Wednesday, September 30, 2015

This One's for the Non-Wisconsinites

My friend Jim Kogutkiewicz, a long-time Bucks fan of some renown (at least on Twitter, where his handle is @jimmyfk), recently returned from a trip to Kansas City to watch Sporting KC play a soccer match.  Jimmy -- or, "Camelot", as I call him due to his initials being J.F.K. -- piqued my interest because it recalled a subject I've through about before: the Bucks drawing fans outside of Wisconsin.

Milwaukee doesn't have a pro soccer team of any significance, and I'm sure that played a role in Camelot latching on to Sporting KC.  Camelot could have, however, chosen a team based on proximity (Chicago Fire play close enough for a day trip), success (America's most successful pro soccer team is the LA Galaxy) or star power (Toronto FC boasts some top players, including the biggest star on America's national team).  Yet, he didn't.  He chose Sporting KC.

The fact that Camelot roots for Sporting KC -- and is such a big Sporting KC fan that he was taking a weekend road trip to Kansas City in order to attend a match -- made me curious.  "Why Sporting KC?", I wondered.  It seemed he didn't do it for proximity or success or star-power, so why?

Camelot was nice enough to indulge my curiosity, and here's what he said:
It came down to a couple things: a player who I identified with and enjoyed his style of play, and on-field success.   The player on Sporting that pulled me in was Benny Feilhaber.  The more I followed MLS early on this year, the more I saw Sporting KC play well, with Feilhaber leading the way, and the easier it was to get to know the other players. 
Let's examine what Camelot is saying.  Camelot likes having a star player to root for, but Benny Feilhaber is far from the biggest soccer star in America.  Camelot likes the fact that Sporting KC is a good team, but he didn't feel the need to lurch for the best team.  (Sporting KC currently sits fifth in the ten-team Western Conference of MLS, with the top six teams making the Playoffs.)  Camelot also likes the way that Sporting KC plays, and has gotten to know other players on the team through Feilhaber.

In examining Camelot's words, it sure seems like a lot of this applies to the Bucks.  The Bucks have natural disadvantages in that they don't play in a city that's among the most attractive to NBA players and they are sort of land-locked by Canada, Chicago, Minnesota and even Indiana.  In short, the Bucks can't rely on proximity to draw out of state fans and they can't rely on raw star power.  They're not the Celtics, who can draw throughout New England, and they're not the Lakers, who seem to always have a superstar who is either playing for them or wants to play for them.

Look at what the Bucks do have, though.  The Bucks do have a player who is good enough to latch on to in the Greek Freak.  Just as Camelot developed an affection for Benny Feilhaber from hundreds of miles away, so too can NBA fans in St. Louis, Raleigh or Seattle come to admire Giannis Antetokoumnpo.  The Bucks also have the potential for success.  They are far from a favorite to win the NBA Championship in 2016, but they could certainly make the playoffs.  It is not out of the realm of the possible to see a person from a non-NBA city -- or, who knows?, maybe a person from an NBA city -- discovering the Bucks as a rooting interest.  It can happen.

There is one other, unsaid factor that I think played into Camelot's decision to become a Sporting KC fan.  I think that Sporting KC's public relations outreach also played a role.  The Sporting KC organization cares deeply about hot its perceived.  They dress in inoffensive colors (light blue & dark blue), but they add enough pieces of flair (this season it's a uni-color checkerboard pattern on their jerseys) to keep from looking drab.  They also run a local soccer academy, they've never had a player arrested (at least, to my recollection) and they go out of their way to create a nice environment for fans at their stadium (taxpayer-funded, naturally).  They cultivate a reputation at a team that is not going to acquire the biggest names or pay the highest salaries, but that is going to find players who play an attractive style.

I think that the Bucks are on the right track in creating a positive public perception, similar to Sporting KC's in soccer.  A new arena is coming, the new uniforms are an improvement (although the style of block lettering they chose is going to look really dated in a few years -- hopefully they can change that quickly) and the current ownership group is making a big push to really integrate the franchise with Milwaukee's culture.

Of course, success is the unknown.  If Sporting KC were a bad team that lost all of the time, then I doubt that Camelot would've become a fan from five hundred miles away.  In fact, Camelot said as much in the email he sent me:
Not ashamed in the slightest to admit following a team that played well and won games attracted me to them. That's how it works.
That is how it works.  Success is contagious.  And timing matters.  A successful Bucks season in 2016 -- with the arena deal done, the young players in place and the new uniforms still fresh -- will mean a lot more than it would in most other years, past or present.  Hopefully they will get it done, and we'll see some non-Wisconsinites making road trips in the opposite direction of Camelot's trip to Kansas City.

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