Ownership Change?


For many of you, this is your first time reading this website. And that’s a good thing, because it means the Milwaukee Bucks have now re-established their prominence in the NBA, and won over thousands of new fans in the State of Wisconsin. 

Ten years ago, I started this site with the help of Australian based Bucks fan, Paul Cousins. It was done out of love for the team, a team that had unfortunately become irrelevant in most circles. After launch of this site in November of 2013, things took off. That’s when Paul Henning joined the team, to be the public spokesman (most of you know him on twitter as @BrewCityPaul). Together, with many of you, we brought needed awareness to the state of the team. Looking back, it has been a wonderful past decade. Everything with the team is in great health, and hopefully on track for another championship run this spring.

That said, today’s news that Marc Lasry is selling his ownership stake to Jimmy Haslam, is creating a great deal of angst for the Bucks social media community. In Star Wars terms, it has brought a disturbance to the Force.  

What is written below is only the opinion of one person, namely mine. That said, my hope is that all Bucks fans and stakeholders in the State of Wisconsin will reflect on it, in an effort to sort out the short and long-term future of the team. There will be agreement and disagreement on this piece, similar to the debate over the trade of a popular player. That said, in the spirit of the original Save Our Bucks, the goal is to provide a framework for public dialogue. 

As with all SOB writings, this is a long-form piece. Stay until the end, where the critical topic of franchise relocation will be addressed. It will be up to our local media to help sort all of this out. 

The Elephant in the Room is not what you think

Sports teams have always been a diversion from the challenges of everyday life. A way for people of all walks of life to unify and bond over a common interest. The wealthy business owner can debate the big game with their employees, a professor and an electrician can high-five as Ron Dayne plows into the endzone, or a Scott Walker can team up with Chris Abele and a key group of Democratic State Senators to get the Fiserv Forum built. 

Unfortunately, as with everything in America in the Trump era, politics has filtered into sports in a much larger way than in the past. The Bucks organization has not been immune to partisan politics. Most of this has been due to the installation of Marc Lasry’s son Alex, when he was named a key executive, with carte blanche on team PR efforts. Over the years Alex has used the team to advance his political causes, with the logical extension being his US Senate run last summer. 

Now for many of you the injection of partisan politics into the team was a feature, and not a bug. The feature now becomes a bug, since Haslam is the brother of former Tennessee GOP Governor Bill Haslam. Both are heirs of the family business, Pilot Flying J, a major operator of gas stations, truck stops and fuel distribution in the US. As one peruses Bucks twitter, a small subset of the angst is due to Haslam and his politics and business practices, versus how he might conduct himself as an owner of the team.

This writer takes the opinion that all billionaires likely broke a few eggs on their way to the top. Using political leanings as your basis for opposing Haslam buying into the team is a slippery slope. Lest we forget, the Bucks three original principal owners (Lasry, Edens, Dinan or as we coined it here “LED”) all come out of the hedge fund industry – a place where a large share of the money is made based on the predicted or encouraged failings of a certain company or industry. Investments that at times prey on the poor, cause family supporting factory jobs to be shed, and business owners to go bankrupt.

People are entitled to see their own differences between LED and Haslam. That said the main difference this scribe sees, is that Wall Streeters are generally much better at cleaning up bloody mess in the car, ala Mr. Wolf in the movie Pulp Fiction, so the public never sees it. Again, none of this is to excuse any alleged behavior by Haslam or his companies.

Mr Wolf.

The point of the discussion above is to make the case to take political discourse out of the sports world as best as we can. Sports at times has been a critical component of advancing racial equity and social justice, and that can’t be discounted. At the same time, your favorite team’s owner donating to Hillary Clinton or Ron DeSantis shouldn’t be a thought in your mind when watching a sporting event. Herb Kohl was a US Senator for the majority of his Bucks ownership tenure. Few cared about his political leanings or Senate floor votes, most of us just wanted him to run an effective NBA team and keep it in Milwaukee. Kohl never used the team as a springboard for his personal politics. Yes, he traded on the fact he saved the Bucks in 1985, but that was about the extent of it. And we were all better for his ability to separate his political life from his Bucks life.

Now let’s move on to the primary issues with Jimmy Haslam as a future owner

What clues do we have on a potential owner’s effectiveness?

