Things I'm Looking Forward To: UWM's Return to the Klotsche Center
This year, UWM has made the shift back to campus, and instead of playing at the U.S. Cellular arena, will be playing all home games at the Klotsche Center. Before I get to why I like this move, let’s get the negatives out of the way (and there are lots of them). The Panthers were more prominent and accessible to all Milwaukee folks when they were downtown at the U.S. Cellular Arena. A bit of legitimacy feels lost, since the Panthers go from playing at a major sports complex to what feels like an oversized high school gym (indeed, I’ve been to a new high school fieldhouse or two that would rival the Klotsche). Putting games on the UWM campus means parking hassles and a lack of pre and post-game entertainment options for fans. Finally, while this move is presumably aimed, in part, at making games more accessible to UWM student fans, the culture of UWM has never been such that hordes of students are likely to be rushing over from Sandburg Hall to watch a game just because it’s easy to get to.
Wow, that was a lot of negatives.
So then, why do I like the move? I’ll give you three big reasons why:
1) Games at the Klotsche Center are cool.
Last year was my first year as a UWM season-ticket holder. Of the games that my friends and I attended, one of the most memorable was a blowout win by the Panthers over Nebraska-Omaha, a team transitioning to Division I status. The game itself? It was pretty dreadful. But the opportunity to sit only a few feet from the action was outstanding. If you amortize the cost of my season ticket over the entire season, my admission to that game cost under $4. Nonetheless, I still found myself sitting in a location where I could read the opposing coach’s facial expressions, and hear players’ family members yelling words of encouragement. I dare you to show me another Division I venue where you can get that close to the center of things for around the cost of a concession stand hot dog (and not one of those fancy hot dogs with lots of toppings on it, either).
2) The Klotsche Center is currently a more appropriate home for UWM.
Back in 1998, when UWM moved from the U.S. Cellular Arena to the Klotsche Center, I thought the move was brilliant. Then in 2003, when the Panthers abandoned the Klotsche Center and moved back to the U.S. Cellular Arena, I praised this move, as well. These feelings were not as inconsistent as they may seem, once you consider history. In 1998, UWM was a losing team struggling to get anyone to head downtown to watch them. It became ridiculous playing to 800 fans in a 10,000+ seat arena. And rebuilding in an intimate gym on campus where excitement could quickly become infectious was a great idea. In 2001 I had the pleasure of attending UWM’s near upset of Wisconsin at the Klotsche Center, and I have no doubt in my mind that one of the reasons that the Panthers nearly stole a game that day was that Wisconsin had never before had to deal with playing in front of 3,500 excited fans crammed into a tiny gym. I’ve rarely felt that type of electricity in a crowd. Sitting in my Badger fleece, even I nearly started cheering for the Panthers.
Of course, that 2001 game also demonstrated that UWM had reached a point where it was about to the outgrow the Klotsche Center. When the Panthers headed back to the U.S. Cellular Arena in 2003, it was no longer a 3-24 team that had lost everyone’s interest. Instead, it was a winning, up-tempo, exciting team that was guided by Bruce Pearl, a tireless promoter that was constantly working to get fans to games. Going to watch Pearl-led teams was like going to a party, and that party could not be contained in a tiny on-campus gym. UWM peaked with a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2005, and for the first time in my entire life, I watched Milwaukeans get excited about something at UWM other than the architecture program. It would have been a disservice to both the fans and the program to keep the basketball team hidden away on campus while people, for arguably the first time ever, wanted to watch games.
And now? We’re again in uncharted territory. Unlike the move in 1998, the Panthers aren’t a losing program slinking out of downtown so that they can rebuild on campus. But as anyone who has attended a UWM game or two in the past 2-3 years could tell you, the fact that UWM fields a competent basketball team was doesn’t mean that it was filling the stands at the U.S. Cellular Arena. The simple truth is, games are not as exciting to attend as they were during the Bruce Pearl era. Rob Jeter can deliver a solid team, but he can’t deliver a party, too. And if that means that UWM is struggling to draw more than 2,000 fans per game, then why not give those 2,000 fans a chance to sit in a smaller gym, where their excitement stands a better chance of becoming contagious again?
3) The move back to campus implies some level of commitment to building an on-campus arena.
The moment that the move back to the Klotsche Center hit the news, my first thought was “This must mean that UWM is actually getting serious about the idea of building an on-campus basketball arena.”
That’s a weird jump in logic, but I base it on two key factors. First, UWM recently hired former Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger to head up the UWM athletic department. Geiger’s tenure at Ohio State coincided with an inordinate number of athletic facility construction projects. While Geiger is 73 years old and only signed on to serve as AD for one year, there would be few people better positioned to get the ball rolling on a major athletic facility construction project.
Secondly, the Horizon League, granted UWM a waiver of a conference bylaw requiring that the home basketball facilities of each member school seat no less than 5,000 people. For a league like the Horizon, which is constantly fighting for prominence, it would be counter-intuitive, absent a strong reason, to excuse a member school from a key rule aimed at ensuring high-quality facilities. This is particularly true in the case of UWM, which had been playing its games at one of the league’s top arenas. Playing at the Klotsche does not further the interests of the conference. Playing at a cool new arena would. Thus, I refuse to believe that the Horizon League would grant UWM a waiver on its arena rules without some type of assurance that UWM is actively pursuing or investigating plans to build an on-campus basketball facility. And I’d love to see a true on campus home for the UWM basketball program. Given that the only other recent home options have been an arena which the NBA abandoned 25 years ago, and the student rec center, I can’t help but think that a new basketball facility would be a big step forward for the Panthers.
Here’s looking forward to kicking off the season tonight. See you at the Klotsche Center!