Brewers president of business operations discusses costly reality of stadium upgrades

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Rick Schlesinger, president of business operations for the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Milwaukee Brewers have been making headlines lately, not just because they’re tied for first place in the NL Central division. Much of the talk revolves around the future of their home, 21-year-old American Family Field. What will it take to keep the ballpark running smoothly for years to come, and who will foot the bill?

Rick Schlesinger, president of business operations for the Brewers, addressed these issues, among others, at the Milwaukee Press Club’s Newsmaker Luncheon this week.

The team is awaiting the results of a study on American Family Field conducted by Venue Solutions Group, based in Brentwood, Tennessee. Scheduled to be released this summer, the report will detail future improvements needed at the stadium and the estimated cost of those projects. The Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District has $87 million in a reserve fund for future projects, but Schlesinger confirmed Tuesday that the total cost of the project will exceed that amount.

“There is going to be a lack of funding,” he said, speaking to a panel of local reporters. “I don’t think, when you’re talking about ballparks and what’s required in 18 years, that it’s necessarily going to be a small number.”

One point he continued to hammer home was that the brewers don’t want to bring back the controversial five-county sales tax to bridge the gap between the district’s $87 million reserve funding and the actual cost of maintenance. of the stadium. This tax, instituted from 1996 to 2020, collected approximately $605 million to pay for the construction and operation of the stadium.

Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Daykin, who was on the press club panel on Tuesday, Previously reported that the Brewers will likely seek public funding estimated at $100 million for necessary future stadium upgrades. When questioning Schlesinger, Daykin said he had heard that a more accurate estimate would likely be in the hundreds of millions of dollars and asked if that higher projection had any merit, but Schlesinger did not directly confirm. or denied.

Asked to detail the parts of American Family Field that are likely to need the most attention, Schlesinger mentioned the retractable roof as one of the stadium’s costliest features, but said no major renovations or replacements would be. necessary.

“The roof is the defining element of the ballpark,” he said. “It has been well maintained, independent engineers assess the roof every year. The district has done a fantastic job maintaining it. … We’re looking at the same kind of maintenance we’ve been doing since day one. »

The study will highlight eight to nine categories of expenses the district is obligated to meet over the next 18 years, including external architecture, vertical transport, security and technology relating to bulletin boards and security equipment. “It’s not going to be a cheap proposition,” Schlesinger said, adding “the good news here is that we don’t have to replace American Family Field.”

He also reiterated that these future improvements are necessary not only to maintain the structure itself, but also to keep Brewers in Milwaukee for the long term, keep the team competitive on the field, and continue to drive economic activity in the region. region and state.

Schlesinger pointed to similar infrastructure investments planned or underway at other major ballparks across the United States, such as $435 million at Progressive Field in Cleveland and $600 million at Camden Yards in Baltimore. as part of the Orioles’ lease extension.

On development as a possible solution

Asked about the recent push by a Milwaukee County Council supervisor to consider developing a surrounding entertainment district as a solution to help pay for stadium upgrades, Schlesinger said all ideas and contributions are welcome.

“I want people to start thinking creatively about how to fix it because again, we’re not bringing back the five county tax, but if there’s a lack of funding – and there there will be – what are we going to do to address this funding shortfall? ” he said. “There are many creative solutions that require a review of everything, including real estate.”

However, the idea of ​​creating a mixed-use entertainment district on 82 acres of surface parking lots east of the stadium may not be the best way forward for the Brewers. Schlesinger noted the nuances of creating a successful property development, saying it should be tailored to the specific site and surrounding area.

“It has to make sense in the neighborhood, it has to make economic sense for us or for whoever is going to develop real estate,” he said. “The world is littered with grandiose projections of the value of real estate developments only to see them crumble. We don’t want that.

On possible changes to the Stadium Freeway

The 15th District Supervisor’s Proposed Resolution Pierre Burgelis also asks the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to study the possible “dismantling” of the Stadium Freeway (Wisconsin Highway 175) south of Interstate 94 to West National Avenue, which could restore the road network and connect it to an entertainment district development.

Schlesinger said he agrees that this stretch of Highway 175, which runs alongside American Family Field, needs repairs and improvements. He raised concerns about traffic accidents caused by the abrupt transition of the freeway speed limit to Brewers Boulevard and the intersection of National Avenue West, saying he was “interested and would support a full review of what we could do south of 175”, including “lowering the speed limit and making it a more suitable road for what it will become.” And if there’s also a way to better connect the strip to adjacent stadium parking lots, Schlesinger said he’s all for it.

On late group ticket sales after the pandemic

Schlesinger also provided an update on how the franchise is recovering financially following the COVID-19 pandemic and two seasons without fans or with limited fan capacity. While fan capacity has returned to 100% since the start of the 2022 season and individual ticket sales are stable, the team’s group sales activity continues to lag behind levels. pre-COVID.

In a normal year, group activity would represent approximately 600,000 tickets sold. This year it will be around 400,000. The 200,000-ticket gap is “not a small number,” Schlesinger said, but it’s not surprising given the shift to hybrid working at many companies around the world. region.

“Many employers are still having their employees work remotely, so they are organizing fewer events and outings for employees. Many schools, which host groups in April and May and then in September when school resumes, for understandable reasons, have not done extracurricular activities with their students,” he said.

Another unforeseen factor is inflation. Rising labor and fuel costs have deterred large groups from chartering buses to and from the games.

In total, the Brewers will sell between 2.5 and 2.6 million tickets this season. Ticket sales represent the lion’s share of franchise revenue, and for baseball’s smallest market, television and media revenue is limited.

“We have to make up for that shortfall (in broadcast revenue versus larger MLB markets) with admission revenue, which means we have to get a lot of fans into the stadium and I have to do it smartly.” , says Schlesinger. “I can’t overvalue my tickets; I have to be price sensitive; I have to deliver a great product in the field; I have to have a great and wonderful environment for people to come even if the Brewers don’t win every home game. … The success of the team on the field is an integral part of attendance.

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