Wisconsin's Pro Teams: Braun, Rodgers, Jennings and the Fate of the Bucks
In 1971, the Milwaukee Bucks had megastars Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, two athletes who were well-known nationwide.
At the same time, many of the Packers greats of the Lombardi era had moved on or were in the twilight of their careers.
Meanwhile, 1971 was a time of rebirth for a fledgling baseball franchise in a once-baseball-crazy town. Nobody in the national audience cared about the Brewers, as has been the case for most of its 40 year history until now (the exception being 1981-82).
Why do I raise this historical parallel?
Because today we're experience a rare convergence of legitimate, national stars in all three of Wisconsin's professional sports teams.
As Bucks fans in the Bradley Center last night witnessed Aaron Rodgers take a front-row seat and playfully do his title-belt dance for the crowd, Brandon Jennings scored 33 points and 7 assists. While watching, I realized the Bucks fate as a franchise may rest on whether they can keep Jennings.
This article takes a look at the many ways marketability and performance of Wisconsin's key stars may impact the ability of the Milwaukee Bucks to stay afloat, while the other two franchises are in many ways at the peak of their respective stability.
As the state's biggest city and the nation's smallest professional sports market, Milwaukee is very fortunate to have three local professional sports teams. Perhaps star power will only aid in keeping the 40+ year run going.
Rodgers' Impact Is No. 1
Wisconsin loves sports in general, but the Packers are on a higher level.
If anthropologists from another civilization came to analyze Wisconsinites, we'd be perceived as having a secondary religion devoted to the Packers.
All of Wisconsin is focused on one thing when the football season is in action—making sure they have a spot on a couch or bar stool to watch every play of their beloved Titletown Team.
With that said, the latest, greatest Packer in a storied history is Aaron Rodgers.
Declared the "most marketable NFL star" by Sports Business Daily, Rodgers has already appeared in nationally-viewed advertisements, and he may be at the cusp of his marketability.
Rodgers' #12 is among the most-bought jerseys of all major sports.
While getting the gig in a State Farm ad doesn't guarantee a win in the stat column, it guarantees a win for the franchise's business model. Rodgers' acclaim also gives Wisconsin greater visibility on the national, and even international, markets.
By attending Bucks games, not only is Rodgers a class act supporting fellow Wisconsin-based pro athletes, he's raising the "cool" factor for playing in a maligned city like Milwaukee.
It's not talked about openly by general managers or owners who want you to believe the win-loss column is the only thing that matters, but the reality is, if Los Angeles didn't have Hollywood stars AND a team that moved to their city at the same time, who knows if they'd be synonymous with the glamor of basketball's legends?
As the top Wisconsin star, Rodgers' clout helps boost the airtime and media visibility of the struggling Bucks simply by showing up.
Braun and Rodgers' Chemistry
Before, during, and after the PED allegations that Braun faced, Aaron Rodgers remained a supportive friend for Milwaukee's premier slugger.
It may be a Wisconsin first (and a rare feat for any sports city) to have the nationwide MVP for two sports in the same playing year.
That's no small feat for the tiniest markets imaginable. Green Bay may be a football mecca, but according to recent U.S. census data, the population is only around 104,000.
Can you imagine the current NFL system creating a franchise in Boise, Idaho because its population is double that of Green Bay? Or Little Rock, Arkansas (population 193,000)?
The point is, put Braun and Rodgers' nationally-recognized achievements in perspective.
These are rare talents that have dedicated many years of their lives to the Wisconsin sports community, and they've been repaid handsomely. In Braun's case, over the course of his career, he may have accepted a deal that was far less than his market value in exchange for a lifetime of security here in Milwaukee.
With Braun and Rodgers becoming quick friends, it means even more great things for Wisconsin sports, as the national audience becomes more and more aware of what a fine city Milwaukee is and what fine people Wisconsinites can be.
The fame of these two MVPs and the support they can display for the Bucks can only help retain this NBA franchise, while bringing continuous national, year-long exposure to the three Milwaukee teams.
Investment in the City: Ryan Braun's Restaurant, "Graffito"
I'm not going to pretend a small business enterprise in Milwaukee's Third Ward district will bring life back to the downtown area or hundreds of jobs to Milwaukee.
But what Braun's restaurant venture does show is he is willing to invest in the city that employs him.
Braun has innumerable connections in one of the biggest markets in the United States with his roots in southern California, but he has chosen to make one of his first business ventures in Milwaukee.
