Company approved for $12.5M state subsidy buys naming rights to tax-funded Bucks arena

Lawmakers who approved $250 million to fund the new Bucks arena are upset after a company eligible for a state subsidy bought the building’s naming rights. (AP)
Lawmakers who approved $250 million to fund the new Bucks arena are upset after a company eligible for a state subsidy bought the building’s naming rights. (AP)

Last year, Wisconsin lawmakers agreed to give Fiserv, a $31 billion publicly traded company, a chance at $12.5 million if it keeps its headquarters in state.

On Thursday, Fiserv and the Milwaukee Bucks announced that the company had paid for the naming rights to a new downtown arena that was funded in large part by taxpayer money.

Lawmakers not pleased about Bucks naming rights deal

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel spoke to lawmakers after the deal was done, and some of them are none too pleased. At least publicly.

“It makes the legislature look foolish,” said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who voted against the subsidy deal. “It makes the governor look foolish.”

Democratic state senator Chris Larson may have summed up his colleagues’ and constituents’ frustrations best.

“Taxpayers are going to be paying to put somebody else’s name on the front of this arena that taxpayers paid for,” Larson told the Journal-Sentinel.

Wisconsin taxpayers foot $250M bill to build Bucks arena

Wisconsin taxpayers ponied up $250 million for the arena that the Journal-Sentinel reports cost $524 million. It was a deal that received bipartisan support in the state before being approved by Republican Governor Scott Walker in 2015.

The cost of the 25-year naming rights deal was not disclosed, but Bucks officials initially had hoped to recoup $7 million to $10 million a year, according to the Journal-Sentinel. The Bucks will play their first game in the new arena in the fall.

Larson did not vote to approve the subsidy for Fiserv, according to the Journal-Sentinel. He did, however sign on on the nine-figure public payout to build the Bucks a basketball arena.

Conflicts stem from publicly financed arenas

Publicly financing the arena is really the crux of the problem here. Fiserv is free to spend its budget how it sees fit. If executives and shareholders believe buying naming rights to a basketball arena is good business, then that’s their prerogative whether they end up taking the taxpayer subsidy or not.

But the optics of the Bucks and Fiserv teaming up to profit off of public money while the public doesn’t get a direct financial return on the investment are poor.

Other cities refuse to pay for stadiums

It’s a problem alleviated in part if cities and states develop the backbones to refuse to continue to finance playgrounds for the teams of wealthy business owners. It’s a stance that’s been seen recently in California with lawmakers and taxpayers refusing to finance NFL stadiums.

Of course that stance led to the Chargers leaving San Diego for a privately funded L.A. home and the Raiders making plans to move to Las Vegas, which appeared more than happy to open the coffers.

But it’s also a stance that would have left Larson without the need to publicly lambast a naming rights deal if he hadn’t voted to put taxpayers on the hook to begin with.

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Jason Owens is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter.