Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin spent the past three years touring the top sports and entertainment venues around the world. From Premier League soccer club stadiums in Europe to the NBA arenas in Orlando, Brooklyn and Sacramento, he visited a total of 20 venues, and along the way made note of their best features – the most efficient club level people-to-square-foot ratios, the highest quality audiovisual systems, and the best food and beverage vendors among them.
Feigin took these best practices and used them in the creation of a sports and entertainment venue in downtown Milwaukee that, in his eyes, will set a new standard for the industry – on both a national and a global scale.
A little more than two years after breaking ground on the project, the Bucks are prepared to open the doors. A 25-year naming rights sponsorship agreement with Brookfield-based financial technology company Fiserv Inc. recently gave the arena an official title: Fiserv Forum.
The Fiserv Forum will open to the public on Aug. 26 and the $524 million, 714,000-square-foot venue will reflect the newest, most innovative trends in stadium design and amenities – all for the purpose, Feigin says – of elevating the sports and entertainment experience for locals and visitors alike.
“The key for us is going beyond surprise and delight,” he said. “It’s so dramatically different from any experience (people) have had, whether it be in entertainment at theaters, whether it be at other ballparks like Miller Park, or Lambeau (Field) or the Bradley Center… we’ve taken the best practices and some innovation over the last 25 years and applied it to make (Fiserv Forum) incredibly experiential.”
The venue, located at West Juneau and Vel R. Phillips avenues in downtown Milwaukee, will be home to the Bucks and Marquette University men’s basketball, and provide a stage for a wide variety of performers and entertainment acts. The Bucks say it will annually host up to 200 sports and entertainment events, including 80 in just its first four months.
The Fiserv Forum takes the place of the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the former home of the Bucks, Marquette men’s basketball, the Milwaukee Admirals (until 2016), and the city’s major entertainment and community events. Constructed in 1988 with $90 million in private funds donated by late Milwaukee philanthropist Jane Bradley Pettit, the Bradley Center stood for 30 years. But as it aged, the NBA’s demand for revenue increased and in 2013, the NBA deemed the venue below its standards, citing its size, inadequate locker room spaces, and limited amenities and food and beverage services.
The NBA gave the Bucks three years to break ground on a new arena, or the league would have taken action to force the team to relocate.
After purchasing the team in 2014, current majority owners Marc Lasry, Wesley Edens, and Jamie Dinan provided $274 million – including $100 million from former Bucks owner Herb Kohl – for the $524 million arena project.
Feigin, who was hired shortly after, led the effort in 2015 to attain the remaining $250 million in public funds for the project. The state Legislature approved a deal, signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker, to allocate the public funds for the arena from the Wisconsin Center District, the state, Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee. That allowed the Bucks to start construction in June the following year.[gallery type="slideshow" size="full" ids="447686,447687,447688,447689,447690,447691,447692"]
The Bradley Center, which will be razed starting in mid-September, served its purpose and remained physically stable for the past 30 years, Feigin said, but the new arena represents the evolution of the sports and entertainment industry from one generation to the next.
From the 4,000-square-foot custom-designed center-hung scoreboard, to the 17 fully-equipped industrial kitchens, Feigin says the Fiserv Forum is the epitome of entertainment innovation. Even its antenna system, which will provide free high-speed Wi-Fi throughout the building, is second-to-none, he said.
The $10 million scoreboard is twice the size of the scoreboard in the BMO Harris Bradley Center, and is the 10th largest in the NBA. The largest scoreboard in the NBA is 6,100 square feet and is hung in the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center, the next-most recently built NBA arena, which opened in 2016.
From a structural standpoint, the new arena – both its interior and its exterior – couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. But aside from the obvious differences in exterior appearance, the most noticeable contrast between the two buildings may be the interior layout.
Unlike the Bradley Center’s enclosed concourses with tunnel-like hallways leading out to each seating section, the new arena features an open-concourse concept, offering views of the bowl and the court from anywhere in the building, not exclusively from the seats.
Transparency and accessibility are defining characteristic of the Fiserv Forum, which Feigin said are what the Bucks envision for visitors. With the exception of two premium club spaces and 34 luxury suites and theater boxes, all areas of the arena are open to the general public.
“If you can optically see a destination in this arena, you can get to it,” Feigin said. “That sounds crazy, but that’s unlike any other arena in the world. You are usually blocked off and without access to different areas, different sections and different concourses. Here, there is the ability to have an unbelievable seat, but also a really cool adventure walking around.”
