The Bradley Center era

BMO Harris Bradley Center

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:12 pm

On an early October evening in 1988, locals and visitors filed into the glass-covered atriums of the Bradley Center. They were about to watch the Chicago Blackhawks take on the Edmonton Oilers in a National Hockey League exhibition game – the first ever event in Milwaukee’s brand new entertainment jewel.

Sarah Zimmerman – then in her early teens – sat in the stands that opening night. During the game, she turned around and found the suite overlooking center court. There, she spotted her grandmother, the late Milwaukee philanthropist Jane Bradley Pettit, gazing out at the arena, beaming.

BMO Harris Bradley Center
Credit Shelly Tabor

“She was very proud of that place,” Zimmerman said. She now sits on the board of the BMO Harris Bradley Center to represent her family and her grandmother’s legacy.

In 1985, Jane and her then-husband, Lloyd Pettit, a former announcer for the Blackhawks, had donated $90 million to build the multi-purpose arena that, throughout the next three decades, would hold more than 5,000 sports, entertainment and charitable events and provide a home court to college and professional sports teams, welcoming through its doors 36 million visitors.

The 2017-’18 season will be the BMO Harris Bradley Center’s 30th and final season. In September 2018, Milwaukee will bid farewell to the Bradley Center, as the $524 million Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center prepares to open its doors. As a physical building, it will no longer stand; but for many – Milwaukee natives and visitors alike – the Bradley Center will live on through memories and the legacy of community-centered giving that Jane Bradley Pettit left behind.

The house that Jane built

Jane Bradley Pettit Credit Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation

Pettit made the gift in 1985 in memory of her late father, Harry Lynde Bradley, who co-founded the Milwaukee-based Allen-Bradley Co. in 1903. Now a subsidiary of Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation Inc., the company had an environment that Pettit wanted to give to her community.

“Her giving was very consistent with the way (Harry Lynde Bradley) cared for his many employees,” Zimmerman said. “He had thousands of employees and they had an incredible corporate culture that included dozens of sports teams, a touring orchestra, a medical center on site, a beautiful cafeteria, job training – it was really exceptional at Allen-Bradley. I think she saw that and, in some sense, wanted to play that role for the broader community.” 

The donation was one out of dozens of philanthropic gestures she made throughout her life – both privately and through the Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation.

These gifts include $20 million to the Lynde & Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School, formerly the Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School, $9 million for the Pettit National Ice Center and upwards of $100,000 to United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County.

“She was very much in tune with the needs of the community, the fact that there was great need, and that there was so much work to do,” Zimmerman said. “She wanted to help in as many ways as she could and you can see that in the breadth of her giving.”

Although Pettit was publicly commended for much of her giving, many of her earlier gifts were given anonymously, Zimmerman said, which was aligned with her humble nature. Pettit preferred not to be publicly recognized, maintaining a quiet but impactful presence during her life.

“She was motivated by a love of Milwaukee, a sense of her family having been grounded here, being nurtured by Milwaukee and wanting to nurture the city in return,” she said.

Keeping the ‘Milwaukee’ in Milwaukee Bucks

In 1984, the Milwaukee Bucks started their 17th season, playing in their home arena, the MECCA.

The Milwaukee Exposition, Convention Center and Arena, built in 1950, was home to the Bucks, Marquette Warriors men’s basketball, Milwaukee Admirals and Milwaukee Wave until the Bradley Center opened just one block to its north.

Known today as the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, it currently houses the Milwaukee Admirals, Milwaukee Wave, Milwaukee Panthers men’s basketball, and Brewcity Bruisers roller derby.

The Bucks’ 1980-1984 seasons brought the team five consecutive division titles and two consecutive conference finals, in ’83 and ’84.

The team had hit its stride, but the franchise was faced with two major problems: owner Jim Fitzgerald planned to sell the Bucks due to declining health, and the MECCA was the smallest arena in the league, no longer meeting NBA standards.

Fans feared that out-of-town investors would buy and relocate the team if the Bucks were not soon purchased and a new arena was not soon built. Luckily, Herb Kohl – the heir to the family-operated Kohl’s department and grocery store business – stepped in. 