Haslam and his wife have been the primary owners of the Cleveland Browns since 2012. In that time, the results on the field have not been good. You can do your own research, but the past decade has been a disappointment for Browns fans. 

Some social media posts point to the Browns controversial trade for, and signing of, QB Deshaun Watson. Again that goes down the slippery slope, as Marc Lasry was the key figure in bringing Jason Kidd onboard in 2014. Kidd as we know has had an interesting past personal life (just Google it). 

For many of us, the primary question is whether or not the team is a success on the court. Yes, we can all wish that our sports heroes are white knights of moral virtue, but the reality is there are many shades of grey (see Brett Favre’s issues in Mississippi). Personally, I have nothing but great memories of being in Lambeau Field with my late father watching Favre’s toughness and brilliance. His current issues are regrettable, but I’m compartmentalizing my thoughts on his personal life, with what he meant to millions of Packer fans over his fifteen years with the club. I will still celebrate his Packers tenure for what he did on the job, and not his personal failings off the field.

Jimmy Haslam

In the case of a team owner, the primary gauge is whether or not the team succeeds on the field. With Haslam the results are not good. The team is 59-118-1 during his tenure  and the front office and coaching positions have been a revolving door. The track record is concerning. 

That said he does appear to have cash, and a lot of it, which could be helpful in the years ahead. The Bucks owners are currently fronting a payroll of over $250 million, including estimated luxury tax payments in the $80 million range. The luxury tax payments alone are running close to what the Brewers entire payroll will be this upcoming season. 

While no one sheds a tear for the financial position of a team owner, Milwaukee is one of the smallest media markets in the NBA. Teams like the Lakers and Golden state are estimated to have perhaps $200-300+ million or more of annual revenue at their disposal than Milwaukee. The current roster is likely causing an operating deficit, one that the owners are funding. Those funds likely never are recouped until the time one, or all of them sell the team. 

There are rumors that Lasry wants out now because he’s at an impasse with the other owners on team strategy, and is not enamored with the concept of personally cash flowing a title contender beyond this summer, when Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez will need new contracts.

But there is a second scenario that might be driving Lasry’s desire to sell – namely to take the profits and move on to a different venture. The value of NBA franchises has ballooned since the Bucks were purchased for $550 million back in 2014. At a reported $3.5 billion dollar valuation for the entire team, Lasry’s sale proceeds will be almost $900 million. That’s an amazing nine-year return, and a hedge fund owner home run.

He may feel there is nothing left to accomplish. He’s been a critical part of a successful ownership group, one that turned the franchise around and won a title. Lasry has done a lot of great things for this franchise for which Bucks fans should be thankful. His showman personality was critical in bringing needed attention to the team and helping get the new arena built. He’s been a regal ambassador to the fans, and a friend and mentor to a number of players. It has been a good decade for Marc and for all of us.

The question Bucks fans are now asking is what happens to his shares upon a sale. 

Bucks Ownership Composition 

Let’s begin this discussion with a primer on Bucks ownership. The team currently has four principal owners, Marc Lasry, Jamie Dinan, Wes Edens and Michael Fascitelli (see photo L-R below, although Giannis is the real franchise owner!). Many of you know LED. Fascitelli is a New York real estate developer, who bought in a larger share of ownership a few years back. This is why you now see four Bucks owners featured at team events. 

A small percentage of the team (1-3%) is owned by a diverse group of Wisconsinites and Aaron Rodgers. These folks were brought in primarily as cover, to help the new owners navigate the local political environment, and get the new arena built. However, the real control lies with the four owners mentioned above. 

When LED bought the team back in 2014, one of the huge benefits of having an diverse ownership group, was the fact that no one personality can run the team into the ground, ala what Washington fans have had to endure with Dan Snyder. That team approach worked well in 2017 when it became clear that front office of John Hammond, Jason Kidd and Justin Zanik was not achieving desired results. The principal owners could not agree on a path forward, and reportedly Wes Edens used his power as team Governor to have Jon Horst hired as a compromise candidate. The results have been fantastic. Had Lasry been the sole or majority owner back then, the team may not have moved on from Jason Kidd. It is impossible to say, one way or the other. 

The big question with Haslam is, what are his long-term intentions?  He’d reportedly be buying a 25% stake in the team, but would that 25% translate into significant influence on operations?  Does he plan on later buying out another Bucks owner, and taking majority control down the road? Would he assume the remaining year left on Lasry’s term as the team’s Governor?

