Normally, I’d be concerned.
Normally, if one man owned three sports teams in Detroit, I’d worry.
I’d worry he was overstretched.
I’d worry he’d favor one team over the other.
I’d worry he might use his near-monopoly to gouge the city, fleece the customer, pressure the politicians.
But these are not normal times.
And this is not just any owner.
Mike Ilitch has earned the benefit of the doubt. He has jointly owned the Tigers and Red Wings for the last 18 years. He never mortgaged one for the other. He hasn’t fleeced or gouged people. He has made his profits, for sure, he has protected his interests, no doubt, and I’m sure, like any businessman, he has his detractors and angry competitors, but he also has done way beyond his share to resuscitate Detroit’s moribund downtown.
And this move is more of the same.
Ilitch’s vision is to have a new downtown arena that features the Wings and the Pistons under the same roof. When they weren’t playing, the arena could host concerts, conventions or trade shows. It would mean at least 100 nights a year that crowds of at least 10,000 people would walk the streets of downtown Detroit, presumably in the already vibrant Foxtown vicinity.
Normally, I’d be worried.
But that kind of thing actually gets people excited. The best-case scenario for fans
Two months ago, I wrote that Ilitch made the most sense of the suitors for the basketball team Bill Davidson owned since the ’70s. Yes, there were others. Yes, they got ink the last few weeks. But deep down, no one was as logical as Ilitch. No one wanted it as much. No one could create as large a sum with the same parts. And I’m guessing Ilitch’s bid reflected that.
Ilitch could pay more because to him it was worth more. And if Karen Davidson indeed saw a bigger number from Ilitch than any of the others, this became a no-brainer.
So assuming this deal goes through, and Ilitch soon owns the basketball franchise, the hockey franchise and the baseball franchise, here’s the possible good and bad scenarios:
The Good: Ilitch builds an arena with mostly private money. He builds it in an area that needs economic growth. New businesses spring up around it. Eventually, new homes and new businesses to serve them.
The arena, with two teams as occupants, allows greater cost control, which Ilitch passes on to fans. The increased business allows him to pay for good rosters.
His traditional sports sense – hire good people, let them run things – extends to the Pistons, and they build a winner.
April, May and June become a series of fun-filled playoff nights. The worst-case scenario for fans
Now The Bad: Ilitch uses his new muscle to strong-arm the city into building him an arena. Our tax money sinks into a huge hole. He moves the Wings to the Palace while this is happening, leaving another hole at Joe Louis Arena.
He milks the monopoly by forcing fans to buy suites for both teams and advertisers to pay double or be boxed out.
The acquisition leaves him strapped and he doesn’t spend on players and coaches. The teams suffer from this single-handed approach, and sports become a downer in sports-crazed Detroit.
Both scenarios are possible. But ask yourself which is more likely? Ask yourself which kind of corporate citizen has Ilitch been to this point?
Then remember what I said a little earlier: These are not normal times. Few people are looking to invest in Detroit. No other new Pistons owner would be a boom for downtown.
These are hard times, the hardest for many. Ilitch is making a potential negative a relatively easy positive.
Normally, I’d be worried. And I suppose Ilitch could suddenly turn. But at 81, most people don’t change their stripes. The guy has been a savior for the Tigers (or have we forgotten Tom Monaghan?) and rebuilt the Wings. He has earned the benefit of the doubt.
And in the end, as Karen Davidson likely concluded, what other choice made as much sense?
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).