It remains to be seen if Graffito can get fans to bite, literally. However, after nearly 300 online reviews in basic online searches, common restaurant goers are giving his restaurant between a three and four star rating (out of five), suggesting his business may end up with more staying power than other businesses who haven't made it in the difficult-to-project, in-transition Third Ward area.
Brandon Jennings: The Baby of the Super Three
It's been well-publicized that Brandon Jennings isn't an all-star...
The 22-year-old emerging star would be a junior in college if he chose that path, and he's already having numerous nights where he simply out-duels much more widely-renowned point guards with no other healthy star to support him.
In comparison, Ryan Braun wasn't even a professional baseball player at Jennings' age, and Aaron Rodgers didn't start until age 25.
Different sports, but you can't speed up maturity, and 22 is a young age to go from Compton to Italy to Milwaukee in a few short years.
I've told friends and family this, and I'll go on record in this article to point out that it's very possible Brandon Jennings could one day be the NBA's MVP. His last remaining obstacle is maintaining consistency and having the pieces around him to compete on the national level.
If Bogut were healthy, the nation would be back in awe of "Fear the Deer." With so much invested in Bogut, however, the franchise remains a struggling-at-best, mediocre team, unable to finish in the fourth quarter.
Bucks fans have been grateful for Jennings' down-to-earth style for a kid coming out of Compton (a place Wisconsinites probably have natural, if not unfair, stereotypes about). Jennings endeared himself to fans with his love of his mom and his decision to buy a Ford Edge, a car most fans could afford themselves in a city that loves those that can identify with hard work and humility.
As Gary D'Amato of the Journal-Sentinel reported in October of 2009:
The kid from Compton, Calif., one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, is living in the working-class bedroom community of St. Francis. Why? It's just a half-mile walk to the Bucks' practice facility at the Cousins Center. And he's got a great view of Lake Michigan.
'I like St. Francis,' says Alice Knox, Jennings' mother. 'It's very, very quiet. It's not like in the city of Los Angeles, where it's noisy and busy. It's a good place for Brandon.'
If you haven't been to Milwaukee, St. Francis is a working class, quaint yet vibrant community on the south side of Milwaukee's lakeshore.
In comparison, Milwaukeean Latrell Sprewell bought a house at the prime of his career in River Hills, the most affluent suburb of Milwaukee county, as well as a yacht (both of which he later fell indebted to and lost).
In this way, Bucks General Manager John Hammond struck gold twice. He found an ultra-talented star in the making in Jennings as well as a guy whose character and makeup could put him on the map in a city starved of basketball success, and a blemish on the national basketball scale.
Seeing Rodgers' support for the Bucks and Braun and Rodgers' bond leads this Milwaukee-based fan to think the next step is signing Jennings so the three Milwaukee teams will have stars to lean on each other and support Wisconsin's 3-sport town.
What Does It All Mean?
Though I can't find a lot of research to back up my argument (as it may be an uncommon way to approach the issue), the economic viability of the Bucks depends on the health and vibrancy of fellow sports stars and MVPs Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Braun almost as much as the Win-Loss column suggests.
This is an era where you can't talk about winning or losing without the cash to spend on a competitive team. Even the salary cap of the NFL doesn't prevent big market teams like Dallas from egregiously outspending a place like Green Bay in terms of stadium improvements and other factors that impact the game.
In baseball, if Brewers owner Mark Attanasio doesn't spend more than he has ever been spent on the Brewers in their history, it's unlikely the 3-million-annual-ticket-going product featuring core players would be held together as long as it has been.
In their own way, star players enhance (or in some cases decrease) the market value of various cities' teams.
If Jennings signs an extension and continues his growth and ascension as an NBA star, it will mark the first time in all three Wisconsin teams' history to have a nationally-recognized star in all three sports at the same time.
This could put more fans in the seats at the Bradley Center until Bucks management can figure out a plan for a new arena that the public can endorse.
In the end, casual fans come mainly for star power and Brandon Jennings' contract may be a huge piece of that puzzle.
Just as their teammates love playing for Rodgers and Braun, there could come a time when Jennings' fame brings talented players to the Bucks as an attractive destination ensuring on-court and off-court viability and success.
The last time Wisconsin had all three teams performing at a high level may have been 1982, though the Packers' NFL season was shortened by strike.
Furthermore, in 1982, though Robin Yount and Paul Molitor would later be hall of famers, they weren't national stars back then. In Green Bay, few nationally view Lynn Dickey or James Lofton as all-time greats, no matter how impressive they performed.
The time may have come for the Bucks to capitalize on Wisconsin's sports successes.