A Bigger, Better Kohl Center
At 25, the incomparable UW venue gets an upgrade.
After turning 25 this year, the Kohl Center has finally reached its drinking age.
In August, the UW Department of Athletics announced that, as part of a package of customer-service enhancements, the Kohl Center and adjacent LaBahn Arena would start to sell alcohol during the 2023–24 academic year. Beer, wine, hard seltzers, and other prepackaged drinks will now be available for purchase at UW basketball and hockey games, mirroring the fan service at most Big Ten schools.
Local concertgoers will also benefit from the new policy. The Kohl Center has hosted its fair share of superstar acts over the years, from Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, to Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, to Billy Joel and Elton John, to Cher and Shania Twain, to Fleetwood Mac and Metallica.
Since the Kohl Center opened in January 1998 as a $76.4 million modern arena, it’s become a focal point of campus. The bowl’s unique, upright design with two cantilevered balconies ensures that there’s not a bad seat in the house for capacity crowds of 17,000-plus. Striving to be a work of art itself, the Kohl Center — named after Senator Herb Kohl ’56, who gave the lead gift of $25 million — welcomes visitors with The Mendota Wall by Dale Chihuly MS’67. The 120-foot-long installation of some 1,000 hand-blown glass pieces is original to the building.
While primarily hosting UW basketball and hockey games, the Kohl Center also holds major functions, including winter commencement, the Varsity Band Concert, and high school basketball and wrestling state championships. It’s featured occasional NBA preseason games for the Milwaukee Bucks, Jeopardy! tapings, and visits from luminaries like Barack Obama (then a presidential candidate) and the Dalai Lama.
Despite all the celebrity stops, Badger fans know that the real stars of the Kohl Center are the UW student-athletes who play there. Since calling the Kohl Center home, men’s and women’s basketball and men’s hockey have combined for 37 NCAA Tournament appearances, five Final/Frozen Fours, and a national championship. (Women’s hockey, which won four national championships as Kohl Center occupants, moved to LaBahn Arena in 2012.) In 2022, the UW volleyball team sold out the Kohl Center for a special regular-season match against Florida and shattered an NCAA attendance record.
To keep the Kohl Center a top-tier sports facility, the UW is in the middle of a $48 million renovation project. An addition over the loading dock will provide more space for strength and conditioning, sports medicine, academic study, and administrative functions. Renovations to existing spaces will expand the locker room, media, and team dining areas. The work is set to wrap up by early 2025.
Between those upgrades and the beer service, the Kohl Center’s future is looking as bright as it did 25 years ago.
Published in the Winter 2023 issue