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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Herb Kohl, Who Kept Milwaukee on the Sports Map, Dies at 88

  • Herb Kohl owned the Milwaukee Bucks from 1985 to 2014.
  • He also served as a U.S. senator for much of his ownership tenure.

The sports world lost one of its most impactful team owners on Wednesday when Herb Kohl, who owned the Milwaukee Bucks from 1985 to 2014, died at the age of 88.

Kohl, a native of Milwaukee’s north side, was also a U.S. senator, representing Wisconsin in office from 1989 to 2013, and his family founded a chain of Kohl’s department stores and supermarkets. (Kohl’s, at one point this century, was the largest department store chain in the U.S.) But while his impact across American society is widespread, his influence on pro sports in his hometown cannot be understated.

Kohl purchased the Bucks for $18 million in 1985 and his tenure was mired mostly in mediocrity, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals twice and never advancing further. But he sealed his legacy in the Midwest upon his departure: When he sold the team to hedge fund managers Marc Lasry and Wes Edens in 2014 for $550 million, it was on the condition that they stay put, in one of the smallest pro sports markets. “His goal was to make sure … that the team stayed in Milwaukee,” Lasry told The Athletic. “That was the requisite for us owning the team.” Almost a decade later, the Bucks have a long-term lease at the $524 million Fiserv Forum, which Kohl helped fund, and which opened in 2018—and they’ve since delivered Milwaukee its second NBA championship (after a Lew Alcindor-led win in 1972).

Kohl’s life was otherwise filled with crazy could-have-beens and hard-to-believe happenstances around the business of sports. Among them:

  • In college, Kohl roomed with Bud Selig, who would go on to become MLB commissioner. 
  • Kohl helped bring the Brewers, formerly the Seattle Pilots, to Milwaukee in 1970, along with Selig.
  • Almost 20 years before he bought into the Bucks, Kohl turned down a chance to buy the expansion team for $2 million, in 1968.
  • In 2003, he nearly sold the Bucks to Michael Jordan for $170 million.

Kohl never married and had no children. He remained a Bucks season-ticket holder after selling the team, and he received a championship ring from their 2021 title. He also donated $25 million to the University of Wisconsin in 1995 for construction of the 15,000-seat Kohl Center, which houses Badgers basketball, among other sports.

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