Herb Kohl on the day he bought the Milwaukee Bucks in 1985.
Credit Herb Kohl

He had left Kohl’s in 1979 after the company had been purchased and his family’s management contract had expired. With the right amounts of time, money and interest – in the team and in the community – Kohl purchased the Bucks for $18 million in February 1985. Milwaukee celebrated the purchase, but the Bucks still needed a new home.

“How we would get to a new arena was something that was totally unknown,” Kohl said. “But I thought, ‘Well, I’ll buy the team anyhow, we’ll worry about that afterwards, but let’s keep the team in Milwaukee.’ I just had faith that things would turn out well.”

Kohl said he bought the team on a Friday and on the following Monday, representatives of the Pettit family unexpectedly visited his office and told Kohl, much to his surprise, that the Pettits would build a new facility.

Milwaukee was able to keep the Bucks and on October 20, 1986, Bradley Center construction broke ground. When it opened two years later, Kohl’s suite was right next to the Pettits’ suite.

During the Bradley Center’s early years, the Pettits owned the minor league Milwaukee Admirals hockey team. The couple’s dream was to bring a National Hockey League team to Milwaukee to play in the Bradley Center. But in 1990 the Pettits withdrew their bid for an NHL expansion franchise because they felt the $50 million entrance fee was too high and they were concerned it would take years to turn an expansion team into a quality team that would attract fans. In addition, the Pettits would have had to pay an indemnity to the Blackhawks. They said they would seek an existing NHL team to acquire and move to Milwaukee, but that never happened.

So, the Bucks remained the Bradley Center’s only major league tenant. The team went on to make 13 NBA playoff appearances throughout its 29 seasons at the Bradley Center, but only twice advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs.

The Milwaukee Admirals were the Bradley Center’s only hockey tenant from its opening until 2016, when the team returned to its previous home at the Panther Arena.

A lasting impact

The Bradley Center created a necessary new home for Milwaukee’s professional basketball team, but the impact of the Pettits’ gift went far beyond the Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee’s population in 1980, before the Bradley Center was built, was 636,212 – a 14 percent decrease from its peak population in 1960. Milwaukee’s white flight of the late 1960s drained the city’s population and as a result, its economy suffered.

Bucks fans during the team’s win over Golden State in 2015.
Credit Milwaukee Bucks

The 1980s are seen as a turning point for the city, especially for downtown Milwaukee as a center of commerce. And it is no coincidence that the upturn occurred during the time the Bradley Center was built.

In 2012, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce released a study on the Bradley Center’s economic impact on the Milwaukee area. The study estimated that the Bradley Center generates $95.8 million per year in direct revenue. A large portion of that revenue is annually re-spent in the local economy, increasing the Bradley Center’s total economic impact on the region.

According to the study, the total gross dollar impact generated by the Bradley Center is $204.5 million. Not to mention its support of 2,350 jobs, generating $73.1 million in annual payroll.

Steve Costello, president and chief executive officer of Bradley Center Sports and Entertainment Corp., moved to Milwaukee from New York just in time to watch its community impact unfold. He has worked for the Bradley Center since it was halfway constructed in 1987.

“Jane recognized that the community was in a tough situation and there was no clear path forward,” Costello said. “The gift had an impact on the community, and still does, in the sense that we can do great things and one person or a small group of people can change the nature and the wellbeing of a community. It was a gesture that was part of a continuum that led to the things that have happened since.”

The Bradley Center’s surrounding businesses, like the bars and restaurants on North Old World Third and North Water streets, especially appreciate the foot traffic of a Bradley Center game or concert night. Milwaukee’s famous Mader’s Restaurant, located on North Old World Third Street just east of the arena, remodeled its bar area in 1988 specifically because of the Bradley Center’s opening, increasing from six bar stools to 30. 

“That turned out to be a great decision for us over the years,” said Dan Hazard, general manager of Mader’s. “Each event at the Bradley Center has an economic impact on all of us on this street.”

Hazard said big name concerts at the Bradley Center can bring 300 to 400 patrons into the restaurant in one night. That number is about 100 less for Bucks games, but that can vary by opponent. The Chicago Bulls bring in the largest crowd every time the team is in town, he said.

The give and take relationship between Milwaukee and the Bradley Center is mutual. Costello said he credits Milwaukee’s business community with keeping the arena flourishing for the past 30 years.

