In case you missed it, the New York Times recently unveiled an interesting infographic gauging the relative popularity of various NBA team across the country. It wasn't exactly scientific--the Times used a model based on the relative number of Facebook "Likes" for each team in a given ZIP code (or census division for the Northerners). That introduces a pretty significant selection bias, since only a certain kind of person is actually going on Facebook and "liking" everything that he or she actually likes in real life. Bucks social media man Nick Monroe was quick to point out this factor in response to the following well-reasoned query:
The data set may be skewed, but it aligns quite closely with my personal experience. I've often marveled at the surprising lack of support the Bucks enjoy in the state's capitol. Granted, my own social circles are similarly slanted, spiked with out-of-staters drawn to Madison by the University of Wisconsin. Many of the people I know who are actually from Wisconsin support the Bucks. A much larger portion, however, ignore them altogether, or actively antagonize them.
The apathy is understandable, especially among the population subset the Times' data most represents. The Bucks haven't had a truly compelling season in over 13 years, all while the Packers, Brewers, and Badgers have experienced nearly unprecedented cumulative success. Fandom has gone national, and even global, as online viewing options like NBA League Pass and the constant access provided by social media expand rooting options beyond the airwaves of local television and radio.
Given the tremendous opportunity afforded them by the change in ownership and upcoming high draft pick, this offseason should mark the beginning of the Milwaukee Bucks' image makeover. With all due respect to Herb Kohl--and let's be clear, his role in preserving the Bucks as a Wisconsin institution can't be overstated--the team under his ownership has been reduced to a mere foothill on the overall NBA landscape. Renovating the roster is the first step. Providing a better on-court product will go a long way toward returning the Bucks to relevance. Winning cures all, you know? So the draft, which is sure to dominate any and all Bucks-related discourse over the next month, looks like the most critical event of this offseason, and will almost certainly have the greatest long-term impact. Select a star and the Bucks will be one giant leap closer to competing for a championship. Bag a bust and the rebuilding project could quickly become a quagmire.
There are subtler issues facing the roster as well. After Larry Sanders' nightmare season, his future with the organization is far more hazy than we hoped or expected it would be one year ago. Kohl's reputed insistence on high-character personnel would seem to clash with a bar-brawling young player facing drug-related suspensions, but he's no longer in charge. Getting back on the court and producing will help, but it's worth wondering whether the new regime will tolerate continued missteps by a supposed franchise cornerstone. And what of the other young players? Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like a key player for the Bucks (both on the court and in their marketing portfolio), but players like Brandon Knight and John Henson stand on less solid footing. Will we see a full-blown roster teardown, or mere tinkering?
Those decisions will hinge on the fates of the current management and coaching staff. John Hammond and Larry Drew are the most visible holdovers from last season, and it would hardly be a surprise to see either sent packing when Lasry and Edens start getting their new house in order. Even if you believe the coach and GM have been unfairly saddled with most of the blame, a fresh start holds some psychological value, if nothing else. A clean slate is easy to get behind, and the Bucks are all about hope and potential right now.
Say Hammond and Drew are given the heave-ho, and new blood is brought in. What will the eventual replacements say about the new direction of the franchise? Will an established coach be given a chance to turn around the team, or will it be entrusted to an up-and-coming newbie? To what degree will analytics be emphasized in the search for a new GM? Fans are more plugged-in to the behind-the-scenes workings of their favorite teams than ever before. Data-driven leadership sometimes seems poised to take over the league, much to the chagrin of paranoid ex-players everywhere, but the reality is much less extreme. Sticking with Hammond, swapping in a number-cruncher, turning to an experienced roster builder--whoever ultimately holds the position will be judged on results, but the immediate conversation will be colored by intricacies and style.
There's still so much more. Where will the new arena be located, should a plan ever take shape? Making the team's venue a year-round destination for visitors and locals alike is critical, particularly in a small market like Milwaukee. Will it be the keystone of a downtown pedestrian mall, or land out in the suburbs to attract wealthy commuters? What other attractions might be developed to complement it? What about the logo and uniforms, to which we have discussed updates in recent weeks? There's no guarantee Lasry and Edens will want to completely remake the franchise when Kohl hands them the keys, but they should have every opportunity to do so. This is a pair of professionals who made their fortune with by assessing dynamic financial markets and global trends. They'll surely evaluate every aspect of their acquisition to see where returns can be maximized. Whether that's a simple refreshing of the mascot or sweeping changes in basketball operations, now is the time to start.
The going is sure to be slow. The Milwaukee Bucks are far from true contention in the NBA, with so many young stars leading teams that are sure to be fixtures in the postseason for years to come. But progress can be incremental, and even collecting a few more Facebook "likes" would be a step in the right direction.