All-In: The Recent Success of Milwaukee Sports


By Collin Chesak, Current Staff

The city of Milwaukee has overcome the challenges of small market sports and become an example for the entire country.

2020 was an excellent year for Milwaukee sports. The Milwaukee Bucks, led by star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and general manager Jon Horst, won their first NBA championship in 50 years. 

A promising baseball season for the Milwaukee Brewers was propelled by an excellent starting rotation and a trade-improved offense constructed by David Stearns. Unfortunately, their season came to an end after they faced off against eventual World Series champion Atlanta Braves.

The recent success in Milwaukee has occurred because both teams are willing to risk yearly consistency in the pursuit of winning championships.

The Milwaukee Brewers’ rise to a yearly playoff contender started with the acquisition of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain in free agency. MVP-caliber performances from Yelich and an all-star season from Cain propelled them into the playoffs in 2018 and 2019. The Milwaukee Brewers had some consistency on the mound from the likes of reliever Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff. However, they lacked the level of pitching that other contenders had.

Prior to the 2021 season, The Brewers did not have the trade capital to acquire elite pitching, so they let their prospects develop. They also do not have the funds to purchase pitching in free agency because of Major League Baseball’s lack of a strict salary cap. A salary cap is a limit that sets the maximum amount of money that can be spent on players.

The recent success in Milwaukee has occurred because both teams are willing to risk yearly consistency in the pursuit of winning championships.

Instead of a strict salary cap, the MLB imposes a luxury tax that forces teams who go above a certain amount to pay an additional 17.5% to the MLB. The leniency of a tax compared to a cap allows large market teams with more money the opportunity to spend more when acquiring players.

The perfect storm emerged in 2021 as promising pitchers Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff and Cy Young Award contender Corbin Burnes all blossomed at the same time. David Stearns capitalized on this opportunity and made the trades needed to help his struggling offense.

He first acquired Willy Adames, who would play at an elite level during the remainder of the season. At the trade deadline, the Brewers acquired all-star third baseman Eduardo Escobar to further elevate their offense.

These moves paid off as the Brewers reached 95 wins and the second seed in the National League. Despite losing to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series, Milwaukee baseball’s future seems to be very bright.

While the Brewers’ success is attributed to a well-rounded roster, the Milwaukee Bucks are much more star-centric.

Milwaukee celebrates as the Milwaukee Bucks win their first NBA Championship since 1971. Photo by Chad Davis, used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.

Giannis Antetokounmpo developed into a superstar slowly and won his first MVP award during the 2018-19 season. Meanwhile, Khris Middleton also developed into a fringe all-star. The Bucks also traded for Eric Bledsoe in 2017 and signed Brook Lopez in 2018. Together, these players formed a solid core, but it was not enough for playoff success.

After successive playoff failures in which they were the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, some were uncertain about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s playoff viability. The Bucks’ front office did not hesitate. Jon Horst offered Antetokounmpo the new NBA supermax contract.

This monstrous contract did what the NBA wanted it to do, convince a superstar to stay with a small market team. The NBA is only a bit more strict than the MLB in regards to the salary cap. A high salary cap causes super teams to often appear in the larger cities.

The NBA has enough cap space for teams to sign multiple superstar players. Last year, the Brooklyn Nets roster included Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, who all make more than 30 million dollars a year. The NBA had to create the supermax deal to have a reasonable amount of competitiveness between small and large market teams.

However, their goal was not to create a balanced league, but a league in which small-market teams do well enough to make more money, yet not harm the larger markets. The system is currently working due to the NBA’s surplus of talent allowing for both small and large market stars.

With Antetokounmpo signed, the Bucks still had the challenge of acquiring enough depth to compete with other championship contenders, let alone superteams.

They started the 2020-21 campaign with an upgrade at point guard by swapping Eric Bledsoe for an all-star in Jrue Holiday. They signed Bobby Portis who would also be a key piece to last season’s playoff success. At the deadline, the Bucks still aimed to improve their roster with playoff experience. They swapped the youth of D.J. Wilson and the mediocrity of D.J. Augustin for experienced defender P.J. Tucker. These moves and some luck resulted in the Buck’s historic championship run. The Bucks now hope to repeat this success due to most of their key players returning.

The Green Bay Packers faced the Washington Football Team Oct. 24, 2021 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Image courtesy of All-Pro Reels Photography, via Wikimedia Commons.

Both Milwaukee sports teams have found great success in leagues that favor large markets by taking risks to build around talent. On the contrary, the Green Bay Packers have had one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Aaron Rodgers but fail to make the trades or signings to reach the Super Bowl.

They refuse to take risks in a much more balanced league that actually has a stringent salary cap.

Also, the National Football League has a wide variety of positions that all have a surplus of talented players. These positions have different market values despite all being integral to a football team. The pay disparity among the various positions provides teams with the opportunity to be creative in making improvements.

The returning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ star-studded roster is a testament to aggressive team management. They signed a 42-year-old Tom Brady and built around him with relative ease. Even if one season’s risks fail to pay off, an NFL roster has many contracts that expire each year and create new opportunities for roster changes.

Maybe Green Bay should follow Milwaukee’s example, so they can finally get past the NFC conference championship game.

(Top image: Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers bats against the Cleveland Indians on June 5, 2018. Photo by Erik Drost, used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.)

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