August 10, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Competitive spirit makes Mike Ilitch perfect fit for Pistons

Mike Ilitch: "We believe we could bring a lot to the table that could be tremendously positive for the Pistons franchise." (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)


Go for it. It's the Ilitch Mantra, in the pizza business, in the sports business, in the competitive realm.

So this makes perfect sense, that Mike Ilitch would announce his intention Monday to pursue a purchase of the Pistons. It's a welcomed, fascinating foray, no matter where it leads. It's also not a surprise, even though Mike and Marian Ilitch never have expressed much interest in the NBA.

It would make business sense because it's the only logical way a much-needed arena will get built downtown, to house the Red Wings and Pistons. It makes emotional sense because the Pistons are in trouble and Ilitch cherishes Detroit and its history and loves to rehabilitate -- from the Wings, to the Tigers to the Foxtown area.

Owning three professional teams would be difficult, and not necessarily ideal. But I think the Ilitches would have significant investors in any purchase of the Pistons, The Palace and DTE Energy Music Theatre.

It would stretch Ilitch, no doubt. But if he could pull it off, it'd be great for the Pistons, having a local owner who's fiercely competitive and would keep the team from bolting the area.

Will a deal actually happen? No guarantee, but I'll say this -- when you have a very motivated seller (Karen Davidson) and a publicly motivated buyer, there's at least the path to a deal. And you could see the early paving of the path from the moment former Palace president Tom Wilson joined the Ilitch organization with the expressed goal of getting a new downtown arena.

If Davidson wants upwards of $500 million, I don't think it's happening, not in the economy here. But as time goes on without a sale, the pressure goes up, and I'm guessing the price comes down. While the threat of the Pistons leaving town cannot be dismissed, I can't picture an outside investor abandoning The Palace and its lucrative entertainment possibilities.

Not an impulse

I think it's notable that Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, made the formal announcement. He has become far more visible in his parents' business, and is sharp and discerning. If he's fully behind this plan, you can bet it's not purely impulsive.

Surely, before making such a public gambit, the Ilitches weighed the benefits of basically having an entertainment monopoly in the Detroit area against the financial risk. It's a savvy move by them, mixing emotions and business and essentially tossing the ball in Davidson's court. The recent rumor that a Las Vegas investor wanted to move the Pistons certainly stirred passions all over Detroit, all the way down to the Ilitches' Fox Theatre headquarters.

To ever get help for a new downtown arena -- desperately needed as Joe Louis Arena crumbles -- the Ilitches need public support. Rescuing the Pistons would generate support, and so would the notion of at least 100 hockey and basketball home games every year.

Say what you will about the Ilitches' business motives, but they're willing to leap when others aren't. I know the Tigers' season has become a major disappointment, but Mike Ilitch does fund the sixth-highest payroll in baseball. When he spoke the other day at the news conference introducing new Red Wing Mike Modano, Ilitch sounded as fired up as ever.

He talked about the foundations of his franchises, and how hard they are to build. He transformed the Wings into the best organization in hockey. The Tigers have been much more of a challenge, but Ilitch still has faith in the leadership, evidenced by his support of GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland. I don't have a problem with both coming back, although the urgency will rise next season.

History and tradition

Ilitch runs on competitive passion, and that sometimes leads to reckless spending. But even at 81, he can't turn off his go-for-it mentality.

"When I read in the paper there was a 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," Ilitch said in his statement. "We believe we could bring a lot to the table that could be tremendously positive for the Pistons franchise, the NBA, and the fans of this community."

The Ilitches acknowledge they don't know if the Pistons would accept their offer. But if Davidson was feeling pressure already, this will ratchet it. She put the team up for sale in January, then said in June she expected it be sold by October, a seemingly ambitious timetable.

There have been other names, including Taylor-based Atlas Oil Co. president Sam Simon, who could be part of the Ilitches' investment group. Simon is an avowed Pistons supporter, and could add basketball passion to Ilitch's Detroit sports passion.

It's hard to tell how likely this all is, in this economy. The Golden State Warriors recently sold for $450 million, but I question if the Pistons can reach that price, even as highly respected as the franchise is.

Bill Davidson built an amazing empire, competed well in the NBA and competed hard against the Ilitches for concert and entertainment dollars. For years, the organizations were bitter rivals, and any consolidation would be strange, although possibly necessary.

Davidson's passing made the Pistons immediately vulnerable, an unfortunate reality. But there's tremendous value there -- in the team's history, in the tradition, in The Palace itself -- and yes, there's an opportunity to condense and build downtown.

I don't know if Ilitch can pull it off, but there are plenty of reasons to root for it.">


Fifteen arenas in North America are home to an NBA team along with an NHL or pro minor league hockey team:

Atlanta ... Philips Arena

Boston ... TD Banknorth Garden

Charlotte ... Time Warner Cable Arena

Chicago ... United Center

Cleveland ... Quicken Loans Arena

Dallas ... American Airlines Center

Denver ... Pepsi Center

Houston ... Toyota Center

Los Angeles ... Staples Center

Milwaukee ... Bradley Center

New York ... Madison Square Garden

Philadelphia ... Wachovia Center

Phoenix ... US Airways Center

Toronto ... Air Canada Centre

Washington ... Verizon Center

Note: Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee and Phoenix have minor league hockey teams.

Palace facts

Capacity: Basketball, 22,076; hockey, 20,804; concerts and family shows, 6,000 to 23,000 depending on configuration.

Year opened: 1988.

Cost to build: $70 million.

Events: Annual average of about 200.

Suites: 193 total; 180 overlook the arena, some as close as 16 rows from the floor in the Presidents Club.

Joe Louis Arena facts

Capacity: Hockey, 20,066; basketball 20,153; concerts, 21,666; ice shows, 14,416; circus, 19,259.

Year opened: 1979.

Cost to build: $57 million.

Events: Annual average of about 175.

Suites: 86 premium suites; the Comerica Bank Legend's Club, a 181-person private seating area, opened in 2008.

Mike Ilitch, with wife Marian, never had expressed much interest in ... (Charles V. Tines/The Detroit News)
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