The arena opened on October 1, 1988, with an exhibition hockey game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Edmonton Oilers. At $90 million, it was meant to be a modern replacement of its current cross-street neighbor, The MECCA (now the UW–Milwaukee Panther Arena), built in 1950. The arena was built as an attempt to attract an expansion franchise for the National Hockey League, though this never occurred, and the International Hockey League's Milwaukee Admirals (later moving to the American Hockey League) used the arena for the majority of its existence. The MECCA, during much of its time operating as an NBA facility, had the league's smallest seating capacity, holding just over 11,000 people. Funds to build the Center were donated as a gift to the State of Wisconsin by broadcaster/Admirals owner Lloyd Pettit and his wife, Jane Bradley Pettit, in memory of Jane's late father, Harry Lynde Bradley of the Allen-Bradley company.
Despite being one of the premier NBA facilities when completed in 1988, it was one of the oldest active NBA arenas by the end of the Bucks' tenancy in 2018, only behind Madison Square Garden in New York City, and Oakland Arena, although both had been extensively renovated during the Bradley Center's lifetime, and the latter was replaced by the Chase Center in San Francisco in 2019. The donation from the Pettits did not include provisions for the building's long-term capital needs or annual operating expenses. While the facility was self-sufficient, its tenants had been at a disadvantage compared with other NBA teams due to the arrangement in the arena's later years.