Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal-Times reports that significant interest has been shown in the franchise since Kohl announced in December that he was formally pursuing new investors, with some of that interest coming from groups committed to keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee long term. The latter would be a serious dose of good news for what promises to be a long road to building a new area, and it could lead to big changes sooner rather than later:
There was a perception then Kohl would remain the Bucks majority owner and the sale process could take up to a year. Now, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
I’m hearing Kohl will likely give up total control of the franchise, although it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities the new ownership group would smartly retain him in some capacity, perhaps as the team’s "ambassador."
The people I spoke with contend the sale will probably occur sooner than later. In fact, I’ve been told a deal could be consummated by late April or early June.
Woelfel also notes that Kohl has rebuffed at least two groups intent on relocating the franchise, and points out that a quick sale would enable the new ownership team to consider overhauling the front office and coaching staff before the draft in late June. That's well ahead of any timetables that have previously been discussed publicly, which on its own gives Woelfel's story a bit of a "too good to be true"-type feel.
All of this raises far more questions that answers, so let's start from the top:
1) Who might actually be the all-important new owners?
Woelfel doesn't name any potential investors in his report, though one might guess that former Buck-turned-restaurant-franchise-magnate Junior Bridgeman--last seen making the media rounds in Milwaukee before his bobblehead night three weeks ago--would be involved in some capacity. Bridgeman has been somewhat coy on the subject of buying into the Bucks because he's currently a small minority owner of the Kings, but all signs point to him as a prime candidate for involvement. In late February the Journal-Sentinel reported that Bridgeman had expressed interest in investing in the team after first being approached by Kohl, and his entire visit was laced with wink-wink moments alluding to the possibility.
Woelfel previously reported that a group led by former Timberwolves GM David Kahn had also approached Kohl, with Grantland's Zach Lowe echoing that buzz following Kahn's trip to New Orleans for all-star weekend. However, it was never clear if Kahn and his mystery syndicate would have been aiming to move the Bucks or keep them in Milwaukee.
Unfortunately, even if Bridgeman was willing to take the plunge, he presumably can't save the Bucks alone. For one, he isn't a billionaire capable of writing a $450 million check on his own. His fortune has generally been estimated at around half that amount, meaning that he'd need help in order to buy the Bucks outright. That could mean bringing in a consortium of other investors, keeping Kohl on as a large stakeholder, or some combination of the two. Either way, bringing in Bridgeman would be a terrific narrative for the Bucks and the NBA in general: a beloved former player who built a business empire and then helped save the team that retired his jersey? It's storybook stuff.
After two decades of mediocrity under Kohl's stewardship, a clean slate with a new majority owner would of course be the preferred solution for most Bucks fans, but at this point any new blood in the ownership group would be considered a positive. The good news is that if Bridgeman were willing to take the lead, he'd likely be able to find plenty of other interested parties willing to invest smaller sums. Among others, Minnesota Wild owner and Wisconsin native Craig Leipold reportedly looked into forming an ownership group to buy the Bucks in 2003, and though he's expressed reservations about buying the team now due to his hockey commitments, he has suggested he would like to be part of the "the solution" to keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee. Similarly, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio has been coy on any potential involvement, though fellow Brewers investor Harris Turer said Attanasio's involvement would lend credibility to a possible ownership group.
2) So what about a new arena?
Finding a new ownership group would leave just one rather significant hurdle to assuring the Bucks' long-term future in Milwaukee: replacing the aging BMO Harris Bradley Center.
While it's difficult to see how any new ownership group could really commit to Milwaukee without a plan for a new arena in place, the two issues ultimately go hand in hand. Without a new arena, new owners won't be able to keep the team in Milwaukee no matter how much they might like the idea; likewise, the energizing effect and cash infusion brought by new ownership would presumably make the task of securing a new arena more likely.
The key figure in all of this will likely be Kohl, who already saved the team from extinction once 30 years ago. To do it again, he'll have to pony up a huge chunk of his own fortune before even a cent of public funding can be brought into play, and the latter isn't a given no matter what Kohl does. Still, Kohl's legacy is in many ways riding on this, and with so much of his wealth tied up in the franchise value of the Bucks, it makes sense that selling off his beloved team may be the necessary first step to ensuring he has the money to build them a new home.
3) What if a new arena doesn't happen?
This is the doomsday scenario for the Bucks, and there's no guarantee it can be avoided even if a dream team of investors is assembled to take over the franchise. New commissioner Adam Silver looks ready to play the role of the NBA's bad cop if the city and state drag their feet on facilitating a new multi-purpose arena and entertainment complex, and it's difficult to imagine the rest of the league's owners supporting pro basketball in Milwaukee if no new arena plan has been hammered out by the time the Bucks' current lease expires in 2017.
Interestingly, a new ownership group would likely be protected from financial losses either way, which makes it more understandable that Kohl could bring them in before the arena situation has been solved. Personally, I always assumed that Kohl would have to have his ducks in a row on the arena issue before a deal to sell the team could be brokered; after all, wouldn't new owners prefer to let the old ownership group do the political legwork of facilitating a new arena, a la the Brewers and Attanasio?
But buying in early could afford the new investors a hometown discount without significant risk of losing a dime--provided they're willing to grapple with the politics of the arena issue over the coming years (good times!). If they can work with Kohl to make a new arena happen in Milwaukee--with Kohl likely footing a good chunk of the bill--then everyone wins. Revenue sharing has already pushed the Bucks back into the black after years of losses under the old collective bargaining agreement, and a shiny new arena would no doubt further improve the economics of NBA basketball in Milwaukee. Wisconsin keeps its basketball team, the new owners make more money, and Kohl's legacy as public servant and the savior of basketball in Wisconsin would be assured.
But if a new arena doesn't happen (gulp), the new owners could actually stand to make even more money down the road--either by selling to the highest bidder looking to relocate the team or moving the franchise themselves as a last resort. Seattle's desperation for a team is well documented at this point, and Bridgeman himself explored the possibility of bringing a team to his adopted hometown of Louisville as recently as 2012. Oh, and did we mention Louisville already has a new NBA-ready building ready to go? If nothing else it would make for a convenient fallback plan in the event that a deal in Milwaukee breaks down, though there's also zero reason to think Kohl will pinch pennies in order to screw over taxpayers. He has more at stake in this than anyone, and his motivations go way beyond making money through the Bucks. Though he may not have the money to personally fund a new building himself, there's little doubt that he'll bend over backwards to make it happen one way or another.
So make no mistake: the possibility of new ownership coming on board in a matter of months would be big news. It might not guarantee the Bucks' long-term future in Milwaukee on its own, but it'd be a huge leap in the right direction--both on the court and off.