Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:27 pm
Admirals could go out of business if new owner isn’t found soon
By Andrew Weiland, of SBT
While controversy swirls around the future of the Milwaukee Brewers across town, the Milwaukee Admirals are facing a crisis of their own that could result in the team going out of business unless a new owner is found soon.
The minor league hockey team, which began play in 1970, is for sale. Philanthropist Jane Bradley Pettit owned the team from 1976 until she died in 2001. Now the team is owned by a trust, established by Bradley Pettit. Her former husband, Lloyd Pettit, a renowned hockey enthusiast, died Nov. 11.
Bradley Pettit’s trust ownership of the Admirals will end next year, and Francis Croak, governor for the team who is overseeing her trust, said the team could go out of business if a suitable buyer is not found soon.
Croak is talking to potential buyers, both in and out of the Milwaukee area.
"We’ll get through this season," Croak said. "I can’t make any promises about next season."
When asked if he was operating within a time frame in his effort to sell the team, Croak said, "Well, not a specific time frame, but this trust is going to wind up, and when it does, its assets go to a charitable trust, and a charitable trust can’t own the team."
Meanwhile, the Admirals front office is working to improve the business operations of the team, which should make the franchise more attractive to potential buyers, said Phil Wittliff, executive vice president and general manager for the Admirals.
"What we’re desperately trying to do is make this a profitable entity," Wittliff said. "We are making great strides."
The team has worked to reduce expenses, spend its money more prudently and increase revenues, Wittliff said.
The Admirals have never been profitable, Croak said. However, when the team lost money in the past, Bradley Pettit stepped forward to cover the losses, he said.
Bradley Pettit’s heirs, David and Lynde Uihlein, have not expressed any interest in owning the Admirals, Croak said.
Croak approached Craig Leipold, a Racine resident who owns the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League, about taking ownership of the Admirals, but those discussions have ended.
"I’ve had no discussions with him since his organization indicated they didn’t want to continue discussions," Croak said.
Unlike the Brewers, the Admirals carry no debt load. However, declining attendance in recent years has made it more difficult for the Admirals to turn a profit. The team’s average attendance fell from 9,605 per game in 1995-96 to 5,367 last season, even though the Admirals slashed their ticket prices 40% to $12 for every seat at the Bradley Center.
This year, the team increased the ticket price for adults to $15, while dropping the price for youths 14-and-under to $10.
If attendance could return to the levels the Admirals were drawing about five years ago, the team could break even, Croak said. During the 1998-99 season, the Admirals had an average per game attendance of 7,622.
Attendance at Admirals games averaged about 4,000 after the first six games this season. Despite the sparse crowds, Admirals officials are optimistic attendance and revenues will increase later this season.
Last year’s attendance was hurt by a bad home schedule, Wittliff said.
"Our dates are significantly better this year. It projects out to more revenue," he said. "It’s important we play Friday and Saturday nights, especially after Christmas."
Last season, the team played only one Saturday night home game in January, and that turned out to be on the same day of a Green Bay Packers playoff game.
This season, the Admirals have two Saturday night home games and a Saturday afternoon home game in January. The team also plays a Sunday afternoon game and a Friday night game at home in January.
The struggling economy and a competitive market for sports fans has also hurt attendance, Croak said.
Croak said the team gained some financial relief by renegotiating the terms of its lease agreement with the Bradley Center, but he declined to be specific about the modifications.
"The Bradley Center has been very helpful," Croak said.
The team’s decision to give up its independent status and become an affiliate of the Nashville Predators in 1998 was a good business move because it saved money on salary costs, said Brian Manthey, who recently resigned as vice president of communications and radio announcer for the team.
Manthey recently left his Admirals job to become the communications director for the Wisconsin State Senate Democrats in Madison. Manthey said he did not leave because of the Admirals’ uncertain future.
"I’ve looked at trying to get back into the arena of government and politics since the late 90s when I ran for state Senate," he said. "I wanted to get into this kind of work."
Manthey said it was a difficult decision to leave his job with the Admirals after four years.
"I loved being around the team. It’s a terrific organization," he said. "I think there are a lot of great hockey fans in the city of Milwaukee. I’m pretty optimistic they’ll be around for awhile."
However, as an NHL affiliate, the Admirals’ players often leave to move up to the parent team before they can become fan favorites in Milwaukee.
"Players don’t connect with the city as much as they used to with the fans," Manthey said.
Even though the attention of many Milwaukee sports fans is focused on the major league teams such as the Brewers, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Packers, Admirals officials believe there is still a place in the Milwaukee market for minor league hockey.
"It is a challenge to do minor league business in a major league market," Wittliff said. "But we feel confident there is a place for the Admirals. We’re affordable. You don’t have to go to the bank to buy tickets."
Manthey said the Admirals have a well-established niche for hockey fans and sports fans who want to take their families to a professional sporting event
"It’s a great, affordable sports entertainment entity that is very important to have in the city," he said.
Ideally, the Admirals will be sold to a local owner committed to keeping minor league hockey in Milwaukee, team officials said.
"We certainly want the team to stay here in Milwaukee and I’m sure Jane would want that," Wittliff said.
Wittliff has worked for the Admirals for 32 years, including stints as a player and head coach, and does not want to see the team’s tenure in Milwaukee end.
"I remain optimistic the Admirals will continue for a long time to come," Wittliff said."
Nov. 28, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee