Brewers president of business operations discusses expensive reality of ballpark upgrades

Future projects at Am Fam Field likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars

Rick Schlesinger, president of business operations for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Last updated on June 28th, 2022 at 04:13 pm

The Milwaukee Brewers have been in the news lately, not just because they are only one game out of first place in the NL Central division. Much of the chatter surrounds the future of their home, 21-year-old American Family Field. What will it take to keep the ballpark operating in good condition for years to come, and who will foot the bill?

Rick Schlesinger, president of business operations for the Brewers, addressed those questions, among others, at the Milwaukee Press Club’s Newsmaker Luncheon this week.

The team is awaiting the results of a study on American Family Field by Brentwood, Tennessee-based Venue Solutions Group. Expected for release sometime this summer, the report will detail the future improvements needed at the stadium and the estimated cost of those projects. The Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District has $87 million in a reserve fund for future projects, but Schlesinger confirmed Tuesday that the total project cost will exceed that amount.

“There’s going to be a funding shortfall,” he said, speaking to a panel of local reporters. “I don’t think, when you’re talking about ballparks and what’s required in 18 years, that it’s necessarily going to be small number.” 

One point he continued to hammer home was the Brewers do not want to bring back the controversial five-county sales tax to close the gap between the district’s $87 million reserve funding and the actual cost of maintaining the stadium. That tax, instituted from 1996 to 2020, collected about $605 million to pay for the stadium’s construction and operations.

Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Daykin, who was on the press club panel Tuesday, previously reported that the Brewers will likely seek an estimated $100 million public financing for the stadium’s future necessary upgrades. In questioning Schlesinger, Daykin said he’s heard a more accurate estimate would likely be somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars and asked if that higher projection had any merit, but Schlesinger did not directly confirm or deny.

Asked to detail what parts of American Family Field will likely need the most attention, Schlesinger mentioned the retractable roof as one of the most costly features of the stadium but said no major renovations or replacement will be needed.

“The roof is the signature component of the ballpark,” he said. “It’s been well maintained, independent engineers evaluate the roof annually. The district has done a fantastic job maintaining it. … We’re looking at the same type of maintenance we’ve been doing since day one.” 

The study will highlight eight to nine categories of expenses that the district is obligated to cover over the next 18 years, including exterior architecture, vertical transportation, security and technology relating to scoreboards and security hardware. “It’s not going to be an inexpensive proposition,” Schlesinger said, adding that the “good news here is that we don’t have to replace American Family Field.” 

He also reiterated that these future improvements are necessary not only to maintain the structure itself, but also to keep the Brewers in Milwaukee long-term, keep the team competitive on the field, and to keep driving economic activity to the region and state.

Schlesinger pointed to similar planned or ongoing infrastructure investments at other major baseball stadiums across the U.S., such as $435 million at Progressive Field in Cleveland and $600 million at Camden Yards in Baltimore, as part of the Orioles lease extension.

On development as a possible solution

Asked about a Milwaukee County Board supervisor’s recent push to consider developing a surrounding entertainment district as a solution to help pay for stadium upgrades, Schlesinger said all ideas and input are welcome.

“I want people to start thinking creatively about ways to address the situation because again, we are not bringing the five-county tax back, but if there’s a funding shortfall – and there will be – what are we going to do to meet that funding shortfall?” he said. “There are a lot of creative solutions that require an examination of everything, including real estate.”

However, the idea of creating a mixed-use entertainment district on 82 acres of surface parking lots east of the stadium may not be the best way forward for the Brewers. Schlesinger noted the nuances of creating a successful real estate development, saying it would have to be the right fit for the specific site and surrounding area.

“It has to make sense within the neighborhood, it has to make sense economically for us or for whoever is going to be developing the real estate,” he said. “The world is littered with grandiose projections of the value of real estate developments only to have them come crashing down. We don’t want that.”

On possible changes to the Stadium Freeway

The proposed resolution from 15th District Supervisor Peter Burgelis also calls for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to study the possible “dismantlement” of the Stadium Freeway (Wisconsin Highway 175) south of Interstate 94 to West National Avenue, which could restore the street grid and connect it to an entertainment district development.

Schlesinger said he agrees that that stretch of Highway 175, which runs adjacent to American Family Field, needs to be fixed and upgraded. He brought up concerns over traffic accidents caused by the abrupt transition in speed limit from the freeway to Brewers Boulevard and the West National Avenue intersection, saying he’s “interested in and would support a complete examination of what we could do south of 175,” including “lowering the speed limit and making it more of an appropriate road for what it will become.” And if there’s also a way to better connect the strip with the stadium’s adjacent parking lots, Schlesinger said he’s all for it.

On lagging group ticket sales post pandemic

Schlesinger also provided an update on how the franchise is financially recovering in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and two seasons of no fans or limited fan capacity. While fan capacity has been back at 100% since the start of the 2022 season and individual ticket sales are steady, the team’s group sales business continues to lag behind pre-COVID levels.

In a normal year, group business would account for about 600,000 tickets sold. This year, it’ll be about 400,000. The 200,000-ticket gap is “not a small number,” said Schlesinger, but it isn’t surprising given the shift to hybrid work at many area companies.

“A lot of employers are still having their employees work remotely so they’re doing less employee events and outings. A lot of schools, that bring in groups in April and May and then in September when school is back in session, for understandable reasons have not done extracurricular activities with their students,” he said.

Another unforeseen factor is inflation. Rising costs of labor and fuel have deterred large groups from chartering busses to and from games.

All told, the Brewers will sell an estimated 2.5 million to 2.6 million tickets this season. Ticket sales make up the lion share of the franchise’s revenue, and for the smallest market in baseball, TV and media revenue is limited.

“We have to make up for that shortfall (in broadcast revenues compared to larger MLB markets) with admission revenues, so that means we’ve got to draw a lot of fans to the ballpark and I’ve got to do that intelligently,” said Schlesinger. “I can’t overprice my tickets; I have to be sensitive to price; I’ve got to provide a great product on the field; I’ve got to have a great, wonderful environment for people to come even if the Brewers don’t win every home game. … The team’s success on the field is integral to attendance.”

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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