Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013

Interview: Save Our Bucks' Paul Henning Outlines the Campaign's Long-Term Vision for the Team

By Evan Rytlewski
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Even if you aren’t a big Bucks fans—and let's face it, these says there aren't as many of those are there used to be—you probably have an understanding that the team is in trouble. Attendance has plummeted in recent years, and with the team off to an abysmal 2-11 start this season, that trend seems unlikely to change. Meanwhile, to realistically keep the team in the city, Milwaukee needs to build a new arena—a hard sell if there ever was one, given that the Bucks have been about as bad as they've ever been.

A few diehard fans are holding out hope, though. This month the website Save Our Bucks launched to instant media attention, in part because of its blunt pleas to the Bucks management to stop rebuild the team at the expense of being competitive this year, in hopes of securing a 2014 top 5 draft pick.  “A number of media outlets are running with that angle, making the headline ‘Bucks fans are begging their team to lose,’” Save Our Bucks spokesperson Paul Henning says. “We want to make it clear that we are not actively rooting for the Bucks to lose. We’re begging for the team to change its approach. We’re asking them to build a core base of high-upside, young basketball players they will keep together and let grow.” Henning spoke with the Shepherd about the campaign and what it will take to keep this troubled basketball team in Milwaukee.

Who is behind the site?

This is something that came about from a longtime season ticket holder and super big Bucks fan who wishes to remain anonymous at this point. He prefers to play himself as the George Pepper character from the A-Team, who stays behind the scenes, but he was able to put together a few guys to put this whole thing together, which is basically taking the thoughts and ideas of a large contingent of extremely passionate Bucks fans.

How long had the site been in the works?

They’ve been talking about it for a long time, and working on it for months. So this is not just a reaction to the 2-11 record or the exact construction of this roster. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction at all.

But the site has gained more traction because of those things?

Definitely. There’s a high level of frustration with Bucks fans right now, and the media has picked up on it quite a bit because they see that word “tanking,” which we don’t want to promote or be associated with. It’s much larger than that. But there’s a lot of talk about this in NBA circles and with ownership on how to build a competitive team.

How much consensus among Bucks fans is there that what you’re advocating on the site is the best course for this team?

Well, there’s never going to be 100% consensus, but the Bucks fans that have been with this team through thick and thin, longtime Bucks fans, people who are passionate about the NBA, passionate about basketball, and that understand what it takes to compete in today’s NBA, they are all on board with this.

Do you think the site is making a difference?


Has it made a difference yet? No. But what we’re trying to do, we’re only in the beginning stages of this whole process. I’m absolutely certain that the Bucks team is listening. All their twitter accounts have been following the Save Our Bucks Twitter account, so they definitely monitor. They have a very good P.R. team and media team, and their job is to monitor all activity on the Bucks, so they’re paying attention.

That surprises me, because me, because my impression as somebody who is not a big Bucks fan is that the team isn’t very plugged in. It seems like a very insular organization, especially compared to teams like the Brewers and even the Admirals, which seem to have a much bigger presence in the community.


Well, that’s the cycle that we’re in right now. We are all very passionate Bucks fans that have stuck through thick and thin, but there are a lot who have not. Part of that is because there are casual fans, part of that is because of the product on the floor, and part of that is the climate of sports. Things go in shifts. We’ve seen the Packers be one of the worst teams in the league in the ’70s and ’80s. They were a laughing stock back then. Brett Favre completely changed that. The Brewers: super competitive a long time ago in the ’80s, early ’90s; they went through a certain cycle where they were one of the worst-run franchises in the whole league. They faced a very similar issue with a new stadium and new ownership. So there is a lot of talk about the Bucks not being able to be sustainable in this market, and we sincerely disagree with that. Milwaukee is a great basketball town that will get behind a winning product. But fans are smart. They’re a lot smarter than they’re sometimes given credit for. They know when a team is on the rise or a decline. Fans are willing to support something that’s building something, something that’s not just grasping for straws. And that’s what we’ve been doing as a franchise for a long time, just grasping for straws, trying to keep our nose above water. The life cycle of sports, sometimes you need to use a different approach. And that’s really all we’re asking. We are not advocating tanking. We are not advocating losing games on purpose. We are advocating the Milwaukee Bucks management to try a different approach and truly understand what it takes in the current NBA to win, because the Bucks management has been in place for a long time. Now there’s been different coaches and different GMs, but Herb Kohl—who we respect a great deal; I want to make it clear that we are not attacking Herb Kohl and we respect him, and Milwaukee basketball would not exist without him—but he’s had the same structure and management team in place for a long time. And much like the Packers finding Ron Wolf, the Bucks need to find their Ron Wolf, and let him remake the team the right way from the ground floor. And Milwaukee Bucks fans will support that. That’s what we’re trying to say: There are a lot of Bucks fans here, and we will support a winner. Just give us something to support.

