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Dropping Down a Niche or Two?

The Fairly Detached Observers

Jul. 8, 2009
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Milwaukee may be losing two of its sports fixtures. The Wave, the city’s indoor soccer franchise for 25 years, learned last week that its league has shut down, and the team needs to find new ownership quickly to stay alive in a different league. And the Milwaukee Mile, a home for auto racing since 1903, suspended operations because it can’t pay its bills from NASCAR and the Indy Racing League. New investors must appear soon, but do they exist amid the recession?

Artie: For 40 years we’ve been hearing that soccer is the next big spectator sport in America. Tons of kids began playing it, and that would supposedly create a boom in soccer attendance—”get ‘em young and they’ll be lifelong fans.” Well, it looks like soccer is like ping-pong, chess and Parcheesi: fun to play, but you’re not going to draw a big crowd.

Frank: That seems true of the outdoor pro leagues; the MLS stays afloat at a modest level and women are on their second try at a league. But the “get ‘em young” strategy has worked for the Wave, which markets toward kids and their families. The big problem was the infighting that split indoor soccer into two mini-leagues.

Artie: There were four teams in the Wave’s loop and five in the other. Not likely to stir the fans’ passions, ain’a?

Frank: It’s a good product—reasonable prices, lots of action, the loud music that’s part of every sport these days, fun promotions. But between games I don’t think lots of kids were saying, “Ooh, the Wave has to win in Detroit to get back in second place.”

Artie: Not like the major sports, where part of the excitement is talking about trades and rivalries.

Frank: This is a niche sport, serving a limited market. Just like the Admirals, who provide a very good product for a Milwaukee fan base that’s limited for hockey. The Admirals don’t usually draw more than 5,000 except when they have a post-game concert.

Artie: It is good hockey, just one step below the NHL.

Frank: And for this market that’s a perfect niche. The Pettits built the Bradley Center with the NHL in mind, but the best thing they did was stay at the Triple-A level rather than pay the huge franchise fee the NHL wanted. Milwaukee wouldn’t have sustained a team at NHL prices.

Artie: And we still got the building that kept the Bucks in Milwaukee—although 21 years later it’s allegedly ancient.

Frank: More about that later. There’s another niche sport in Milwaukee this year.

Artie: Darts?

Frank: Arena football. Somehow Milwaukee has not one but two teams, the Bonecrushers and the Iron.

Artie: I thought the Arena Football League took a year off, like the Wave’s league announced.

Frank: Yes, but Milwaukee’s teams are in two lesser arena leagues.

Artie: Not just niche, but minor-league niche?

Frank: Hey, it’s a weekend entertainment option—nonstop action, all that loud music...

Artie: Count me out. It’s like Summerfest; I’d go if it wasn’t for all the loud music.

Frank: It’ll be sad if Milwaukee loses something as family-friendly as the Wave. But folks can still see all sorts of soccer with youth leagues, high schools and UWM and Marquette. There’s an economic impact Downtown, but the Wave played only 10 home games this season.

Artie: By that standard, how big an impact will there be from losing a few weekends of activity at the Milwaukee Mile? A state bailout might save the current operation, but how do you sell that these days?

Frank: I’m not a motorsports guy. I saw one race at the Mile, in 1971, and the cars were just too damn loud.

Artie: I like the racing, but on TV as a backdrop to my light housekeeping on Sundays.

Frank: Still, I can see that it would be sad to end a century-old tradition.

Artie: But it’s not as though the Mile’s a major track. Once again, we’re a niche place on a great lake.

Frank: As Dave Kallmann pointed out in the Journal Sentinel, the NASCAR boom bypassed Milwaukee as lots of places built tracks that seat 100,000 or more. Milwaukee can’t compete with that.

Artie: Maybe the Mile should let people bring their own cars and race. Or cruising! Let teenagers come down to the Mile on summer nights and go roundand-round for a modest entry fee.

Frank: If the Mile dies, gearheads still have big speedways close by in Joliet and Michigan, plus small-oval racing at Slinger and other places.

Artie: Simple economics. There’s only so much money to go around in the sports and entertainment industry, whether you’re talking about leagues, sponsors or fans.

Frank: You can’t have everything. Milwaukee’s a terrific place, but we’re simply not one of the major markets in the country. We have a baseball team because enough politicians supported a tax to build Miller Park—at a time when the economy wasn’t a shambles.

Artie: We still have an NBA team because Herb Kohl bought the Bucks in the ’80s to keep them from moving and refused to sell in 2003 to keep them from moving. But now we’re on notice from the NBA that unless we pony up for a brand-new arena soon, the franchise is doomed.

Frank: David Stern can’t make direct threats in this economy, but in a few years there’ll be a crisis.

Artie: And maybe there’ll be the Las Vegas Bucks!

Frank: Milwaukee used to have a piece of the Packers’ pie, but they pulled out 15 years ago because they couldn’t make enough money here. The local fans have to schlep up north to see their three games a season.

Artie: Milwaukee survived losing its niche in the Packers’ world. So I guess we’ll survive without the Wave and/or the Mile.

Star-Crossed Thoughts

Artie: Hey, next Tuesday is baseball’s Midsummer Classic, the granddaddy of All-Star Games. And one I’ll actually watch.

Frank: I might check in when I think it’s the seventh inning, but I don’t much care. I used to watch the All-Star Game religiously because it was the only chance to see Willie Mays vs. Jim Palmer or whatever. But with interleague play, the lure is gone for me.

Artie: Even with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder on the National League roster?

Frank: ‘Fraid so, although they certainly deserve it.

rtie: Yovani Gallardo and Trevor Hoffman deserved it, too, but didn’t get the nod.

Frank: They’re victims of the rule that every team must be represented. Gallardo lost out to Ted Lilly, the Cubs’ only guy, and Hoffman lost out to the only Red, closer Francisco Cordero.

Artie: In a way I’m glad our pitchers weren’t chosen. Let someone else’s hurlers work on short rest and risk injury!

Frank: I think Ken Macha would agree.

Artie: Back to the game itself. How about the fact that the winning league gets home-field advantage in the World Series?

Frank: The impetus for that was the 2002 game at Miller Park, which ended in an 11-inning tie because no one wanted to play more than an inning or two and they ran out of pitchers. But I don’t think the World Series angle makes a big difference. Most of the top names still don’t play that long, especially since each league now has 33 players.

Artie: But this way is better for deciding the World Series schedule than the old way, which simply alternated between the leagues.

Frank: I’d rather have baseball do what the NBA does—the team with the better record in the regular season gets the odd game. Baseball already does that for the league championship series. Better that than base it on a single, oddly played game.

Artie: At least this system gives some snap to the All-Star Game.

Frank: If the game needs that hook, it’s proof the game has outlived its worth. I’d drop the whole thing, but that’ll never happen.

Artie: Too many commercial interests to satisfy!

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