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Bye Bye, Bradley Center: Part II

1988, the year Die Hard was released, the “Showtime” Lakers won their last title, and the Bradley Center opened its doors.

The 2017-18 season will be the last that the Bucks call the BMO Harris Bradley Center home. This offseason we will be chronicling the nearly 30 year history of the Bradley Center before it leaves Milwaukee’s downtown for good.

The first part of our series focused on the Milwaukee Bucks’ future home, the Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center, but now we turn our attention to the BMO Harris Bradley Center, specifically as to how and why the arena was built.

Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

For the first 20 years of the franchise’s existence, the Bucks played their home games at the Milwaukee Exposition, Convention Center and Arena (aka The MECCA, now called UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena). With a total basketball capacity at a paltry 10,783 it was the smallest arena in the NBA. New owner and future United States Senator, Herb Kohl, bought the Bucks in 1985 for $18 million to make sure the team stayed in Milwaukee and get a new arena built. Kohl’s biggest fear was that the team would be purchased by out of town investors and the Bucks would move to another city (sounds familiar). The city was not too bullish on helping finance a brand new downtown stadium however.

Kohl’s news conference after purchasing the Bucks in 1985

Enter Lloyd Pettit and Jane Bradley-Pettit. Lloyd grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood and his wife, Milwaukee-lifer Jane, was the benefactor to her father, Harry Bradley’s, charity foundation. Lloyd had spent time as the play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Blackhawks and wanted an NHL franchise to come to Milwaukee. In 1985, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which Jane was in charge of, sold the Allen-Bradley company to Rockwell International. The sale increased the Foundation’s assets from $14 million to $290 million; Jane and Lloyd used the increased assets to fund the total cost of the Bradley Center ($91 million) to try and attract an expansion NHL franchise.

The NHL had no interest in mating with a city that is a little too close to an Original Six market in the Blackhawks, while also having the Bucks, Milwaukee Admirals, Milwaukee Brewers, and by default the Green Bay Packers. The NHL expanded southward and into Canada in the early 1990s. That expansion cycle opened up new markets (Anaheim, Miami, San Jose, Tampa Bay) and rekindled a former (Ottawa). Lloyd was never able to bring an NHL franchise to the city and continued his ownership of the Admirals. This left the Bucks as the sole major sports franchise that called the Bradley Center home.

Coming Straight From The Underground

Construction on the Bradley Center began in October of 1986, but not without some friction from the businesses that once occupied the Bradley Center’s corner. Those businesses felt they were short changed on the total land payout. The Milwaukee Rescue Mission, an organization that helps homeless people and families get back on their feet, sued the city and was awarded an additional $1.7 million for the value of their property. After a lengthy legal battle, The Journal Co. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel owners) was awarded an extra $2.08 million from the city for a parking lot they owned. It has been smooth sailing for the city since, however, according to a 2012 economic impact study, the Bradley Center had a gross economic impact of $204 million with almost 2,500 jobs supported by the arena. Not too shabby of a result for the city considering the Bradley Center was essentially a donation.

The Bradley Center 14 months before opening

Two years after the steel and concrete emerged from the giant hole at State & 4th, the Bradley Center was open for business. The finished product of HOK Sport Venue Event (now known as Populous) hosted its first event on October 1st, 1988 where patrons witnessed Pettit’s former employer, the Blackhawks, face off against the reigning Stanley Cup champion, Edmonton Oilers, in an exhibition game. For one night Pettit’s vision for what the Bradley Center should have become was realized; a month later the Bucks opened up their tenure at the arena with a 107-94 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Despite the opening night loss, the Bucks have a Bradley Center record of 646-523 (.552 winning percentage). The team finished top-10 in the league for attendance in 4 of the first 5 seasons at the Bradley Center. The 700,984 total attendance reached during the arena’s first campaign remains the high water mark for the Bradley Center. If there was ever a season where the team would return to even the top half of the NBA in attendance and snap that 13 season drought, this upcoming season feels like the one. The perfect storm of an Eastern Conference dark horse combining with a nostalgia fueled season where the Bucks celebrate their 50th Anniversary and say good-bye to their home for the majority of those 50 years is certain to get the turnstiles whirling more than in years past.