Home Town Boy

Milwaukee Admirals' president climbs local sports ranks

 

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By Mike Hoblitzell

How many sports fans get a chance in their lifetimes to work for not one, but two of their hometown teams? Not many.

Starting out as a bat boy for the Milwaukee Brewers in the mid 1980’s, Jon Greenberg worked his way up the Milwaukee sports ladder, becoming the Brewers media relations director in 1994, and eventually landing the job as president of the Milwaukee Admirals in 2005.

Greenberg is of average height, wears glasses, and has brown hair (which was shaved off after a recent Admirals fund raiser for the MACC fund.)

Before Greenberg, 43, reached the top of the local sports mountain, he began his journey as a student at UW-Milwaukee.

“My first thought was that I wanted to be a broadcaster, and my emphasis was in radio,” Greenberg said. “But I quickly figured out that wasn’t the direction for me, so I switched gears to (print) journalism.”

Greenberg enrolled in the sports journalism class that was being offered at UWM at the time.

“On the first day of class, I was sitting next to Drew Olson (former Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and current host of the “D-List” on ESPN radio) and we didn’t know each other at all,” said Greenberg.

The coincidental meeting would lead to a lifelong friendship.

“Our instructor at UWM, Gregg Hoffmann, liked to do a corny thing on the first day of class. Rather than have everyone introduce themselves, he had people pair up and interview someone else and then introduce them to the class. Jon and I were partners and the rest, as they say, is history,” Olson said.

Greenberg took several other courses that Hoffmann taught in UWM’s journalism program, and he made a lasting impression on his instructor.

“Jon was a mature student who knew that he wanted to get into sports, especially with the Brewers. (He) was one of those students that sought out the professor for more, and became a friend,” Hoffmann said.

While he was studying journalism at UWM, Greenberg was doubling as a public relations intern for the Brewers, a job that he landed because he was the only one who showed interest in the position. 

“In the spring of 1987, my dad and I went to spring training just for fun, and I stuck my head in the PR department and asked them if they needed any help during the season doing anything,” Greenberg recalled. “They agreed to have me on as an intern, and I actually did six semesters of interning there because no one else applied.”

While Greenberg dabbled in the public relations field, his good friend Drew Olson received a promotion at the Milwaukee Journal, and needed to find someone to fill his old position. Always a pal, Olson recommended Greenberg for the job.

“So Drew asked me if I would have any interest in doing that, and I was like ‘Sure, it was a way to get into the newspaper.’ I was kind of in that journalism direction while still working in the Brewers PR department,” Greenberg said.

So Greenberg began his venture into the world of journalism. He was a bit nervous when the time came for his interview with the Milwaukee Journal.

“I didn’t have a resume, I had nothing,” laughed Greenberg.

The interview was much more relaxed than Greenberg had anticipated. The Journal’s sports editor at the time was dressed in shorts and a golf shirt, and had his feet propped up on his desk. This was not your typical formal interview.

“The kind of questions I got were ‘Can you spell Oconomowoc?’ and ‘Can you type?” said Greenberg.

Greenberg was hired to fill Olson’s old job, and now had the honor of doing the scoreboard page and taking the bowling scores at four in the morning.

“The agate job isn’t easy,” Olson said.

Eventually, Greenberg was sent out into the field to cover some sporting events.

“One day I walked into the Journal’s sports department, and they were kind of freaking out because whoever was supposed to cover the Wave game that night got sick. I just happened to be standing there, and they said ‘You! You’re going to cover the Wave game tonight!’” Greenberg said.

Despite the opportunity to get some experience in the journalism field, Greenberg had some reservations about his assignment. “I really didn’t know anything about soccer. My extent of knowledge about soccer was you kick the ball in the net,” Greenberg admitted.
For having a limited knowledge of soccer, Greenberg was about to cover one of the most important games in Milwaukee Wave history.

“The Wave was playing the game at the Mecca (now the US Cellular Arena), and it was a big night for them because it was the first time they had ever sold out a game,” said Greenberg.

To get a better understanding of what was going on at the game, Greenberg stayed close to Wave Director of Marketing and Publicity Peter Wilt.

“Jon was one of the Milwaukee Journal’s young, mostly inexperienced reporters they were using to cover the Wave at the time. This was in the late 1980s and most reporters had no clue what soccer was, much less indoor soccer,” Wilt said.

Although he lacked experience, Greenberg tried to make the most of his assignment.

“Jon embraced the assignment and wasn’t shy about asking for help on back-ground info, statistics, and getting quotes. The Milwaukee Sentinel, which was Jon’s competition then, had a regular soccer beat writer, Ken Bunch. (Bunch) knew all the ins and outs and history of the Wave, so I recognized that Jon would need a bit of help to avoid looking bad in comparison to his counterpart,” said Wilt.

Greenberg went back to the Journal building after the game to write his story, and to his surprise, it ended up on the front page of the sports section. But that experience inspired Jon to take his career aspirations in a different direction.

“The next day, I really thought hard about how I liked what Peter did. I liked the public relations aspect rather than the chase, like going into situations you don’t know anything about,” Greenberg said. “I liked to steer the story, rather than have to be steered.”
From then on, Greenberg focused on his PR job with the Brewers.

After his graduation from UWM in 1989, he had job offers from both the Journal and the Brewers. Greenberg accepted the Brewers media relations job, and worked his way up to the department’s director in 1994.

