'Every day has been a joy': Sports exec Tom Wilson, who helped build Palace, LCA, retires
Tom Wilson, a sports and entertainment executive in Metro Detroit for more than four decades who oversaw the design and construction of The Palace of Auburn Hills and later helped make Little Caesars Arena an anchor of downtown Detroit, announced Wednesday he will retire from Olympia Entertainment, effective Thursday.
Wilson, most recently, has been president emeritus of Olympia Entertainment, the umbrella company for 313 Presents, the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers. He had been CEO of Olympia for nine years, after a 32-year run with the Detroit Pistons, 22 of which he was president and CEO of Palace Sports & Entertainment, overseeing the Pistons and the company's three music venues.
"I've been very, very fortunate," Wilson, 71, told The Detroit News in an interview Wednesday morning. "Overall, I have nothing but great memories. I was 11 years out of Cass Tech and running and NBA team. How does that happen? In what fantasy world would I have that opportunity?"
Wilson, who grew up at Six Mile and Woodward Avenue and attended Cass Tech and Wayne State, joined the Pistons in 1978, and was named CEO the following year. The Pistons broke ground on The Palace in 1986, and it opened in 1988 to rave reviews — and in time to host Pistons championships in 1989 and 1990.
The Palace, built for $80 million solely with Pistons owner Bill Davidson's funds, marked a sea change in NBA arenas.
The arena featured more than 100 suites, on three levels, including the most exclusive on the lower level, 16 rows from the court. NBA commissioner David Stern told all NBA executives building new arenas to visit The Palace during design and development, declaring the NBA was in the entertainment business, not the basketball business.
"Nobody had ever done that before," said Wilson, adding that Davidson gave him the initial budget and said beyond that, "The bank's closed." "That allowed us to charge more money than anybody had ever received, anywhere in the country.
"We were profitable before we ever opened the doors."
In 1993, Wilson was named president and CEO of the Pistons. And in 2004, he oversaw a banner year with Palace Sports & Entertainment, with the Pistons, Detroit Shock of the WNBA and the PSE-owned Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL all winning their respective championships, the first time ever in North American pro sports that one owner held three championships at the same time.
"It was embarrassment of riches," Wilson said, with a laugh. "Nobody's ever done that and probably no one will do it again. Nobody's crazy enough to own that many teams."
All told, he has nine championship rings, including three with the Pistons, three with the Shock and one with the Lightning.
Davidson, the longtime Pistons owner whom Wilson considered a father figure, died in 2009, and in 2010, Wilson got a call from Chris Ilitch. Wilson never would've left had Davidson been alive or if the Pistons stayed in the family, but Olympia eventually hired Wilson away from Palace Sports & Entertainment, just before Tom Gores bought the Pistons in 2011. With Olympia, Wilson also oversaw Fox Theatre, City Theatre and operations at Comerica Park and, before LCA, Joe Louis Arena.
But LCA was the crown jewel. It was a different process than The Palace. With the Palace, Wilson and Co. were trend-setters. With LCA, Wilson and his lieutenants traveled the country, looking for ideas to incorporate. LCA was built to host the Red Wings and concerts, but late in construction welcomed the Pistons as a tenant, as Wilson and his staff made last-minute changes to make it a two-team arena.
"There's growth in any industry over a 20-year period," Wilson said of LCA, which, unlike when The Palace opened, also featured restaurants, private clubs and other amenities.
LCA was an instant hit from a national perspective, quickly landing NCAA Tournament games and the 2020 Frozen Four (which was canceled because of COVID-19).
Marketing long has been considered one of Wilson's strengths — and there was mostly a stream of hits, especially for the Pistons, who were one of the most profitable NBA teams for many years.
But if he had one blunder, it was ushering in the Pistons' teal era of the 1990s.
"If that's not No. 1," said Wilson, "it's in the top five."
To be fair, teal was very much in vogue throughout the sports landscape in the 1990s, with the likes of the Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks, Charlotte Hornets and Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The Pistons eventually ditched the color scheme and returned to traditional red, blue and white.
Wilson said he's been planning his exit from Olympia for at least the last four or five years, and in 2017, Olympia hired NBA executive Chris Granger to run the sports business side of the Ilitch's vast portfolio. Granger is group president of sports, entertainment for Ilitch Holdings.
“Throughout his tenure, Tom has been an incredible asset to our organization. His inspiring and collaborative leadership style played an integral role in the development and opening of the innovative Little Caesars Arena in The District Detroit,” Chris Ilitch, President and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., said in a statement. “I am thankful for his invaluable contributions and partnership over the years.”
After graduating from Wayne State, Wilson moved to California, where he worked for the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Kings and The Forum. He also has spearheaded several philanthropic efforts in the area, including on boards for the Salvation Army, Forgotten Harvest and CATCH.
He's not sure what's next, though he acknowledged there have been some tire-kicking from some companies, even inquiries after the announcement was made Wednesday.
"Being a free agent, I don't know if I'm gonna do something again," said Wilson, adding that one of his biggest accomplishments was watching more than 100 Pistons and PSE employees move on to other companies in positions of leadership. "Part of me says I have nine rings, and I was kind of hoping for 10 rings.
"You never say never. But I'm in a good place, and am very, very happy. I've been blessed to be surrounded by amazing people for the last 40 years.
"Every day at work has been a joy, and not many of us can say that."