The Beer Garden attract big crowds to watch Milwaukee Bucks games at the Deer District, across from Fiserv Forum. (C.J. Brown / Fiserv Forum)

Bucks’ playoff success starts new entertainment district off with a bang

Timing is everything. For the Milwaukee Bucks, their run deep into the NBA playoffs last season jump-started business for the Deer District, the team’s new downtown entertainment block, which opened in March across the street from Fiserv Forum.

While the arena was filled with 18,000 fans watching the up-and-coming Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for 2019, advance to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to Toronto, throngs of 11,000 attended watch parties at the district.

“We had this incredible acceleration of interest during the NBA playoffs and realized the opportunity (at the district) was much greater than we thought,” Bucks President Peter Feigin said. “We went from aggressively prospecting folks to having a windfall of developers and hoteliers from around the country coming to us. It was almost a complete 180 (degree turnaround) in awareness.”

For now, almost two months after basketball season ended, the challenge is to keep the show running at the district and generate incremental revenue at those bars and restaurants, sales that are just as important to the Bucks as those inside the arena, Feigin said. 

The Bucks’ ownership group, whose background is in New York real estate, is the district’s primary developer and controls the 30-acre property, which encompasses bars, restaurants, office space and residential units. Royal Capital Group, a local partner, is developing 112 apartments on the west side next to the Fifth Street parking garage. Most are one-bedroom units and studio apartments that were to be completed in late July. They’ll go to market soon in downtown Milwaukee, an area with 26,000 residents and 84,000 workers and which attracts 6 million visitors annually, according to the Deer District’s website. 

Two hotels are planned for the district, including a full-service lodging facility with 250 rooms on the site where the Bradley Center, the Bucks’ old arena, once stood. The second hotel will be a boutique brand with 175 to 200 rooms. As of mid-July, no deals were signed, Feigin said. 

All told, the Bucks have invested “just under” $1 billion in the Deer District and another $500 million in development has been proposed, he said. Much of the future construction remains on hold until after the Democratic National Convention takes place in August 2020 at Fiserv Forum, officials said.

As part of the first phase of development, the Bucks, in conjunction with their concessionaire, Levy, own and operate the Mecca Sports Bar and Grill plus the Beer Garden, a covered outdoor space that was jammed with fans watching Bucks playoff games on a big video screen. Most recently, it was filled with people watching the U.S. women’s soccer team march its way to the World Cup title.

The Mecca features its own big screen inside the 11,000-square-foot, two-level sports bar. The 42-foot-wide screen can be separated into four smaller screens and is flanked by six 90-inch televisions, which will come in handy for football season, said Michael Belot, senior vice president of Bucks ventures and development. In the middle of Green Bay Packers country, the Bucks’ research shows a significant number of Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings fans, Belot said. 

The Milwaukee Bucks, in conjunction with concessionaire Levy, own and operate the Mecca Sports Bar & Grill. (C.J. Brown / Fiserv Forum)

As part of developing the Deer District, the Bucks toured L.A. Live, The Battery Atlanta, Ballpark Village in St. Louis, the Arena District in Columbus, Ohio, and Fourth Street Live! in Louisville. Officials took best practices from those mixed-use projects with the intent to create something authentically Milwaukee. AEG Facilities, which consulted on the development of Fiserv Forum, helped the Bucks form a vision for the Deer District, Feigin said.

In addition, the Bucks hired Belot, who had worked for the Kohler Co., where he oversaw lines of business that included the development of Lodge Kohler, the 144-room hotel anchoring Titletown, the Green Bay Packers’ mixed-use district next to Lambeau Field.

Belot works closely with Justin Green, Levy’s vice president of hospitality in Milwaukee. Green’s experience includes three years with The Cordish Cos., the Baltimore developer responsible for Ballpark Village next to Busch Stadium in St. Louis, among other entertainment districts tied to sports venues.

Green said the Mecca was modeled after Cordish’s Live! sports bars as well as Real Sports in Toronto, which sits next to Scotiabank Arena, home of the NHL Maple Leafs and NBA world champion Raptors. 

“The one thing that we’ve done that’s a step above everybody else is take the in-game experience at the Mecca and elevate it,” he said. “We re-create the experience of a Bucks game simultaneously at the sports bar. Our DJ activates the lights, sound and ribbon boards. We want to make sure you’re feeling that same sensation.” 

“The other thing we do is have cameras sweep the crowd and put those images on the big screen,” Green said. “You don’t see that at other places. People love being on camera, and it’s just another example of that unique in-game experience.”

As Feigin mentioned, apart from basketball season, the key is to activate the Deer District year-round to keep all tenants happy. Aside from Mecca and the beer garden, tenants include Good City Brewing, Punch Bowl Social and Drink Wisconsibly, a local brand that relocated its pub from a much smaller space two miles south of the arena.

Drink Wisconsibly started three years ago as a retail brand and has since expanded to include the 3,500-square-foot bar at the district and three beer stands in the arena. The move to both destinations is the next phase for growing the company, said John Casanova, president of Wisconsibly Holdings.

“We opened on March 28, a few weeks before the playoffs started, so we basically jumped right in and business was great,” Casanova said. “Now, it’s business-as-usual mode. What’s a little bit different with our scenario is for most bars in Milwaukee, January and February are their slow time. For us, it’s July and August, because not as much is going on at the arena and Milwaukee is a huge festival town, so there’s all kinds of other things going on. It’s still solid, probably 60% of what it is when all the events are going on at Fiserv.”

Overall, this summer has seen a steady flow of traffic to the district compared with the high spikes tied to Bucks games, and with school out, more people are coming down to see what it has to offer. Green said lunch crowds have been a pleasant surprise after officials were told it wasn’t a big piece of business for downtown restaurants.

“When we first started building, everybody said Milwaukee lunch is not really heavy. … We’re making sure people know they can walk or ride to the district and get in and out in an hour,” he said.

Belot teams with T.J. Sagen, the Bucks’ event programming manager, to book events at the district’s plaza with festivals, movie nights and multiple exercise classes covering yoga, Zumba and cross-training “boot camps.” Those classes run from morning to night. 

The goal is to book the plaza to accommodate all demographics, he said. The event mix includes live music, which Sagen has experience through his past life as manager of rock bands Disturbed, Sevendust and the Art of Dying. In the dead of winter, ice sculpture competitions and brandy festivals should help keep the plaza busy.

“We built this church of the arena and the plaza, and the religion is basketball,” Feigin said. “Now, we’re curating content, and when you talk about the future, it’s how do we activate it for 250 plus days a year, including some of the harsher winter time periods, and be creative.”

Milwaukee Bucks President Peter Feigin will speak at the VenuesNow Conference Sept. 10-11 in New York City.