October 6, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Mike Ilitch's bold move to buy Pistons would benefit Detroit

And now, it gets really interesting. As expected, Mike Ilitch has moved into position to buy the Pistons, The Palace and other entertainment entities. He’s the front-runner not because he’s a big fan of Rodney Stuckey and John Kuester, but because there’s a larger, bolder plan in place.

Fans might get nervous when one man, or one family, controls so much, understandably so. Ilitch is closing in on what’s nearly an entertainment monopoly in southeastern Michigan. But I’ll say it again: The benefits far outweigh the concerns.

This is about business and emotions. It’s also, obviously, about getting a new arena in downtown Detroit, which only makes economic sense if it hosts two tenants, the Red Wings and Pistons. If the purchase gets done, Ilitch would become the only person in the country who’s the majority owner of three major pro sports franchises — the Wings, Tigers and Pistons.

It would be an amazing collection, and also a hint at the aggressiveness of son Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings. It’s a commitment to an area that has been good to Ilitch, who has been good in return. It would come at a high cost — the price has not been revealed but Ilitch has exclusive negotiating rights for 30 days — and could bring a handsome benefit.

I give Ilitch credit. Anyone who’s willing to invest a lot right now has a competitive adventurism sorely needed around here. He saw an opportunity (and yes, a need), and smartly went for it.

What makes this especially fascinating is that the futures of at least two teams are in play. No, this wouldn’t mean the Red Wings would head to The Palace of Auburn Hills, not even necessarily in the short term.

Ilitch, 81, would never abandon his business interests downtown, including the Motor City Casino owned by his wife, Marian.

Pros and cons

This is about stoking leverage to bring the Pistons to Detroit to share a building with the Wings, and using The Palace as a respected concert venue. Ilitch already has the avid support of mayor Dave Bing and the Detroit City Council.

The Ilitches have made the best offer so far to Karen Davidson, who’s desperate to sell. It’s a tumultuous time to be doing it, with the season starting Oct. 27. But this is business, and long-time owner Bill Davidson passed away 18 months ago, so any simmering rivalry between the organizations shouldn't stop an agreement.

Here are the potential positives: The Pistons would turn from unnerving uncertainty to experienced, local ownership.

Having four pro teams downtown would give Detroit a humming sports hub, maybe (just maybe) an antidote to tough economic times.

The Wings could move forward with plans for a new arena, assuming it would be easier to finance with double the guaranteed home dates (82 regular-season games — 41 in each sport). Most cities with NBA and NHL teams use one arena.

The Wings could finish out the next few seasons in Joe Louis Arena, which then could be demolished and the riverfront property used for other purposes.

The potential downsides: The Ilitch family could be spread too thin, either in financial commitment or time commitment.

If one team, or one venue, loses games (or money), would assets be shifted from another? Does it really make sense to build a new arena in these times?

Taking charge

I'm not dismissing the concerns, and no deal is done yet. But someone has to buy the Pistons and something has to be done about the aging Joe, and someone has to take charge.

Ilitch is not faultless as an owner, evidenced by the Tigers’ long early dreariness. But the Wings have won four Stanley Cups under him, primarily because he assembled a tremendous front office, led by Jimmy Devellano and Ken Holland, and gave it proper resources.

He has tried to do the same with the Tigers, spending liberally and placing a lot of faith in Dave Dombrowski. With the Pistons, Ilitch would have one leader ready to go — former Palace president Tom Wilson. The hiring of Wilson was the clear prelude to this pursuit. Wilson expertly manages entertainment properties, and would have enough responsibility without getting involved in basketball personnel.

Hopefully, Pistons president Joe Dumars would not be hamstrung by fiscal concerns, and would be given a fair chance to rebuild a model franchise. That's just one of the questions that would be spawned after the big question is answered.

If Ilitch wants something — or someone — badly enough, he usually finds a way to get it. He courts big-name coaches and big-time players. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The thrill is in the competition, and if this deal goes through, Ilitch will have scored a huge one.


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