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On a warm, overcast Thursday in late July, downtown Milwaukee was abuzz.
Tens of thousands of people lined the streets – families with children in strollers, teenagers riding skateboards, business professionals on lunch break, elderly couples holding hands – all there to catch a glimpse of a championship parade.
Earlier that week, the Milwaukee Bucks had secured its first NBA title since 1971. That team, led by Kareen Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson under coach Larry Costello, didn’t get a parade, and it took 50 years to finally get another shot.
Bucks players and families, coaches, owners and staff in full celebration mode rode high on a fleet of double-decker buses, parading from the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center to Deer District, where fans gathered like they had each game night during the eight-week postseason run.
The spectacle captured the attention of national media outlets, elevating Deer District to a household name – a symbol of downtown Milwaukee’s renaissance. And what’s more, the influx of activity during the Bucks’ playoff run contributed to an estimated $57.6 million economic impact on the area.
“Seven years ago, we made the investment in the team … and this was the plan,” said Bucks co-owner Wesley Edens, motioning to the sea of fans before him. “From the first minute of the first day, we wanted to bring a championship to this town, and we did it by putting out a plan and following the plan. We hired the best people. … We built the most beautiful arena to play in, and, hell, we already had the best fans.”
What obviously wasn’t etched into the Bucks’ playbook was a global pandemic and the industry-wide financial devastation that followed. Fiserv Forum’s seats were empty for 11 months; workers were put out of work. Once fans were allowed back inside, it was under limited capacity and strict COVID-19 safety measures. Change was constant.
“This was a year of such tremendous adversity that to be able to come out of this with some success, great success, and some positive momentum is just incredible,” said Bucks president Peter Feigin. “That has so much to do with being flexible in times that were so fluid that they changed on an hourly basis.”
Closing out last season at full fan capacity, with a deep playoff run that culminated in an NBA championship, enabled business for the Bucks to recover from the pandemic a year-and-a-half to two years faster than it likely would have otherwise, said Feigin.
The franchise hit the ground running this season, selling out full-season ticket memberships for the first time in team history. The Bucks’ development arm continues to move forward on long-term plans to fill the available land on the 30-acre Deer District site with hotel, office, retail and residential buildings. In September, the development team broke ground for The Trade Milwaukee, a 205-room Marriott International Autograph Collection hotel that will open in early 2023 directly north of Fiserv Forum.
In recognition of this year’s big accomplishments, both on and off the court, the Milwaukee Bucks are the BizTimes Milwaukee Best in Business Corporation of the Year.
Hired in 2014 by the team’s then-new ownership group, Feigin has spent the past seven years as the public face of the organization, preaching its grandeur vision, aspirations and potential to essentially anyone who would listen.
A championship team makes it much easier to spread that message, Feigin said.
“What winning a championship does is it tells the story itself,” he said. “It becomes factual. The audience is factual, and there are hundreds of millions of people watching.”
During the NBA Finals, the Bucks were the “No. 1 digital product in pro sports for two weeks,” said Fegin, and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo secured the No. 2 spot on the NBA’s most popular jersey list. That level of brand awareness allows the Bucks to market the team on an international level and sell sponsorships to more globally based companies.
Internally, it frees up space to explore growth opportunities that lie beyond building the existing core businesses of ticket, retail, parking, and arena food and beverage sales. For example, the Bucks recently expanded its Deer District quick-service concept Cream City Cluckery to a brick-and-mortar restaurant location in Mequon.
Another focus going forward is tackling labor as one of the industry’s most daunting challenges. With hospitality workers in short supply, the Bucks are weighing the role of technology in the fan experience. At least one process – ticketing – has become almost 100% digital, but that’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
“We’re an entertainment and hospitality company, so at the end of the day, we want to provide human engagement and create experiences beyond expectations,” said Feigin, adding the key is finding the balance between human interaction and automation.