“I remember at some point in the spring of 1995, we were on the field before a game at Yankee Stadium and we cracked up. It was like the guitar player Lenny in “That Thing You Do” asking his drummer, “How did we get here?” said Olson.

One of Greenberg’s fondest memories during his tenure with the Brewers was his role in helping Miller Park get built.

“As a PR person, that was the time I felt most useful,” Greenberg said. “It was something that we (the Brewers organization) felt we had control over, when you’re in PR, those are golden moments.”

However, the construction process was not always pleasant. Those who opposed the Miller Park project disagreed that the stadium would be an economic boost for the community, and were not fond of the five-county sales tax that would help fund the ballpark.

There also was the case of George Petak, a republican senator from Racine, who advocated for the financing for Miller Park. Petak was recalled in 1996, and lost the recall election. He was the first state official to lose such an election.

The worst part of the Miller Park construction was the “Big Blue” crane accident that killed three iron workers.

“I used to have a dream of being the press secretary for the president, but after going through the whole stadium thing and seeing how politics works, I really thought ‘I can’t act like this,’” Greenberg said.

The Brewers recognized Greenberg’s efforts by putting his name on the “Wall of Workers” (a list of names of those who contributed to the Miller Park project.)

“I tell my daughter when we go see it, ‘That’s something I have a lot of pride in,’” said Greenberg.

Greenberg was director of media relations until 2005, when Harris Turer, a member of the Brewers’ ownership group, decided to purchase the Milwaukee Admirals.

“Harris called me to say, ‘Hey, I’m looking at buying the hockey team, and I’m looking for a president,” said Greenberg.

Greenberg had a few people in mind for the job, but Turer said that he wanted Greenberg to do it. Greenberg was taken aback.

“I’m flattered, but why?” he asked Turer.

Turer was impressed with the work that Greenberg had done with the Brewers, specifically how he marketed the team to the fans and media.

“We needed a person to market the organization. Jon not only has a marketing background but also a communications background and has an understanding of how the media works, and how we could use it to our advantage,” Turer said.

Turer added, “Jon may not have been a person that someone else may have picked, but I thought knowing what we needed at the time, he was the perfect person for the job.”

Greenberg thought hard about Turer’s offer; he knew that he had a good job with the Brewers. The Admirals were falling of the Milwaukee sports radar at the time, but after discussing the job with Turer and his family, Greenberg took it. The day Greenberg decided to become the president of the Admirals was also one of the most important days in UWM sports history.

“It was actually the night the Panthers moved to the Sweet 16,” recalled Greenberg. “Harris was actually in Cleveland where UWM was playing. They had just won, and he was out celebrating and I agreed to do the job.”

Turer, also a UWM alum, was thrilled that his alma mater was going farther in the NCAA tournament, and his hockey team now had the leader he wanted.

“Cleveland became a favorite town of mine,” said Turer with a laugh.
Greenberg has enjoyed the switch from baseball to hockey, mainly because he no longer has to deal with the rigorous baseball schedule that spans 162 games.

“The baseball schedule is very, very difficult,” Greenberg said. “A lot of things that I missed, I didn’t have to miss anymore.”

When Greenberg was the Brewers’ media relations director, he had to be on his toes in the press box all night, and travel with the team for the majority of the season. Now, Greenberg is able to sit with his wife and daughter among other Admirals fans in the Bradley Center.

Wearing a black Admirals jersey with his name embroidered on the back, Greenberg can relax in section 200 with his family and chat with fans during the game.

“It has been a great transition for me,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg also has time to be involved in his daughter’s budding youth hockey career at Wilson Park, and work on his golf game.

So what are some of the perks of being the president of a hockey franchise?

“I get to be creative, have fun, and wear a sweatshirt and jeans to work,” Greenberg chuckled.

Another benefit of Greenberg’s job is that he does not have to worry about the players or coaching staff. They are supplied by the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League. (The Admirals are Nashville’s minor-league affiliate.)

“We don’t have any role with hockey other than to market the game itself,” Greenberg said. “We consider ourselves to be an entertainment company and we entertain people around the sport of hockey.”

With that task out of his hands, Greenberg works on finding ways to differentiate the Admirals from the other local sports franchises.

“It’s a difficult market to do it in; we aren’t the only thing going on,” Greenberg said. “But hockey fans in general are very passionate about their teams; if people come and sample our product, they’ll want to come back and see it again.”

There is a lot of truth to that. Although the Admirals average 6,000 fans per game, (the Bradley Center’s maximum capacity for hockey is 17,800) the fans attending the games are passionate and the building sounds/feels like it as at capacity. Greenberg said that the Admirals’ on-ice success has contributed to their loyal fan support.

“We’re approaching our eighth straight year with 40 or more wins and 90 or more points, and that’s never been done in the history of the league,” said Greenberg.

Greenberg said he had other job offers and had the opportunity to re-locate when he worked for the Brewers, but chose to remain in Milwaukee for one simple reason.

“I love it here,” Greenberg said. “I did my share of traveling with the Brewers as the PR director, and I was on the road with the team all the time. Every time I came back here, I realized how much I loved it.”

“People here are just always very down to earth and very nice, and they work hard,” Greenberg said. “I like to surround myself with people like that.”

Greenberg is grateful for the opportunities that he has had.

“I’m a kid who grew up here and got to now work for two of his local teams,” said Greenberg. “That’s dream stuff for a lot of kids, and to be able to actually live those dreams has been very special, and I don’t ever take that forgranted”

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