That includes the top-floor Panorama Club, a bar and lounge area featuring an outdoor balcony, a bird’s eye view of the floor and, on the opposite side, a panoramic view of Milwaukee’s skyline.
For fans who prefer to watch the game from their seats, they should expect to feel, as Feigin puts it, “cozy.” With a seating capacity of 17,500 for basketball games and 18,000 for concerts, the Fiserv Forum will seat slightly fewer people than the Bradley Center, which had a seating capacity of 18,717 for Bucks games.
The new arena’s 10,000-seat lower bowl is designed to enhance the acoustics throughout the building and creates an up-close environment that is ideal for concerts and basketball games, Feigin said. By comparison, the majority of the Bradley Center’s seats were in the upper level, because its design was intended more for hockey.
The new arena’s basketball-centric seating configuration will bring more fans closer to the court, which could provide a better home-court advantage for the Bucks and Marquette. Marquette’s student section will now be split in two, occupying the lower seating tiers behind each basket, unlike at the Bradley Center where it was only on one end and put some students in the upper deck. Now, all of the students will be in the lower bowl. The new setup will bring students closer to the action, and will likely bring more fans to the game, said Bill Scholl, director of intercollegiate athletics for the university.
“I think it will make (students) feel much more involved in the game, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “I think it will only encourage them to come to more games and to be vocal and to cheer in the right way for Marquette. The new arrangement will be a huge advantage for our students.”
From a recruitment standpoint, the arena will be a major selling point for the university’s athletic program as it works to attract student athletes from around the country, Scholl said.
The experiential aspects of attending a basketball game – camaraderie, feeling involved, cheering for the home team – are part of what the Bucks had in mind when designing the building, Scholl said.
But as consumer tastes and expectations have evolved, food and beverage has also become a major part of the sports and entertainment experience.
“When people go out, they go out to have an experience, and food and beverage are some of those memorable pieces in that experience,” said the arena’s senior executive chef Kenneth Hardiman. He works for Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, which is the food and beverage provider for the arena.
With its new MKE Eats program, Fiserv Forum will feature food offerings from 10 local restaurants, including Sobelman’s Pub & Grill, The Laughing Taco, Iron Grate BBQ, FreshFin Poké and Colectivo Coffee. It will also include national food and beverage brands such as Chick-fil-A, Jack Daniel’s and Casamigos.
“With all the amenities and all the main attractions that we have going into the facility, (the food and beverage program) is just an enhancement, and a focal point, of what the arena offers – quality and detail,” Hardiman said.
Each concept will occupy one of 17 “mini restaurants” throughout the building, each with a fully equipped kitchen, which will ensure made-to-order preparation and fresh food, Hardiman said. Say goodbye to foil-wrapped hot dogs with soggy buns, he said.
Hardiman said the Bucks’ effort to incorporate locally-sourced food and beverage options is partly driven by consumer demand for locality, but it also speaks to the organization’s larger initiative to support local businesses throughout the entire arena project; about 85 percent of the materials used to construct the building are Wisconsin-made, Feigin said.
The process of building a $524 million, 714,000-square-foot arena from start to finish in a little more than three years was no easy feat, but to Feigin, it marks the beginning of the organization’s long-term plans for the city.
“The arena is the centerpiece of a lot more we are doing,” Feigin said. “Our whole vision is really building a neighborhood. And we’ve got this distinct advantage of having this awesome magnet of the world’s newest and greatest arena to put up in the middle of it to really be a catalyst and to spark it.”
Fiserv Forum will be the epicenter of a 30-acre, mixed-use district the Bucks owners plan to develop over 10 years. The first phase of the project, which includes Fiserv Forum, an arena parking structure, the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Science Center (the Bucks’ practice facility) and a public plaza that will host more than 100 events annually, is now complete.
As an organization with fairly new leadership, the Bucks have had to use each milestone of the development project as "proof of product," working to build equity as a business while earning the community’s trust, Feigin said.
And he said once the organization has accomplished that and achieved success, it will look like one thing: people.
“You (normally could) never acquire 30 acres in a downtown area, ever, but we have the opportunity to do that…” Feigin said. “We’re thrilled if more business is brought to Old World Third Street or the convention center. The more density, the more people, the more successful everything is. We will have as much focus inside as we will outside.”
A hub for sports and entertainment in Wisconsin, and the anchor of a major downtown Milwaukee redevelopment project, Fiserv Forum is expected to have a major economic impact on the region.
