With Detroit’s athletic director bringing the options for Milwaukee out in the open, the fan base for Milwaukee has two serious options to back with solving the playing facility issue for the Athletic Department.
Option one, which we will not discuss, is staying as a paying tenant with the U.S. Cellular Arena. To give a background, the department pays an annual fee to the Wisconsin Center District as well as a $3 per ticket fee on every ticket the department sells (two dollars to the WCD, one dollar to Ticketmaster for printing). Because we’re talking about the future, and there isn’t one if this major issue persists, we’ll talk about both in a point/counterpoint feature.
OWNING THE CELL vs. BUILDING ON-CAMPUS
Both sides have their pros and cons. There are several things that go into putting on a college basketball game, and each has its advantages. Without further ado, we debate:
1. Access – There’s no way getting around it, the Arena is much easier to get to than Campus. The Arena has I-94 and I-43 exits right next to it, so people from the west and south will have an easier time getting to the Arena. The other benefit of playing at the Arena is that there’s access and traffic flow in every direction – on-ramps to the freeway are right there, streets can take you north into the East Side and Riverwest, south into the Third Ward, and west into Marquette’s awful campus and beyond.
That isn’t to say that Campus isn’t accessible. The big difference is that Campus is a mile in from I-43, and therefore traffic will likely pool along Capitol Drive, Locust and North Avenue. It is easily accessible along the scenic drive to Lincoln Memorial Drive, several streets connect it to downtown, and Oakland and Downer/Lake Drive connect it with the northern suburbs. It’s accessible, just not as accessible as the Arena.
2. Parking – This issue brings two questions. First, how easy is parking for people at each venue? Second, how does the university benefit from each situation?
To answer the first question, the ease is pretty good for fans at the Arena. The surface lot across the street is nice and close, but fills up quickly. There are parking structures to the west (three blocks), north (one block), and south (kitty corner and five blocks south). Depending on where the school would build on-campus, there’s 2,000 parking spots or so, most of which would be available by 5 p.m. when fans start coming into campus.
The second question is more murky. By buying the Arena, do we also purchase the surface lot? We won’t own any of the parking structures. The reason I bring it up is because downtown parking comes at a premium, and the university could make money by selling those spots on off-days as well as making a higher amount on game days. On campus, we know that the university owns the 900 spots at the Hospital campus, the 700 spots in the Klotsche Center, as well as the 1,000-or-so spots in the underground Union and Lubar parking garage and surface lots at Engelmann Stadium and Enderis Hall.
All that money, which could go to the university if they build a stadium on campus, will continue to go into other people’s pockets if the university decides to purchase the Arena downtown. This should be a factor in deciding which route to take; the university will make money with the on-campus parking whether or not there’s an arena, but the money gained from upwards of 3,000 cars parked on campus at premium special event rates 15 times a year is a big deal. Should they charge $10 per car to park on campus and get 2,000 cars per game (not a stretch), that puts $300,000 of income into the university annually, and over time that money builds. Expenses for this would cut it down some, but the fact remains that there is significant money to be made where the university would get none if the Arena were purchased.
3. Outside Experience/Amenities
As of right now, one of the biggest challenges towards building a campus arena is that the campus community really has nothing going on where the university is looking to put the arena. If the arena goes close to the current footprint in the Klotsche Center, any amenities – sports bars, restaurants, retail space – would have to be built by the university to go along with the arena and practice facility.
Should they build the arena elsewhere – for instance, near North Avenue (please make Cambridge Gardens a reality), then the amenities could be there. As it stands, the downtown Arena has a lot of good places to grab a bite before the game and a drink afterward. Major Goolsby’s is chief among them, but there’s so much else that we have to give the edge to downtown (unless the university can figure out a site near North Avenue).
Of course, as with parking the university gains no money from other businesses taking food and drink money from game attendees.
4. Game experience. Now when I say this, I mean the experience of the fan once you walk inside the arena. This includes the atrium, the concessions, the merchandise, and the game itself.
The Arena has a nice atrium, the concessions are lousy but could be changed overnight by the university, and the merchandise sold by the bookstore is only on one wing and is a temporary stand. Renovating the facility can take care of these things, but there is one thing it can’t take care of – the fact that the arena is much to cavernous for the men’s basketball program.
This is a very strong point. Concessions, merchandise, and a permanent Hall of Fame can be added to the current Arena or worked into the plans for a new facility on campus. The seats can all be gutted, switched to black or gold and we can make our banners larger and more prominent. Everything we do, however, would not be able to disguise the fact that the U.S. Cellular Arena’s ceiling is far too high to give us both an intimate basketball experience and a loud, collegiate atmosphere. A new arena on campus can accomplish both of those things because you’re building from scratch.
5. Benefit of University Life. I know that this may sound like a loaded question, destined to go one way, and I acknowledge that. However, it needs to be put out there, because it is very important for the university’s well-being in the future.
It seems to me that this idea of buying the U.S. Cellular Arena from the WCD and making it into more of a home for the Panthers is based on the notion that UWM should be extending its fingers all over the city and making all of Milwaukee its campus. Innovation Park, the School of Public Health, Freshwater Sciences, etc. are all around town, and it could be that this is just another way for the university to be taking its talents to the city at large.
This, to me, is a mistake. If there’s one thing that we can definitely say is a shortcoming of the UWM campus, it is that while it has improved, it still lacks that integral collegiate experience that keeps us from being a “real” university in the traditional sense.
A basketball arena, along with the college game days and the thousands of people that come along with it, would seriously benefit the atmosphere on campus. Businesses like the Gasthaus and union food court would see much higher sales in the hours leading up to games, the students would be far more likely to attend games in the cold winter months than they are currently, and there is no substitute for bringing alumni back to campus on a consistent basis.
Downtown, the university can renovate the Arena to be much better than what it is currently. But it will never be perfect, and it will never have the college atmosphere night in and night out that you’d find at an on-campus facility.