The Problem isn’t the Small Market

Some pundits and residents of Southeastern Wisconsin have recently suggested that the Bucks lack of success is due to their small market status.  Even certain members of the Bucks front office have parroted this line.  By most measurements, the Milwaukee market is in the bottom five in the NBA in terms of size (population, TV market, etc).  Further, these critics will argue that there is no point in building a new arena because the Bucks have now proven that an NBA team is not able to succeed in this marketplace.  We strongly disagree with that belief and have two local examples to rebut the argument.

Green Bay – The “Siberia of the NFL”

As we saw with the Green Bay Packers from 1973 to 1991, dysfunctional management practices can doom a franchise to long periods of mediocrity.  While many today don’t remember those terrible Packer teams, the situation was very similar to the current edition of the Milwaukee Bucks. During the decades of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Packers managed to appear in the playoffs only once (1981) and won only one playoff game (1981).  Think about that for a moment Packers fans. Only ONE playoff appearance in TWENTY YEARS!

NFL players didn’t want to be drafted by Green Bay. Packer management blamed the cold weather and small town atmosphere as the reason that they weren’t able to attract good players. However, the poor climate theory was disproven in 1980, when the Packers used the #4 overall draft pick to select Bruce Clark, a defensive lineman from Penn State. After the draft, Clark refused to sign with the Packers, and went on to play in the Canadian Football League, rather than play for Green Bay. The CANADIAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE. We hear it is cold there as well. It wasn’t about the weather or the small market; it was about the state of the franchise.

For those of us who remember that period, it was a mess. Even attendance at vaunted Lambeau Field started to wane. While the tickets were all “sold”, there were thousands of empty seats during many games. Most fans were more excited to watch the replacement players during the 1987 players strike, since that team actually performed better on a winning percentage basis (2-1 record before the strike ended) than the regular Packer club. Local Milwaukee radio personalities Bob Madden and Brian Nelson created a weekly spoof entitled “All My Packers” where they ridiculed the team and its management.  The spots were extremely popular as everyone was in on the joke with how poorly the Packers were run during that period of time.

For readers under the age of 35, we encourage you to listen to one of these Packer parody links. Ironically the narrator of this Packers spoof from two decades ago is none other than current Bucks public address announcer Eric Jensen:

As we all know, the fortunes of the Packers changed drastically when they hired Ron Wolf in November of 1991 and relatively new team President Bob Harlan empowered Wolf with full authority to make all decisions.  Within 15 months of his being hired, Wolf acquired future franchise quarterback Brett Favre, hired Mike Holmgren, and later signed the top free agent of the 1993 class, All-Pro defensive end Reggie White, (a free agent who was also courted by NFL powerhouses including the San Francisco 49’ers and the Dallas Cowboys).  This in an era before the NFL adopted a salary cap no less.

For the past two decades Packer fans have been treated to quite possibly the greatest success story in the NFL. Division titles, Super Bowl victories and a rebuilt Lambeau Field are the result. Fans today just assume the Packers have always been one of the top franchises in the NFL. They forget how bad the Packer organization once was, and the lengthy period of downright terrible football that they played. They were arguably the worst franchise in the NFL during that long stretch. If the Packers didn’t have a unique community ownership structure and the legacy of championship teams led by the legendary Vince Lombardi, it is quite possible the franchise would have been relocated to a larger market in the 1970’s or 1980’s.

The Brewers – Decades in the Wilderness

The Milwaukee Brewers went through a similar drought where they played to an empty County Stadium and an increasingly empty Miller Park.  People forget about the 100-loss season in 2002 and the Brewers own internal worst case projections forecasting 2003 attendance at Miller Park at only 1.3 million.  Businesses that had committed to luxury box suites at Miller Park had a hard time giving tickets away.

Fortunes seemed to change for the Brewers when they hired a good general manager in Doug Melvin and empowered him to remake the farm system.  However, this alone wasn’t enough, as the Brewers fortunes also turned as a result of a new owner in Mark Attanasio, who brought with him a different approach to running the franchise. Finally there have been changes in the baseball collective bargaining agreement which have provided for greater revenue sharing dollars to a small market like Milwaukee. All of this has allowed the Brewers to experience playoff success in recent years, while Miller Park draws annual attendance in the 3 million range, a figure that most Milwaukee residents would have never thought possible in this small a market.

What these examples show is that small market teams in the NFL and MLB can succeed in this marketplace. Further, as we saw from the historical performance metrics, small markets can and do regularly succeed in the NBA. San Antonio has arguably been the most successful team in the league over the past two decades. Even Utah and Indiana are among the league leaders in playoff series wins. Oklahoma City has provided a huge boost for that community with their great success over the past few seasons.

The New NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement – A win for small markets like Milwaukee

In December 2011, the NBA and their players came to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). By all accounts this agreement has and will continue to benefit small markets like Milwaukee.  Revenue sharing dollars are substantially expanded.  Additionally, limits on player contracts and free agency are designed to help level the playing field for teams like the Bucks.  We saw that this past summer when the Bucks were able to sign a reasonably good free agent guard in the form of O.J. Mayo to a three-year contract for a total of $24 million dollars.  In years past, other large market teams would have had more salary cap exceptions and luxury tax breathing room to extend Mayo a larger contract.

Will the Bucks ever be able to attract a free agent as prominent as LeBron James to Milwaukee?  Likely not; however, small market Indiana was able to recently sign their all-star center Roy Hibbert and burgeoning superstar Paul George to long-term contracts.  While the new collective bargaining agreement does not guarantee that small markets will be able to retain their star players, it has implemented many additional safeguards that were not in place in 2010 when the Miami Heat added LeBron James and Chris Bosh to their roster.  Further, revenue sharing to small markets is by most accounts doubled or tripled under the new agreement and has assisted these small markets with many of their payroll concerns.

For Wisconsin residents questioning whether the Bucks can ever be successful in Milwaukee, they only need to look to the examples of the Packers and Brewers.  Small markets can be very successful with good management and modern facilities such as the renovated Lambeau Field and recently constructed Miller Park.

How can this be done?  Read On!

Editors Note: Since this page was published, we made further commentary on local teams that turned it around. This article discusses the timing of events between Marquette men’s basketball reinventing itself under Tom Crean and increased ticket sales.