“Whenever we’ve shared our situation and, at times, asked if there was some support that might be available, I can’t remember a time that an organization said no,” Costello said. “We’ve got a great community that recognizes the value in (the Bradley Center).”

As the Bradley Center aged and the need for a new arena became apparent, it required financial support.   

BMO Harris Bank purchased the Bradley Center’s naming rights in 2012, becoming its main sponsor and renaming it the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The deal provided the additional revenue needed to maintain the facility until replacement plans were set.

That sponsorship closely followed the bank’s 2011 acquisition of Milwaukee-based M&I Bank parent Marshall & Ilsley Corp. 

“BMO tries to play a significant role in the communities that we serve,” said Jud Snyder, BMO’s senior executive for southeast Wisconsin. “For us, (the naming rights deal) was a great way to give back to community, get brand recognition and continue the service to Milwaukee that M&I had been a part of.”

The bank had already been part of a group of various local businesses – deemed the Champions of the Community – that had partnered with the Bradley Center to extend its life. By purchasing the naming rights, BMO Harris took the lead role in the sponsorship effort.

Rockwell Automation Inc., Kohl’s Corp., Johnson Controls International plc and MillerCoors LLC are among the 25 businesses that still support the Bradley Center.

Although Milwaukee’s business community saw the importance of the arena throughout its 30 years, Costello said the community also recognized the need and pushed for a new space with the same purpose.

“The community had a very open and vigorous discussion over the years and concluded that places like the BMO Harris Bradley Center are part of the lifeblood of the community,” Costello said. “This is why we have a beautiful new building coming out of the ground that will open in a year.”

A place for the people

A major part of Costello’s job is working with 30 local charities that currently benefit from the Non-Profit Fundraising Program – an initiative that donates the Bradley Center’s food and beverage revenue, made at concession stands, to participating organizations.

Throughout its 30 years, the program has contributed about $15 million – $500,000 per year – to more than 100 local organizations, Costello said. He estimates the Bradley Center gives the same amount of money, or more, each year to the community through direct donations or services – such as hosting Milwaukee Public Schools staff training days.

“That sense of service and that sense of giving back and seeing our role as one to serve the entire community, including non-sports fans, is part of our DNA,” Costello said. 

To honor Pettit during the Bradley Center’s last season, it has selected 16 local organizations – primarily serving Milwaukee’s women, children and families – to benefit from a fundraising campaign that will generate $200,000. The campaign has already raised $40,000 and will commence with a community gala on April 11.

These organizations – the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Library, Next Door and Sojourner Family Peace Center among them – were selected with Pettit’s family and foundation, and represent causes that Jane supported during her life.

“(Jane) cared about the safety of women and girls in our community,” said Carmen Pitre, president and chief executive officer of Sojourner Family Peace Center. “We were a long-term charity of hers before she died and we get sustaining support from Jane’s foundation. There are donors who stand at the core of what you are and the work you do in the community, and that’s so vital to nonprofits. Jane was one of those donors for us.”

Pitre said Sojourner has, in the past, also benefitted from the Bradley Center’s Non-Profit Fundraising Program, although the organization did not participate directly.

As a community leader, Pitre believes the arena is a source of community building.

“It isn’t that Jane just built a center, she gave a gift where people could have experiences, over and over and over again, of joy and connection with other people,” she said. “That is an amazing gift way beyond a building.”

Milwaukee has encountered major challenges, such as racial segregation and economic disparity, which is why, Costello said, the city needs a place that unites its people.

“We face so many different things that are complicated and entrenched and seemingly impossible to solve, but bringing people together to share a common interest with family, friends, neighbors or strangers makes you feel like you are part of something. That’s all part of this sense of community that Jane’s gift brought.”

Home court advantage

Those common interests, for many people who have entered the Bradley Center in its 30 years, have been Milwaukee’s sports teams.

“I think most people understand that when a local team is doing well, it lifts everyone’s spirit, everyone’s hope,” said John Steinmiller, executive vice president of operations for the Milwaukee Bucks. “We forget about the day-to-day problems that everyone has and really celebrate and enjoy watching a playoff game or winning streak. Whatever it is, it is very good for the community.”

