Soon Gone, Rather Forgettable

posted by Dan Pfeifer -

It’s a piece of Marquette obscura longtime fans remember fondly: When the Golden Eagles had to make a circumstantial return to what was is now known as the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena for a 1995 NIT quarterfinal against South Florida. In much the same way the Bucks’ “Return to the MECCA” dripped with nostalgia, Marquette’s trip back across State Street evoked pleasant memories. MU pulled off a 57-50 overtime win, earning it a then-unusual trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT’s final four.

A similar return to the BMO Harris Bradley Center someday will not be possible. Setting aside the possibility of any NIT home games, last night’s Marquette 85-73 win over St. John’s was the penultimate college game at the Bradley Center, which will meet the wrecking ball after the completion of its successor, the under-construction Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center.

Yes, the Bradley Center will soon no longer be. But I don’t really think anyone’s all that sad to see it go.

There are a lot of similes one can use to describe the Bradley Center. Given it was built for an NHL hockey team that never came, it can be appropriately called large and cold, even after the Milwaukee Admirals decided they would be better suited skating elsewhere during the Bradley Center’s final years.

It was built for the city by Jane Bradley Pettit, but in another comparison, it soon became like the gifted sweater from grandma that never quite fit and quickly went out of style. Back when I was a young, spry Brookfield Central Lancer in the 1990’s, I attended an educational event the Bucks put on for high schoolers. Even then, with the Bradley Center just 10 years old, discussion of how it lacked the revenue-generating amenities in the then-new Bankers Life Fieldhouse, among other venues, ran rampant.

If sports venues had “similarity scores” like batters on Baseball Reference, the Bradley Center would compare to Rogers Centre in Toronto and Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago: Built well for their time, but quickly outpaced by new thinking. The buildings originally known as SkyDome and the new Comiskey Park both looked sorely lacking as soon as Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened. For the Bucks, unlucky timing played a part more than anything. Eight new NBA arenas were built in the 10 years after the Bradley Center’s ribbon-cutting, and all somehow improved upon the formula.

The Bradley Center’s legacy also isn’t helped by what it lacks in comparison to the old Arena: A championship history. The only tenants to bring titles back to the building were the minor-league Admirals in 2004 and the Milwaukee Wave, who did so a number of times in the slowly dying sport of arena soccer. While there were great teams with the likes of Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, even better squads played at the Arena in the 70’s. The Bucks, for much of the Bradley Center era, weren’t very good. Marquette was better, relatively speaking, but still only made one Final Four during its Bradley Center years. A sad fact of college basketball economics hasn’t helped: Since the 80’s, Marquette’s non-conference schedules have mostly consisted of “buy” games against opponents that rarely inspired fans to make the trip downtown.

Too often, both teams found the building too big and ill-fitted for basketball. Again, the Bradley Center was built for hockey, a sport best watched from higher seats. That’s why the building has almost as upper deck seats as lower. Basketball, however, is better watched closer to the floor. Part of the Arena’s charm was how every seat felt close from its one and only level of stands. While upper deck tickets for the Bradley Center were often cheap, you were best served to bring binoculars for basketball if you weren’t in the first few rows. As a result, for much of its existence, it felt large and empty. The first thing that will strike most fans about the new arena is how every seat will virtually feel on top of the floor.

Furthermore, the Bradley Center was ill-suited for what the in-person sports-watching experience has become. Marquette arguably did a better job of selling tickets than the Bucks, and the building rocked when full. But millennials have less inclination to leave the comfort of home, given the world is basically in their smartphone-clutching hands. The granite-covered Bradley Center is almost insulated against cellular signals and can’t even facilitate consistently decent Wi-Fi. There’s a reason you saw Wisconsin Bell and Ameritech sponsorships all over the building in its early years, but cellular providers stayed away at the end.

Those are just some of many ways the building reminds you it was designed moreso to be merely functional and an improvement upon the Arena’s flaws than it was to wow and impress. While yes, the concourses were wider than the Arena’s, there are still pinch points near vendors, while the concourse corners have dead space or mere filler. The blue seats, concrete walls and drab gray hues create atmosphere on par with a hotel conference room — it is perhaps fitting that the Bradley Center’s final event will not involve sports or music but the Northwestern Mutual annual convention. And it was built during a time where things weren’t always made to last, in addition to not always being appropriately taken care of, which is why it’s now falling apart.

Add it up: Ugly, crumbling building, lacking the history or charm of its predecessor, outpaced by other facilities early in its tenure, without a legacy of successful occupants. It’s as if it was built to absorb Milwaukee’s worst years of struggle to escape its Rust Belt past, then let something better take over when things started looking up.

Granted, it will be looked upon fondly, if only because it was an entertainment venue. Fun was had. Its most lasting moment probably didn’t involve a local team but a Marquette figure, Al McGuire, crying “Holy mackerel!” into his CBS headset after Georgia Tech’s James Forest stunned USC with his 1992 NCAA tournament buzzer beater. Despite its acoustics being less than ideal (yet another demerit), its history for hosting concerts is pretty amazing. Plus, had it not come to be, we would no longer have the Bucks, Marquette may have remained a mid-major and Milwaukee would be a far lesser place. It was better to have a blasé arena than none at all.

So as Marquette plays its last game in its 1988-2018 home against Creighton on March 3, and the Bucks finish out their run, we pause to remember, but also look forward to a more intimate, better facility another block further to the north. As for the Bradley Center: Thanks, especially to the late Bradley Pettit. But you, the building, have served your purpose. It’s time for you to go.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

HEY, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? Courtside took a kind of a surprise, two-week break, mostly due to some communications faux pas. Namely, my blog is, perhaps rightly, considered spam by some E-mail servers, which made it more difficult for the powers-that-be to post. Nonetheless, we haven’t gone anywhere and we hope to finish the season out, even if it’s a season that will probably finish with Marquette, and every other D1 team in the state, out of the NCAA bracket — and yes, I say that even with Marquette having won back-to-back games, mostly without Markus Howard.

We may elaborate further next week. 

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