Fast break

Steve Brandes guides Herd to financial win in first season

Posted on Oct 30, 2018 :: Cover Story
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Just a few months before the Wisconsin Herd was to hit the hardwood for its debut season last year, its new arena in Oshkosh was far from done.

“If you had seen the building, you would have said, ‘No way,’” recalls team President Steve Brandes, noting that the fledgling G League farm team of the Milwaukee Bucks had to play its first few 2017 games at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center.

But somehow, the Menominee Nation Arena, which boasts more than 78,000 square feet on two floors, came together — just eight months after breaking ground.

“It broke a lot of speed records,” says Jason White, president and CEO of the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp.

In fact, most of the team’s debut year was about rushing. Brandes wore just about every hat in 14 years with the Idaho Stampede (a former G League affiliate of the Utah Jazz), when in early 2017 he got a call that the Bucks organization was interested in him.

“I literally had to drive three days from Boise to get here, and I started on a Monday,” he says. “It was literally like start-up city, just some tables and chairs.”

From then on, it was a full-court press to get the team up and running.

But dodging and running is what a basketball team does best, and in its freshman season, the franchise was among the league’s leaders with 12 sold-out games and a season attendance total of 69,240 fans.

The NBA took notice, and earlier this year, Brandes was named NBA G League Team Executive of the Year, an honor voted on by the league’s team presidents.

 

Herding to Oshkosh

Fox Valley Pro Basketball had been working on getting the Herd to Oshkosh for more than two years, says Greg Pierce, president and managing partner of the group, which owns the arena and leases it to the team.

With the NBA requiring each of its teams to field a development league team, cities around Wisconsin began competing. Most G League teams are within a 100-mile radius of their home team, so Oshkosh quickly rose to the top.

“The available facilities within that circle were slim to none,” says Pierce, but with property ripe for development on Oshkosh’s Main Street, the project seemed likely to happen.

“Sports can be a catalyst for development,” he says. “We did the deal to be able to spur development … exploring other options of what might be able to happen. Look at Green Bay and its Titletown District.”

In a rundown old factory on the south side of Oshkosh’s Main Street, the vision began to take shape.

The Bucks loved the proximity to Milwaukee and the convenience of its location off Interstate 41. The city loved the development and tourism potential.

“For us, this was a win on so many levels,” says Amy Albright, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re always looking for off-season tourism drivers. We like to say it was a slam dunk.”

Soon after the arena was built, Fifth Ward Brewing Co. popped up across the street, and the city is now eying that formerly blighted area as a growing entertainment district.

“It’s been a tremendous impact. It’s being viewed as a real catalyst,” White says. “It’s also helping some of those business owners tie into the excitement.

“It’s providing a spark for a larger visioning effort … to define what’s called the Sawdust District,” he says. “These are all things that wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for a cornerstone catalyst.”

White says he’s proud to be involved in a project that helps boost what he calls the “can-do spirit of Oshkosh.”

As for his own journey to Oshkosh, Brandes grew up in Amherst, Ohio, 40 minutes outside Cleveland. “It was kind of like Mayberry,” recalls the 41-year-old.

He attended the College of Wooster in Ohio, where he majored in archaeology and minored in history and religious studies. The self-professed archaeology “nerd” even worked in the field after college — excavating, surveying and looking for artifacts and historical items.

But he also enjoyed basketball, playing in college until he blew out his knee. “Obviously I had a passion for it,” Brandes says.

After leaving archaeology behind, he worked in Portland, Ore., for a company called Game Face. There, he enrolled in a four-month sales and marketing program.

“That’s how I broke into sports,” says Brandes, adding that program eventually led him to his long-term stint with the Idaho Stampede.

“The path was not traditional, but I was fortunate to have good staff and mentors,” he says.

Today, Brandes and his wife, Nina, live in Oshkosh with their children, Eliana, 7, and Mark, 5.

 

Leading the Herd

Brandes is pleased the Herd is having such a powerful impact on the city he and his family now call home. The team is laying plans to build off its successful first year.

“Being affiliated with Milwaukee provided that spark to get people excited,” he says. “We definitely had one of the best launches in league history. The support was great across the (Fox) Valley.”

White says he knew area residents would support the team.

“At one point during the season, we were drawing more attendance than all of the other teams in the league combined,” he says. “I think this is a big basketball area. While we’re not Milwaukee, we’re not Madison in size, a lot of people underestimate the Fox Valley in terms of the number of people we have, the economy, the interest of sports.”

Brandes notes being in a college community also adds to the image and interest in basketball, as well as the games offering affordable and wholesome family fun.

“It’s indicative of a really strong market,” he says. “The support we’ve had from our sponsors, our ticket holders … that support was so high and so tremendous.”

As an archaeologist, Brandes used to say, “We would come in and save the history before it’s destroyed.”

Now as leader of the Herd, it seems he is making history … in a very short time.

“I had 100 percent confidence,” he says. “I knew this market was something special. There’s definitely something tied to sports here. People are raised to love sports,” and that only fuels the reputation, tourism and economy of Oshkosh.

“It’s huge for the community,” Brandes says. “I think they felt they wanted to rally behind it. I think it’s the start of a lot of good things to come.”   

JUST THE ESSENTIALS

Names are an essential part of a company’s brand and identity. For the Wisconsin Herd, the team name echoes the origin of its owner — the Milwaukee Bucks.

A contest was held to select the team’s name, and the logo and colors were designed to have a similar feel to the Bucks. While the dark green Bucks logo features a stag with a “take no prisoners” look, the Herd’s logo features three forward-facing bucks with decidedly “softer” visages — shown in a tight group to signify the strength of the herd as one unit. The image is meant to depict “a more youthful, yet still fierce, identity.”

Its mascot, a cousin to the Bucks’ mascot, Bango, is a buck named Pointer. He wears the number “30,” a reference to the elusive “30-point buck.”

The Herd is part of the NBA’s G League (minor league development teams), which includes 27 teams for the 2018-19 season. Previously known as the NBA Development League — or D League — the name was changed in 2017 when Gatorade became the league’s official sponsor, the first time a professional sports league has named an entitlement partner.

The team plays at the Menominee Nation Arena in Oshkosh. The venue, built by Bayland Buildings of Green Bay, is owned by Fox Valley Pro Basketball and leased by the Bucks and the Herd. 

The city was named after Chief Oshkosh, chief of the Menominee Nation, which originally lived on the land. And, as the tribe is an example of forestry conservation, all the wood in the arena was harvested from their reservation.

Wisconsin Herd President Steve Brandes says the naming rights are therefore fitting. “It’s one of the cooler correlations for naming rights,” he says. “They kind of view this as a coming home.”

 

By the numbers

Number of teams in NBA G League: 27

Estimated cost to start a G League franchise:
$7.5 million to $9 million

Number of months it took to build
the Menomonee Nation Arena:
8

Cost of arena: $21.5 million

Seating capacity (for basketball): 3,247

First season attendance: 69,240

Season ticket holders in first year: 1,297

Number of home game sell-outs in first season:
12 (out of 24)

Average ticket price: $10

Number of games in 2018-19 schedule:
50, with 24 at home

For more info on the team and its schedule visit

wisconsinherd.com