During the Bucks best year at the Bradley Center, the 2000-01 season, the team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost to the Philadelphia 76ers, coming just one win short of the NBA Finals. The Bucks won seven playoff games at the Bradley Center during that run. Steinmiller said he has fond memories of the Bradley Center victory in the seventh game of the conference semifinals series against Charlotte that advanced the Bucks to the conference finals. Fans celebrated in the streets outside the Bradley Center for two hours following the game, he said.

Dwyane Wade surrounded by students who stormed the court after Marquette clinched the 2003 Conference USA title.
Credit Marquette University

Marquette University’s men’s basketball team has played its home games at the Bradley Center since it opened. Over its 29 seasons at the Bradley Center, the team has made 15 NCAA tournament appearances, advancing to the tournament’s Final Four in 2003.

“When you are playing in an NBA arena, it really adds to the feel around your program,” said Bill Scholl, Marquette’s athletic director. “It’s important to recruits, it’s important to student athletes and I think the building has played a huge role in the evolution of Marquette basketball over the last 30 years.”

With a college basketball game capacity of 18,850, filling the stands for games hasn’t always been easy for Marquette.

“We worked so hard to make (the Bradley Center) an exciting place,” said former Marquette men’s basketball coach Tom Crean. “It had great acoustics but it was a large building, so filling it required effort and creativity. However, when it was filled, the energy was second to none.”

Heading the Golden Eagles from 1999 to 2008, Crean coached the team to its 2003 Final Four appearance, led on the court by Dwyane Wade, Travis Diener and Robert Jackson.

Crean said the Bradley Center was also vital to the fundraising efforts for the Al McGuire Center, the team’s practice facility on Marquette’s campus that opened in 2004. The university hosted key donors in the Bradley Center’s suites during games.

“What I loved about the Bradley Center was you felt like you were in a college environment for a college game, a hockey arena for a hockey game, and you certainly felt like you were in a professional sports arena for a Bucks game,” Crean said.   

Sharing the facility with the Bucks and Bradley Center tenants, Crean said he and his team learned a lot about effective partnerships. They all had the goal of making the Bradley Center the best venue possible.

The next chapter

In 2013, the Bradley Center’s life had come full circle. Just like the MECCA in 1980, the Bradley Center was determined to be below modern NBA standards. The Bucks were given three years by league officials to build a new arena or the team would have to relocate.

The Bradley Center’s size, its outdated, inadequately-sized locker room spaces and the limited food and beverage services were among its shortcomings as the NBA evolved. 

Herb Kohl sold the Bucks in 2014 to a group led by Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, hedge fund managers from New York City, with the requirement of keeping the team in Milwaukee. The deal included $100 million from Kohl to help pay for construction of a new arena.

The Bucks signed a lease to play in the new arena for 30 years and Kohl said he wouldn’t be surprised if the end of that lease marked the end of yet another entertainment arena.

“Buildings have a life, too,” Kohl said. “Many of the buildings that were built during the Bradley Center’s time period had about a 25 to 30 year life and then they need to be replaced. Buildings don’t last forever; things change.”

The Bradley Center’s final season will brings to Milwaukee several noteworthy events including Cirque du Soleil, Katy Perry, Guns N’ Roses, Lorde and Disney on Ice. Marquette men’s basketball will open its season on Nov. 10 and the Milwaukee Bucks played their home opener on Oct. 20.

The Bradley Center will officially close its doors in July after it hosts its last event, for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.’s annual meeting in Milwaukee.

“It’s a special time for Milwaukee,” Costello said. “We all look forward to the next chapter, we look forward to passing the torch to the next generation of community leaders, givers, philanthropists, and sports and entertainment leaders in our community. We want to do our best to end on a high note and in the spirit of Mrs. Pettit and what this gift has meant to the community.” 

Notable Numbers:

Average Number of events per year: 160

Number of escalators: 16

Year opened: 1988

Total square feet: 550,000

Basketball seating capacity: 18,600

Concerts and special events seating capacity: 20,000

Total construction cost: $90 million

Average Foot traffic per year: 1.2 million people

Also check out:

Greatest sports moments in Bradley Center history

Noteworthy Bradley Center concerts

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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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