judge says forget all that. It makes me angry.”
These are just two recent examples. The Atlanta Falcons will get $200 million for their stadium from the city with no vote from citizens, just an 11-4 approval from the City Council. PNC Park and Heinz Field in Pittsburgh were built despite citizens voting no on a referendum; the city instead used a funding plan called “Plan B” that allowed the Regional Asset Board to approve $809 million in spending without a vote. The Braves were able to get their new stadium in Cobb County nearly halfway funded without a public vote because the county shifted currently existing tax revenues to the stadium (and away from, say, education) rather than increasing taxes. The Twins were able to build Target Field despite a city referendum calling for public votes on any stadium expenses over $10 million; Twins owner Carl Pohlad simply went over the city’s head, to the county board, which approved $387 million in public debt by a 4-3 vote. And the NFL continues to use Los Angeles as a cudgel against smaller municipalities, a perennial threat that has given owners in Minneapolis, San Diego, St. Louis and elsewhere the leverage to demand hundreds in millions of public funds to stay.
Populist rage against these stadium-building plans, best exemplified by John Oliver’s segment on the topic from July, is important and worthwhile. Things won’t change until it’s clear to the politicians who keep approving these deals that the voters who elect them don’t want these deals and that there is a real political cost to approving them. And it will take public support to enact the kinds of laws necessary to make it difficult for owners to get their hands in the public coffer.
But league lawyers like those for the NFL Task Force (which, amazingly, includes an attorney named Bob Blitz) have been working hard for decades to ensure it doesn’t matter how many people oppose a new stadium. The 1988 act that created the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority specifically includes favorable language for the Rams’ owners: “any stadium, complex or facility newly constructed by the authority shall be suitable for multiple purposes and designed and constructed to meet National Football League franchise standards.” They are now using language like this to attack laws designed to protect citizens from rapacious owners and their threats to move teams. They are finding loopholes in tax codes to pretend these arenas are not adding new costs to citizens. And they are ensuring it is the politicians, at the mercy of the election cycle and far easier bought than an entire populace, who get to make the final decision on these deals.
Bucks fans enjoy a block party this summer; photo via AP
Go back to Wisconsin, where the state legislature approved funding that will divert tax dollars away from social programs despite opposition from 79.2 percent of respondents in the Marquette poll. Wisconsin, thanks to a push from bald spot denier and idiot governor Scott Walker, cut $300 million in funding from the state university system just as plans to fund the Bucks arena were kicking in to high gear. Then it was revealed in July that Jon Hammes, the man Walker tagged as his presidential campaign’s national finance co-chairman before he was eaten alive by Donald Trump in the Republican primary race, is a member of the investor group that owns the Bucks and the lucky owner of downtown land parcels near the Bucks arena building site.
As things stand, these stadiums are not so much publicly built as they are tributes to rich owners and a tiny contingent of fans levied on the backs of citizens and taxpayers. The voices heard in this discussion aren’t the voices of people in rural Wisconsin who have no desire to keep the team in state, nor the many Milwaukee residents advocating for spending on social goods instead of gigantic arenas. Instead they’re the voices of hedge funders, politicians looking to make inroads with campaign donors, and Bucks fans with disposable income to spend on season tickets that win the day, and so it is in so many markets across the country.
It’s cute to pretend these are public projects are efforts undertaken to “revitalize” a city or give it a “bold new beginning.” In reality, the powerless and voiceless of Milwaukee and Wisconsin are being forced to build new playtoys for a bunch of rich investors from out of town. Nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more than just some populist rage to change things, because right now, leagues own the law and politics, which means that until things change, they own us.
Jack Moore is a freelance sportswriter based in Minneapolis, MN investigating the history and mythologies of sports. His work can be seen regularly at VICE Sports, The Guardian, and The Hardball Times. Top photo via AP