OSHKOSH - The Wisconsin Herd's inaugural season is about to start, and Jon and Anne Doemel are fired up.
The new home for the Milwaukee Bucks' minor league team sits three miles away from ZaRoni's, their pizza and macaroni restaurant and bar.
"We are excited; we're super excited," Anne Doemel said. "We like to get dressed up in the gear, wear a blue wig and go nuts."
The couple spent about $1,000 for four season tickets for the Herd, a G League expansion team that opens its season Monday on the road in Hidalgo, Texas, against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
They plan to host a viewing party at ZaRoni's for the Herd's game Wednesday in Salt Lake City,an event where the team will distribute season tickets.
If everyone shows up, it's going to be a busy night for beer and pizza.
Oshkosh appears to be embracing its new team in a way that parallels what's happening with the parent club in Milwaukee.
"Beyond expectations. We're way beyond expectations," said Milwaukee Bucks President Peter Feigin. "We've been beyond surprised."
The Bucks named Oshkosh as the Herd's home in February, choosing the Fox Valley over several other state cities that sought the team. Construction of a new arena began a month later, and the Bucks named a front office and coaching staff and began to assemble a team.
Sponsorships are about triple what was expected, said Greg Pierce, the local businessman who led the effort to assemble private investors to build the $21 million arena.
Pierce budgeted $350,000 a year for sponsorships, which include the naming rights for the new building.
"We're going to get $1.1 million to $1.2 million," he said. "In some categories we had people trying to outbid each other."
The sponsorships, which include a five-year naming rights deal with the Menominee tribe, is "enough to cover all of our operational expenses," he said.
Season ticket sales are expected to wind up in the range of 1,250, said Herd President Steve Brandes. That accounts for about a third of the seats available in the arena, which is being built in a part of downtown Oshkosh that needed a shot in the arm.
Full houses are expected for many home games, in part because tickets start at $10 each.
"I think they're being received really well," said season ticket holder Larry Lautenschlager. "It's something new coming to Oshkosh. And that part of town really needed some kind of revitalization."
The parallels are unmistakable between the $21 million Herd arena project and the $524 million arena the Bucks are building in the Park East corridor of downtown Milwaukee.
Both promise to be state of the art facilities, aimed at a top-shelf fan experience. And both come with the promise of additional area development — including bars, restaurants and housing — in stagnant parts of downtowns.
There's an important distinction: The Herd's arena is being built with private money, and support from the city through a tax incremental financing district. The Bucks' facility is supported with $250 million in public dollars.
A wealth management executive who specializes in private equities, Pierce raised the money for the arena from a group of 40 to 50 investors. It's a "barbell" arrangement with some people in for relatively small amounts — the minimum is $50,000 — and others in for considerably more, he said.
"This is about a lot more than basketball," Pierce said, noting that the new arena will hold up to 60 events a year. "Basketball built this building, but basketball isn't going to pay for this building."
Another more exclusive group of investors stands to reap considerably larger rewards. The Milwaukee Bucks allowed them to buy small shares of the minor league team.
That group consists of about 25 shareholders, Pierce said, adding that "the largest dollars have come from outside the area."
"I think NBA teams and minor league teams are highly valuable," he added with a smile.
The NBA has been slow to build a minor league network, like that seen in pro baseball. The Herd and three other G League expansion teams are being added this year, with four more to come in the next two years.
Two of the Herd's players — Gary Payton II and Joel Bolomboy — are signed to "two-way" contracts, which means they are on the Bucks' roster for up to 45 days.
"Each of these guys is super hungry. They know that the NBA is a call away," said Herd spokeswoman Mallory Steinberg.
The G League — named for its sponsorship by Gatorade — includes players who placed high in the NBA draft. Some, such as the Herd's Cliff Alexander and James Young, played for college powerhouses Kansas and Kentucky, respectively.
And they're not all youngsters. The Herd roster includes Michael Dunigan, who is 28.
Feigin says the G League will attract players who might previously have considered playing in Europe.
The Herd's home opener in Oshkosh is Dec. 1. It was supposed to be Nov. 17, but construction delays forced the team to move it's first three games to the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
There was some complaining about the move on the team's Facebook page, and Feigin personally called and chatted up some ticket holders.
Some fans are excited about seeing the Herd's first Wisconsin game in Milwaukee.
"We'll get to watch those guys play on the floor they hope to play on every day," Jon Doemel said.
The delay is also OK with Ian Wenger, one the co-founders of the new Fifth Ward Brewing Co., a block north of the new arena. The owners settled on the location for their startup brewery well before the Herd came to town and is engaging in its own scramble to open on Saturday.
"They got lucky. It's a home run," Pierce said of the brewery's location.
Fifth Ward signed on as a sponsor of the team, and its products, including a promising chocolate-infused dark brew, will be found along with other local products at the arena.
"The ball's already rolling on the redevelopment of the south side of downtown," Wenger said.
Pierce said the way Oshkosh has rallied around the Herd is a model that could be replicated elsewhere.
"We're at the cusp of what's happening in pro sports," he said.
Pizza-maker Jon Doemel had his own perspective.
"I think in Oshkosh, we're just excited to have something to do."