A Tale of Four Arenas: Milwaukee’s NBA Venues are All Still Standing, and Very Near to Each Other

Jul. 3, 2017
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A picture of the progress being made on Milwaukee’s under-construction basketball arena (with the nearby Bradley Center and Milwaukee Panther Arena) has recently made the social media rounds, claiming it to be the very rare instance of three NBA facilities (past, present, and future homes of the Milwaukee Bucks) all next door to each other.

It’s an interesting image, one that both illustrates the progression of the Milwaukee Bucks’ home courts and a developing part of downtown Milwaukee. The new arena fills the long-dead area left vacant by the mistake that was the Park East Freeway. The Bradley Center marks the 1980s desire to erase Downtown’s seedy image of dirty bookstores and street walkers. The Panther Arena, better known historically as the MECCA, was a harbinger of Milwaukee’s post-war drive for Big League City status.

But mostly hidden in the image is what makes it, among American sporting venues, a singularly unique snapshot of four former, present and future arenas in the same area. Just to the left of the Bradley Center’s peak is the roof of the Miller High Life Theater (previously known as the Milwaukee Theater and originally known as the Milwaukee Auditorium). Back in 1951, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks of the fledgling National Basketball Association relocated to Milwaukee and became the Hawks. The Hawks played their home games at what is now the Panther Arena, but, due to scheduling conflicts that arose from their last-minute relocation, were forced to play six home games at the Auditorium. The Hawks played their home games full-time at the Arena over the next three seasons before leaving the city for St. Louis.

The Arena was used regularly after the Hawks’ departure as a concert and event venue, and once again become home to NBA basketball in 1968 when the expansion Bucks moved in. The Bucks were a powerhouse at the Arena, which was renamed the Milwaukee Exposition, Convention Center and Arena or MECCA in 1974, making 16 playoff appearances in 20 seasons, including 12 division titles and an NBA title.

But even with regularly filling the MECCA to capacity, the venue’s limited size meant the team continually lingered near the bottom of the league attendance rankings. In late 1986, ground was broken on the Bradley Center, a gift to the city from Lloyd Pettit and Jane Bradley Pettit intended to attract an expansion NHL team to Milwaukee. Named for Bradley Pettit’s father, Harry Lynde Bradley, the arena never managed to draw an NHL team, but did provide the Bucks with one of the finest facilities in the NBA. The team set a franchise attendance record in their first season in the new arena, besting their previous per-game high by over 50 percent. Unfortunately, the Bucks also fell into their first period of extended futility at the Bradley Center, missing the postseason for seven straight seasons between 1991 and 1998 (previously the team had only missed the postseason four times in their history).

By 2013, the Bradley Center had become one of the oldest venues in the NBA. League commissioner Adam Silver gave the franchise an ultimatum to either relocate or build a new facility. The following year, Senator Herb Kohl, who had purchased the team in 1985 to prevent them from leaving the city, sold the Bucks to a pair of New York billionaires with a provision that both Kohl and new ownership group each put up $100 million towards the building a new arena. With a healthy contribution of taxpayer money from the city and state, ground was broken on the facility in June 2016.

The new arena, which is currently known as the Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center, but will soon have an official corporate-branded identity, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2018. 

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