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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Marquette University earlier this year discreetly explored the idea of developing its own basketball arena — a potential $120 million investment for downtown Milwaukee — before deciding against pursuing the project.
The Marquette arena, which would house both the men's and women's basketball teams, was considered for roughly 12 acres bordered mainly by North Sixth, North Tenth, West Michigan and West Clybourn streets.
It would have come with a potential naming rights sponsor: Chicago-based Wintrust Financial Corp. and its Hartland-based subsidiary, Town Bank.
But, after about two to three months of preliminary study, Marquette dropped the idea.
The university's leaders decided raising money for a basketball arena would have taken its focus from higher-priority projects, including long-range plans for a new business school.
That's according to sources who spoke to the Journal Sentinel on the condition that they not be identified.
Representatives of both Marquette and Town Bank declined to answer questions about the conceptual arena plans.
"The university won't be making any further comment on this," said Lynn Sheka, senior director of university communication.
"I'm sorry, I have no comment," said Jay Mack, Town Bank president and chief executive officer.
The Marquette men's basketball team — the university's main athletic program — this season began playing games at downtown's new Fiserv Forum.
The women's team plays on campus at the Al McGuire Center, 770 N. 12th St., which also serves as the practice facility for the men's team.
The university has praised the Fiserv Forum, the $524 million arena that the Milwaukee Bucks developed with $250 million in public financing.
It replaced the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the former home court for the Bucks and the Marquette Golden Eagles.
"I think as this building fills for our games, once the season starts, it's got a chance to be an incredible environment," Steve Wojciechowski, Marquette men's basketball coach, said in August.
"It's a much more intimate building," Wojciechowski said. "The students will be much closer to the floor. The fans will be much closer to the floor. Hopefully it creates a situation where energy feeds off of energy."
"Marquette University greatly values our partnership with the Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum," Sheka said in a statement.
Issues with rental agreement?
However, Marquette's Fiserv Forum lease is only seven years — a relatively short run, according to some observers. It goes through the 2024-'25 basketball season.
That shorter term lease could give Marquette some flexibility if it seeks to raise money, win city approvals and build a new arena, one source said.
Other sources indicated Marquette wasn't pleased with the terms of the university's lease at the Fiserv Forum. Those lease details haven't been publicly disclosed.
"Apparently, there was some feeling that the Fiserv rental agreement is excessive," one source said.
A Bucks spokesman declined to answer questions about the lease.
"We have a terrific partnership with Marquette and are proud that Fiserv Forum serves as the world-class home venue for the Golden Eagles' men's basketball team," Barry Baum, senior vice president of communications, said in a statement.
Too much space
The Fiserv Forum's seating capacity of 17,500 is too large for many of Marquette's games.
The university has been placing banners over unused seats at the top of the student sections behind the baskets at each end of the court.
Around 10,000 seats would be a better fit for Marquette, sources said.
The average attendance at Marquette home men's basketball games during the 2017-'18 regular season was 13,857, according to the university.
One source said the university could follow the model of some of its Big East conference rivals who play most of their games at smaller arenas — while playing a handful of home court dates at larger venues.
For example, Villanova University, which won the 2018 NCAA men's basketball championship, this season has 10 home games at the on-campus Finneran Pavilion, which seats 6,500 fans. Villanova is located 12 miles outside Philadelphia.
But the Wildcats also play five games at Wells Fargo Center, with a 19,500 seating capacity. That arena is the home court for the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA and the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL.
Basketball drives athletic programs
A Marquette arena next to I-43 and I-94 would provide a high-visibility site that could serve as a great recruiting tool while generating more excitement about the team.
That could translate into higher revenue for a team that supports the rest of Marquette's athletic programs.
The men's basketball team's annual revenue is $19.3 million, with the women's basketball team accounting for $3.4 million, according to the university's latest filings with the U.S. Department of Education.
All of Marquette's athletic teams total $34.3 million of annual revenue. The men's basketball team accounts for around 56 percent of that amount.
The total annual cost of all the university's athletic teams is $26.6 million.
Town Bank, the Wintrust subsidiary mentioned as a possible naming rights sponsor for the arena, has strong ties to Marquette.
Town Bank this year began operating a branch location at the university's Alumni Memorial Union.
The bank committed to investing $12 million over 10 years to fund scholarships, athletic and educational programs, and other events at the university. Town Bank also is helping Marquette's College of Business Administration develop a new program for training future bankers.
And, in November, the Common Council approved plans for the university to place a Town Bank banner on the inflatable seasonal dome at Marquette's Valley Fields athletic complex.
A new arena would face a major challenge: raising roughly $120 million at a time when Marquette has other large building projects in the works.
Along with plans for a new business college building, Marquette is constructing a 44,000-square-foot facility for its physician assistant studies program.
That $18.5 million building is to open by the fall of 2019 at the northwest corner of West Clybourn and North 17th streets.
Also under construction is the Athletic and Human Performance Research Center.
That 46,000-square-foot, $24 million building will open next spring at 1201 W. Wells St.
So, after about two to three months of study this spring and summer, which included creating a site plan, the arena plans were placed "far on the back burner," one source said.
Meanwhile, Marquette is beginning the process of finding new uses for the 12-acre site west of North Sixth Street and south of West Michigan Street.
It consists of vacant lots, an underused office building, a building that houses the Department of Psychology's new behavior analysis program and a former Ramada Inn hotel. The university is planning to demolish the hotel, which closed this fall.
Marquette bought the properties in 2014 and 2015.
The university in 2016 announced plans to demolish the buildings on that site to develop a $120 million Athletic and Human Performance Research Center.
The center, with 250,000 to 300,000 square feet, was to include a $40 million investment from Aurora Health Care Inc.
But that Aurora-funded plan was dropped last year, and was replaced by the smaller facility, which opens next spring.
Marquette lately has begun considering other uses at the Michigan Street site, including a possible apartment development, sources said.
Tom Daykin can be emailed at email@example.com and followed on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
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