We don’t know those answers but we can look for clues. One such clue might come in the form of his brother, Bill Haslam, who bought into the NHL’s Nashville Predators last fall. Under the terms of his purchase, he will accumulate majority control over the next three years. On the question of Jimmy Haslam’s input into decision making, he’s been a hands-on owner with the Browns. Putting $900 million into the Bucks probably means he’d want a big seat at the table there as well.

Haslam’s long-term intentions are what fans should focus on.

Could the Bucks ever move out of Milwaukee?

The odds of the Bucks being moved out of Milwaukee in the near future are almost zero. The team has strong local support, and the league would frown upon such an action. But things happen in the NBA. Just ask the people in Seattle, Charlotte, Kansas City or San Diego. 

The Nashville metro area has a current population of just under 2 million people, compared to 1.6 million in Milwaukee. Nashville is projected to grow that metro population to 2.6 million by 2035. It has become a national hub of healthcare, finance and entertainment. It is the flagship city in the Haslam brothers home state. Remember, his brother Bill was Tennessee Governor from 2011-2019. It is not a stretch to think that someday Haslam or his family might want to use Bucks ownership as a way to later leverage a move to Nashville. 

After the anticipated NBA expansion to Seattle and Las Vegas, Nashville moves to the front of the list as a desirable city to have a franchise.

But the Bucks can’t move, they have an ironclad deal to stay here, right?  Not exactly. When the new arena finance plan was being negotiated, there was a strong desire by local leaders to have the 30-year lease with the team prohibit relocation. The Bucks ownership held firm and rebuffed that clause. The end result is the team can relocate, as long as the public monies invested in the Fiserv Forum are paid back in full (approximately $250 million). What is unclear, is if the terms of the lease also require the owners to relinquish control of the building back to public.

Nonetheless, with Bucks now valued at $3.5 billion, any ownership group would be able to pay off the arena debt, and still retain a nice profit from their ownership. If the Bucks fanbase has a concern on Haslam ownership, this might be the talking point to emphasize.

Questions our media need to explore

One of the reasons this site succeeded was because local media was failing to cover the big picture with the franchise during the 1990-2013 era. Whether TV, radio or print, few had the confidence or journalistic skills to ask the questions that needed to be asked (and answered). With the Lasry/Haslam impending sale here are some things that journalists might want to focus on:

  • Did Wes Edens make an offer to purchase Lasry’s shares?  Was this rebuffed?  Was Edens offer too low, or did Lasry not want to sell to Edens out of principle?  By many accounts, Edens has been a steady hand in the ownership box, and might be a fantastic majority owner of the team. 
  • What are the ownership percentages of the key owners? With the Suns sale, local radio personality John Gambadoro was able to tweet out the ownership stakes, and which owners sold their interest to Matt Ishbia. After almost a decade, we still don’t have complete clarity as to who owns what percentages here in Milwaukee, and how the ownership governing documents work. This will be important in figuring out if/how Haslam might acquire majority control down the road. It also leads into the discussion of which owner takes the NBA Governor role.
  • What are the exact terms of the Fiserv Forum lease? If the team is moved and the public debt paid off, who then owns the building?  The Bucks owners or the arena district?
  • What was the background of Haslam’s reported discussions to buy the Minnesota Timberwolves? Was he rebuffed by owner Glen Taylor over price, or over a possible Haslam desire to eventually move the team to Nashville?
  • What is the Bucks ability to fund a massive payroll and luxury tax bill, in one of the smaller markets in the NBA. The “repeater” element of the luxury tax will soon be upon us.

These ownership sales questions have arisen at a time when the team is now poised as one of the top favorites to win the title. That said, we won’t really know what the sale means until years down the line. And Haslam could be the key to future titles, if he is willing to help the other owners fund the required payroll to compete with the big markets.

One thing we do know, is that Marc Lasry leaves the franchise in far better shape than when he arrived in May 2014. For that Bucks fans should be grateful.

The even better news is that there are a few hundred thousand of you now very invested in this team and its future. People who weren’t active or of age back in 2013. It will be up to you to continue to support the franchise, and be public advocates for its long-term future in Milwaukee.

For now, let’s cheer on perhaps the most talented team in Bucks history. The playoffs will soon be upon us!

Go Bucks! 


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