Bucks, city gear up for large crowds ahead of NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals

At the same time, concerns raised about issues on Water Street

Thousands of fans gathered at a Deer District Bucks playoffs watch party.
Thousands of fans gathered at the Deer District to watch the Bucks take on the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3 of the NBA Conference Semifinals.

Last updated on June 24th, 2021 at 11:46 pm

Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets was one for the books. Of course there was the Bucks’ nail-biting overtime victory to eliminate the Nets on their home court. And then, there was the fandom.

An estimated 15,000 people descended upon the Deer District in downtown Milwaukee Saturday evening to watch the contest. It was the largest crowd that’s ever gathered on the public plaza outside Fiserv Forum, far outnumbering the sea of fans that packed the area during the Bucks’ 2019 playoff run to the Eastern Conference Finals, said Dustin Godsey, chief marketing officer for the Bucks. 

As the team prepares to take on the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the Conference Finals tonight at Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee, officials expect more fans (in addition to the 16,000-plus who will be in the arena) will want to be part of the action outside the arena in the Deer District. The Bucks are using the former Bradley Center site directly to the south of the arena to accommodate a potential 5,000 additional fans (20,000 total) at upcoming watch parties outside of the arena, said Godsey.

“During Game 7 (of the Conference Semifinals), we did have to close the gates early in the game and not let anybody else on the plaza because we were at capacity, so we wanted to expand it to allow people to not be as crowded in but also allow more fans to come down,” he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, a third large screen was set up on the gravel lot formerly occupied by the Bradley Center, along with tents to sell merchandise and concessions. For fans without tickets to the game, access to the expanded watch party area is now limited to one entrance at the south end of the property, at the corner of West Highland and Vel R. Phillips avenues.

Godsey said having one entrance will allow personnel to closely monitor and accurately track the number of people coming in. He added that security planning around these events is “robust,” and the organization works closely with local law enforcement and medical providers to create a safe place for fans to gather. 

In a statement, Milwaukee Police Department said it will be equipped with additional resources during the playoffs, including but not limited to members of the Motorcycle Unit, Hazardous Devices Unit, K9 Unit and Mounted Patrol.

“MPD shares the excitement that comes with playoff basketball; however, criminal activity will not be tolerated. MPD wishes the Milwaukee Bucks the best of luck as they compete for the championship.”

Asked if the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the recent surge in watch party attendance, Godsey noted that it’s a perfect storm of factors. 

“We really started in 2019 to build this into a destination, but I do think the fact that people have been cooped up for the last year really helps …,” he said. “I think that, and the confluence with this run and great weather — it’s the perfect recipe for building this into something that’s really become the place to be.”

The return of Deer District foot traffic is crucial for surrounding bars and restaurants as they recover from the pandemic. However, the recent surge in nighttime activity has come with what’s been reported as “chaos,” particularly along North Water Street. Last weekend, MPD investigated two shootings and several batteries in the Water Street bar district vicinity, and made multiple arrests. MPD also issued 8 municipal citations and 62 traffic citations, and towed 42 vehicles, according to a news release Monday.

Businesses and residents have called on City of Milwaukee officials to put a stop to the overcrowding and criminal behavior that’s arisen in the past few weekends along Water Street.

On Tuesday during Milwaukee County’s weekly COVID-19 briefing, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett expressed concern over the issue, saying it’s on the city’s “front burner.” The city has taken preventative measures, such as restricting dockless scooter activity, relocating food trucks and closing off streets. In addition to MPD and other local law enforcement, city entities now involved in the effort include the Department of Public Works, the Health Department and the Office of Violence Prevention.

“We know that this is a concern for residents; we know that this is a concern for businesses, and I talked to (acting police chief Jeffrey Norman) as recently as (Monday night) about different thoughts he had about how we can do an even better job this weekend,” said Barrett. 

In a phone call with BizTimes on Wednesday, Jeff Fleming, director of communications, for the mayor’s office, clarified that it’s not Deer District patrons causing the issues on Water Street. Instead, it’s a small group of people, who are younger in age, that gather in the area later at night and are not going to the bars.

“The playoff crowd has not been a problem, according to the police,” he said. “It’s a separate crowd that is not patronizing businesses (and) bringing alcohol that they’re consuming on the street,” he said.

Fleming said the city takes the issue of violence and unruly behavior seriously, no matter what neighborhood is impacted. Thanks to the cooperation of multiple departments, he’s hopeful that the nightlife atmosphere will be calmer going forward.

Beth Weirick, CEO of Milwaukee Downtown BID #21, said it’s important to remember that as the Bucks advance further in the playoffs, the national spotlight shines brighter on Milwaukee.

“We’re calling on all Milwaukeeans to be aware that this is our opportunity to shine and showcase all the great things in the city of Milwaukee, and we’re also calling on leadership to message to fans and youth in our community to be responsible and to make good choices,” she said. “We’re calling on parents to make sure they know where their kids are.”

Another entity involved in efforts to secure the area, the BID has worked with the city to create safety parameters, implemented parking restrictions and additional tow zones, as well as installing signage to remind the public of appropriate behavior.

“We’re asking citizens and visitors: If you’re here to patronize and support our business, please, we’d love to have you. But if you’re there to engage in nuisance behavior, this is no place for you,” said Weirick.

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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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