MILWAUKEE — Bucks owner Herb Kohl was well past retirement age and realized it was time to secure the future of the franchise. He had one big caveat for any potential investors: Keep the team in his hometown of Milwaukee.
And he found a buyer.
The former U.S. senator is banking on New York investment firm executives Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens to follow through after agreeing to sell them the Bucks for about $550 million. The deal is subject to approval by the NBA and its board of governors.
“I wasn’t going to live forever. I’ve approached a time in my life where I have to think about … how do we think about succession,” Kohl, 79, said Wednesday at a news conference in the atrium of the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The deal was announced hours before the team was to play its final game of a dismal season.
The first clue that the Bucks were likely staying in town came before Kohl said a word, when Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Chris Abele took seats on stage. Kohl had been championing the need for a new arena for years.
As efforts to secure investors ramped up in recent months, Kohl said he thought it might be best to sell the team entirely instead of keeping a stake to give the new owners say over new arena construction.
Lasry and Edens committed to providing $100 million to help build a new arena. Kohl also announced he would donate $100 million for a new facility.
“Milwaukee fans deserve a winning team,” Edens said.
Kohl bought the Bucks for $18 million in 1985. Kohl, a Milwaukee native whose family owned a chain of department stores, was hailed as a hometown hero.
Now local and state officials hope the sale will help shift the public discourse for replacing the Bradley Center, the team’s downtown home which opened in 1988.
“We should be shouting from the rooftops because this is a game-changer for this entire debate,” Barrett said.
Edens said he hopes to get a plan for a new arena in a year, and have it built in a couple years. He said he thought about $400 million could be a benchmark for building the facility.
Kohl said the subject of the sale would come up at an NBA meeting this week in New York. In a statement, league commissioner Adam Silver praised Kohl for the “historic and unprecedented” $100 million gift to the city to secure the future of the franchise.
Kohl used investment banker Steve Greenberg, of Allen &Co., which is regularly involved in sales of sports teams, to help look for investors. There were nine bids which we all vetted through Kohl, according to Greenberg.
Lasry and Edens were committed to keeping the team in Milwaukee, Kohl said. Lasry is chairman and chief executive officer of Avenue Capital Group, while Edens is co-founder and a chairman of the board at Fortress Investment Group. Both are based in New York.
Edens said his mother was born and raised in Wisconsin, and that both he and Lasry were big basketball fans.
The goal over the next five to 10 years was to “bring a championship to this city and try to build … and become a part of the community,” Lasry said.
In Madison, Gov. Scott Walker said he was pleased with the deal that will keep the team in Wisconsin, and that he will work with the new ownership team to see how he can help the team “flourish in the state.”
“I think it’s a big deal,” he told reporters when asked about the sale.
The Bucks were an NBA-worst 15-66 entering Wednesday night’s game against the Atlanta Hawks. Milwaukee has already set a franchise record for futility.
The team was beset by injuries from training camp in coach Larry Drew’s first season. Center Larry Sanders and guard O.J. Mayo are among the veterans who have been sidelined for long spurts.
Brandon Knight has emerged as a scoring point guard, while 18-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo had a promising first year after being drafted in the first round last year.
The Bucks will have another high pick in this year’s talent-rich draft. And there is more certainty now for the future since the team’s prospective new owners appear committed to keeping the team in Milwaukee.