Is there a point where your site could become a fire-somebody campaign?

That’s not what we’re trying to do right now. We’re trying to build community support and public awareness for the issues that this team is going to be facing in the coming years. Now, there’s  a new commissioner that is coming into the NBA next year, which is Adam Silver. He recently came to Milwaukee and met with Herb Kohl and Bucks management and laid down that the Bucks need to have a plan in place very soon to address the future of this team. And what that means is a new arena, because the economic climate of the NBA has changed drastically since the Bradley Center was built. We’re reaching a critical time with the Milwaukee bucks franchise. The Seattle Supersonics lost their team. They had a great deal of fan support, but they had a few things they could not control, which were the owners and the potential buyers. The Sacramento Kings faced a very similar situation to what we’re seeing now. They had a great deal of fan support, and they were able to keep their team because they worked with the civic and business leaders of Sacramento to keep that team in Sacramento. So what we’re trying to do is create awareness and support for this cause, because otherwise Milwaukee will lose its franchise.

That’s a tough argument to make. When I talk to non-Bucks fans about the possibility of losing the Bucks, their response is usually, “Let them go; why should we pay to keep the team here if nobody is seeing them anyway?”

Exactly, and that’s because there’s been nothing to root for. The product on the floor hasn’t been acceptable. The only times the Bucks have had significant success is with top 5 picks … But without a top five pick, without a franchise player, this team is doomed. You need that marketable star, that one guy who is going to get that whole nation looking at you and creating some interest. There has to be a buzz, and there has to be hope. Basically, we just want management to have that long-term plan, to get that top-pick player, to generate that interest and that buzz.

Does the franchise have enough time on the clock to fix these problems? Can the team afford years of crappy basketball and bad attendance?

Well, I would say the crappy basketball and the crappy attendance are already here, unfortunately. We’ve been seeing that, and it’s continuing to get lower. What Herb Kohl and management are always scared of is the bottom dropping out. They see youth as “equals bad.” Do we have the time right now? I don’t know. This is something we’ve wanted for years. It would have been much better if we had started earlier, but I do believe there is still enough time to save this franchise and keep it here in Milwaukee.

Are you over-sensationalizing the team’s predicament by naming your organization Save Our Bucks? The name makes it sound like the team is in immediate danger.

It is in immediate danger. David Stern is passing the torch to Adam Silver, who has declared that the Bucks need to have a plan in place by 2017. We’re coming up on 2014 right now. It takes years for these things to develop. I do understand that there is a group of business and civic leaders that is meeting and so there is a process of moving forward. These things do take time. But what we’re trying to do is help on the awareness side and gather public support and remind people of how great the Bucks once were. I remember going to games as a kid at the Mecca, and that was absolutely rocking. The Bucks were the hot ticket in town, and if you weren’t there, you were missing something special. Same thing in 2001. I was in college at the time, going to UWM, and the town was just abuzz. People would get together during the week to watch games at home or go down to try to get tickets, and the place was just buzzing. Any night of the week the Bucks were playing the place was nearly full, even on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

It’s interesting that it falls on a group of fans to make these arguments. These seem like messages the organization itself should be making.


I think the franchise doesn’t want to fully admit to the public that there is a pressing issue and a pressing need that does need to be addressed. We named it Save Our Bucks, because that “our” is very important. This is a community team. Milwaukee is not a New York or an L.A. or a Chicago. We’re much smaller, and the connections to our local teams are deeper than they are in big cities. So this is a grassroots fan movement, and not something a professional organization could come out and say.
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