A Return to Detroit

It’s official. After months of speculation, Mike Ilitch, current owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, has stated that he wants to buy the Detroit Pistons. Aside from me being the owner. I couldn’t be happier that Ilitch is going to make a bid. While it is known that Davidson and Ilitch families didn’t exactly get along over the years, I think that I can speak for the rest of the Detroit fans that today we’re all breathing a sigh of relief.

Mike Ilitch and his wife, Marian, began building their business empire, if you will, in 1959 with a small mom and pop pizza store front called “Little Caesars Pizza.” After franchising and expanding the business has grown into a billion dollar industry. In 2007, it was reported that Ilitch holdings $1.8 billion. Not only do the holdings including Little Caesars, but it also includes the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers.

Ilitch purchased the Wings in 1982 and turned the “Dead Wings” into Hockey Town by winning for Stanley Cups (1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008). Ten years later, in 1992, Ilitch bought the Detroit Tigers from Domino’s Pizza competitor, Tom Monaghan. In 2000, the team moved from the historic Tigers Stadium to Comerica Park. The team struggled with losing records for many years and it wasn’t until 2006 under the leadership of Manager, Jim Leyland, and General Manager, Dave Dombrowski, that the Tigers finally made it to the playoffs.

 For years Ilitch has denied any interest in basketball and has firmly restated his commitment to the City of Detroit. Today’s announcement has changed everything.

In Ilitch’s statement (see the following link for the full announcement http://www.freep.com/article/20100809/SPORTS03/100809026/Read-the-full-statement-from-Ilitch-on-the-Pistons) he said “Marian and I grew up here, we raised our family here and we built our businesses here. Detroit is our home. When I read in the paper there was the chance that this great sports town could lose one of its professional sports franchises, I just didn’t see how we could let that happen.” He went on to say, “The Pistons are just like the Red Wings, Tigers and the Lions, have a rich and storied tradition in this community and they’ve brought pride to fans and our community.”

Yes, the Pistons have a rich tradition and the team has brought pride to our community. The franchise was founded in 1941 as the Fort Wayne Pistons. The team moved from Indiana to Detroit in 1957. In 1974, Zollner sold the team to Bill Davidson or Mr. D, as the players called him, remained the principal owner until his passing in 2009. In 1978, in search of greener pastures Davidson moved the team from Detroit to the suburbs. They played in the Silverdome football stadium until Davidson was able to complete his vision of building his own state-of-the-art arena. The Palace of Auburn Hills was constructed in 1988 (just in time for back to back NBA Championships) and at the time critics balked at Davidson’s plans. First, it appeared that he was building in the middle of nowhere. Second, critics wondered if he would even successfully finance the project.

Years later we now know that Davidson’s vision was right on target. The Oakland County area has rapidly grown and is one of the wealthiest counties in the State of Michigan. The once in a desolate area is now home to commercial and residential real estate – if you build it they will come is exactly what happened. Davidson also financed the project himself, and he didn’t attempt to handcuff the state or local government into paying for the project. The Palace was constructed with lower level suites, which was the first of its kind. Arenas built after The Palace were constructed after this model. For 35 years the Pistons had a single owner and was a model NBA franchise.

As Mr. D began to age many sports fans, myself included, began to speculate on the Pistons future. Did Mr. D have a rock solid succession plan? Would the new owner maintain the Pistons “blue collar” “going to work” identity? Would the team stay in the suburbs or would they move back to Detroit?

When Mr. D passed away in 2009 his wife, Karen Davidson, took over as principle owner of the team. The Detroit Shock, the Pistons WNBA sister team, was sold roughly seven months later (see Ode to the Detroit Shock). At that point the writing was on the wall. It was clear that Mr. D’s franchise was headed down a different path than the one he spent years building and creating. Karen Davidson eventually announced during the 2009-2010 season that the Pistons were indeed for sale.  

While General Manager, Joe Dumars, maintained his role as the leader of the basketball operations, it was clear that the business side was in for a big change.  Long-time Pistons President, Tom Wilson, left the team and began work for the Ilitch holdings and many other front-office executives followed. Speculation of Ilitch’s interest in the Piston grew even heavier when Ilitch announced that Wilson would be developing the new downtown arena plans for the Red Wings. This is the same role that Wilson had for Davidson some 20 odd years earlier.

I can see several different scenarios surrounding the arena issue.  

Scenario #1 – Ilitch moves forward with his plans to build an arena for the Wings in Detroit. Hockey Town stays Hockey Town and that doesn’t change. Ilitch buys the Pistons but doesn’t buy Palace Sports and Entertainment. Essentially, he buys the Pistons “asset” but doesn’t buy any of the infrastructures to go with it, which includes DTE, f/k/a Pine Knob, Meadow Brook, and The Palace. Ilitch leases the space at The Palace until 2012 or 2013 and then moves the team to Detroit.

Scenario #2 – This involves Ilitch buying The Palace and doing a “180.” He keeps the team at The Palace and moves the Red Wings to the suburbs. He tells everyone that he had to choose between building an arena in Detroit and not being able to buy the Pistons, or buying the team and moving the Wings to an existing state-of-the-art facility. While I don’t think this is the ideal situation, I can see this happening. Credit isn’t flowing like it used to and might be too much to buy at team and finance an arena. Unless…he goes the public financing route. Again, this seems unlikely considering that the region is financially strapped. Money should be going to schools, transportation, etc. Should take payers be asked to fork over money for an arena. I’m not so sure about that. And I wonder if they will.

Scenario #3 – The “baller scenario” has Ilitch buying the Pistons AND building the downtown arena. Davidson tells him that she will only sell the two together. He decides to operate the Pistons in the suburbs and the Wings in the City. I find this virtually impossible and it makes no financial sense. But he would be a baller for sure if he could pull it off.

Personally, I am cheering for door number one. Build the arena and move to the City. Let’s get Detroit moving.

So what do we know?

We know that Karen Davidson wants out. We know that last year Forbes valued the team at $479 million.  We know that the market is tough, but the NBA Golden State Warriors just sold for $450 million. We know that there have been rumors of other bidders wanting in too. We know these bidders are out-of-state and are anywhere from Pittsburg to Kansas City to Las Vegas. We know that the thought of the team leaving the region was enough for Mike Ilitch to want in. We know that Dave Bing, former Piston and current Detroit Mayor, would like to see the Pistons return to Detroit. We know that L. Brooks Patterson, current Oakland County Executive, wants to see the Pistons stay in Oakland County. We know that Detroit is struggling and can use an economic boost. We know that Detroit and Oakland County have a dysfunctional working relationship. We know that if the announcement is made that the Pistons are moving to Detroit there are members of the Oakland County community that will not let them go quietly.

I hope this doesn’t turn into a city versus suburbs debate. That debate has gone on far too long. I don’t think that the city getting the Pistons means the suburbs has to lose. I think there is a chance that it can be a win-win for both sides. While the NFL’s Detroit Lions move from my town, Pontiac, Michigan, created a noticeable impact. I think that the benefits for the region that Ford Field created have been far greater asset than a disadvantage.

At the end of the day I am happy to see a local bidder, and a bidder that has a strong respected reputation within the community. A bidder that has the capability to keep the Pistons legacy going and create a new vision for the future – without missing a beat.

I love sports because it brings people together. Collectively it gives everyone something to cheer about. Michiganders love Faygo Pop, Better Made Potato Chips, and we love cheering for our sports teams. I think we will love cheering for the Pistons and a return to Detroit.

Good Night Sports Fans,


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