The Bucks’ effort to bring in local products and partner with local companies, including naming rights sponsor Fiserv, shows the amount of community support that already exists for the arena, said Kristin Settle, director of communications for VISIT Milwaukee. It will also attract more visitors to the city, she said.
“The new arena is going to be a big draw because (the Bucks) are capitalizing on all the uses for the Fiserv Forum: concerts, comedians, sporting events, even the Democratic National Convention, if Milwaukee is fortunate enough to win the bid,” she said. “This is going to have a huge ripple effect throughout southeastern Wisconsin. This is not just about a basketball team, this is about an entire community coming together around this entertainment complex that they have created.”
The Bucks’ redevelopment plans will fill a large gap in the city’s economy and infrastructure, as much of the Park East corridor has seen little to no growth over the past 10 to 15 years, while other areas of downtown have boomed, Settle said.
In addition, Fiserv Forum and its surrounding district will create 1,200 part-time service and hospitality jobs. Arena workers will earn an hourly wage of at least $12.50 thanks to the Milwaukee Area Service & Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH), an initiative launched in February by the Bucks and Milwaukee’s Alliance for Good Jobs. By 2023, the minimum hourly wage will increase to $15.
"Jobs that comprise a disproportionate share of employment and disproportionately employ workers of color include those in food service, hotels, retail, janitorial, and the like," Peter Rickman, executive director of MASH. "Our community must transform these jobs into family-supporting jobs to rectify the racial and economic injustices and inequality that ravage our city."If the initiative's living wages, union rights and first-source hiring could be granted to service and hospitality industry employees throughout Milwaukee, Rickman said, it "could transform these industries, the lives of workers employed in them, and the families and neighborhoods of these workers."
“When you talk about what the legacy of the new arena will be, it is that we have redefined compensation in the hospitality business, certainly in the State of Wisconsin,” Feigin said. “And the way we are going about it is recruiting, retaining and training hospitality workers to be the best. One of our operational goals is to reduce turnover, and paying people more is one of the good ways to do it.”
Settle believes the arena’s impact on job creation will reach far beyond its direct employees.
“The restaurants nearby will either be brand new and will have to hire staff, or will be busier and will have to hire additional staff,” she said. “Additional businesses are going to come out of this new development as Westown continues to grow. It’s not just the people who are going to be working there, it’s the people who are going to benefit because of this new development.”
However, not everyone was pleased when the state and local governments agreed to cover $250 million of the arena project.
The public financing plan, which was signed by Walker in August 2015, was passed by bipartisan votes of 52-34 in the state Assembly and 21-10 in the state Senate. State Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) was one of those who voted against the bill.
“It’s a poor investment when you consider all of the different needs like education and infrastructure,” he said.
Carpenter said other public entities, such as the city’s public safety buildings, Mitchell Park Domes, Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee Public Schools and the convention center, have a greater need for public funding than the expansive arena project did. The taxpayer dollars used for the arena were a “missed opportunity,” he said.
Common Ground Inc., a Milwaukee-based nonprofit, cited similar concerns with the project. If taxpayer money was to be used for an arena, a similar investment should be made in playgrounds and outdoor athletic facilities for children in the city, the group said.
The Bucks and Johnson Controls International plc built a $150,000 multi-sport complex at Browning Elementary School in Milwaukee, which was completed in September, and announced plans to give $600,000 in community programming grants over the next 10 years.
Three years later, Common Ground is no longer actively opposed to the arena, and its efforts are instead focused on the revitalization of the athletic field at Washington High School, located in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, said the group’s lead organizer, Keisha Krumm. Its goal, however, remains a constant.
“It’s part of following through on our fair play campaign,” she said. “If we invest public money in the arena, we want money to also be invested in the outdoor athletic facilities for our kids.”
901 Vel R. Phillips Ave., Milwaukee
Owner: Wisconsin Center District
Master leaseholder: Milwaukee Bucks
Founding Partners: BMO Harris Bank, Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, Johnson Controls International plc, Miller Brewing Co.
Naming rights sponsor: Fiserv Inc.
Events planned per year: 200
Total construction cost: $524 million
Total square footage: 714,000
Basketball seating capacity: 17,500
Concert seating capacity: 18,000
Lower bowl seating capacity: 10,000
Luxury suites: 34
Premium clubs: 3
Public restrooms: 18 men’s; 22 women’s; 14 all-gender
Wellness rooms: 5
» 800 HD TVs
» 9,000 LED light fixtures
» 4,000-square-foot center-hung scoreboard