In any other year, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee could step back, look at the fan reaction to the move to the Klotsche Center, run their numbers, smell the roses, and make a decision on where to play in the next few months. After all, it was June last year when athletic director Andy Geiger made the decision to move games on campus. So in any other year, there would be time.
In 2013, time is a factor – and a big one. The Missouri Valley Conference and the Atlantic 10 Conference are two leagues reeling from body blows sustained from the Big East sucker punch. The MVC lost Creighton – its big budget, big name, big attendance, Jesuit anchor in Omaha – to the Big East. The A10’s losses are worse, and they’re going to go further than that – Xavier has been the most constant presence for over a decade, and Butler barely knew them – but they’re both on their way to the Big East. Saint Louis and Dayton will follow them next year.
With its midwest presence all but gone, the A10 is likely to go back to its old glory as an east coast anchor – its move to add George Mason is proof of that – so they aren’t really an option for Milwaukee.
The MVC is an option, and it’s the best option. Some may ask, is it prudent? Does it really matter to be in the MVC over the Horizon League? The answer is yes. The unfortunate truth in college basketball is that programs are judged not by regular season championships or by big wins in the regular season, but by their performance in the postseason’s NCAA Tournament. The Missouri Valley has been a constant performer in the tournament – SIU, UNI, Wichita State and Bradley all have picked up recognition with success in the Big Dance – and the conference will continue to be when Creighton leaves.
The Horizon League Champion, post-Butler, can expect a 13-15 seed from here on out. The Selection Committee has shown that they have no respect for schools like Wright State, Cleveland State, Valparaiso and Detroit when it comes to seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Seeding is everything – the difference in victories between 12-seeds and 13-seeds is staggering. The Missouri Valley Conference sends teams to the dance at-large – not winning the conference tournament – and it sends them in seeds that have great shots to win when they get there. The fan bases are bigger, the history is better, and it’s a conference that is insulated from further poaching – there are no schools leaving the MVC. The television deal is significantly better than the Horizon League despite the fact that Horizon television markets are much, much larger – it has a lot to do with the fact that MVC schools own their markets, whereas Horizon schools are living in somebody else’s backyard. Would you rather play the conference title game on Tuesday nights on the ESPN family of networks against the Summit League and OVC, or would you rather play the conference title game on CBS by itself on Selection Sunday?
What we’re essentially talking about here is marketing. College athletics, for better or worse, are the best marketing for a university. FGCU is finding out that success in the Big Dance is a huge boon for applications. Butler received an estimated $600 milliion in free marketing for its 2010 Final Four appearance alone. You can see it at Milwaukee, too – my freshman class in the fall of 2005 was the last that made its decision where to go before the Sweet 16, and that year there were 26,000 students and a 92% selectivity rate. Move a couple years down the road, and Milwaukee had dropped selectivity to 65% and enrollment up beyond 30,000, and this is before Innovation Park, the School of Freshwater Sciences or the School of Public Health. Simply put, basketball puts your school on the map. Look at all the ads this weekend for universities in the Big Dance – that’s in front of a television audience you can’t buy.
With men’s basketball as the only revenue sport on campus – and by extension the only one with the capability of playing in front of millions in a television audience – the university needs to make sure that the team prospers. Making a move to the MVC would be insurance for a team in case it is NCAA Tournament-caliber but loses in its conference tournmament.
The 8-24 season was tough, but teams turn it around all the time. What was far more damaging to our conference expansion resume was the move from an 11,000-seat basketball arena downtown with the best history in the state to a 3,000-seat multi-purpose gym that was built in the 1970’s and even then wasn’t meant to hold a Division I basketball program. We have gone from the home of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson to the home of Olivier de Smedt. If you don’t know who that is, there’s your sign.
Let’s not forget that a move downtown would be in keeping with the university’s moves in expansion. Innovation Park, SFS and SPH are joining Continuing Ed in stretching the footprint of the campus. Isn’t it only fitting that the basketball team, wearing Milwaukee on its chest, embody that own-the-city expansion?
The timing, surprisingly, is perfect. Instead of spending upwards of $60 million building an arena that will only bring us to our peers in the Horizon League, why don’t we spend $5 million and buy 14 years of naming rights to rename the U.S. Cellular Arena the Milwaukee Arena? That’s the original name of the building, where the Bucks and Marquette won championships, where Doctor J ended his career, where the Beatles and the Rolling Stones rocked the crowd. It’s where 44,000 people come each year to see UWM’s graduating class. And seriously, is there any better billboard than this:
The great part about it is that it’s much earlier than an on-campus arena, you set yourself up for membership in the MVC, and you can divert money to my ideas of a $35 million practice facility and the Alumni House as a dorm, with only 49% or smaller percentage coming from the basketball team. That solves our facilities problems for the long-term while jumping our program to the national level.
But it has to be done now. The A10 has already made some moves, and the MVC is most definitely looking to follow. A sense of urgency is required, or else we’re stuck in the Horizon League.
Speaking of the Horizon League, did it occur to anyone that the Commissioner was not at Amanda Braun’s introduction? Come to think of it, he wasn’t at George Koonce’s or Rick Costello’s introductions either. He was there for Andy Geiger’s introduction – after all, he recommended Geiger to Lovell. And Geiger recommended moving to the Klotsche Center, which severely hampered the possibility of Milwaukee leaving the Horizon League for a better conference. I wonder who stands to gain from Milwaukee staying in the Horizon League.
Our fortunes are reversible, but the expiration date is coming quickly. This university can’t afford to wait a month for Amanda Braun to show up, although she most certainly would sign off on a move to the MVC and a move downtown to the Arena, which could be called the Milwaukee Arena as soon as summer 2014, when the Wisconsin Center District’s deal with U.S. Cellular expires. The dirty little secret is that the university only lost about $30,000 last year by playing in the Cell. A full MVC schedule would be a huge boon for attendance, enough that we might actually make money playing downtown.
The best part about this idea is that it’s reversible. If we decide to play games on campus in a new arena or renovated Klotsche in the future, we can still make that move. If we build, we’ll never go back downtown because of the tens of millions poured into a facility that needs men’s basketball as a tenant in perpetuity to justify its existence.
Let’s hope that Chancellor Lovell makes the right call in this situation. The future of the program is at stake today, not tomorrow.