Howes: Gilbert's casino sale fuels Tigers talk — or not

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Dan Gilbert's sale of his Greektown Casino for $1 billion is fueling speculation that he's angling to buy the Detroit Tigers -- but he isn't.

Dan Gilbert’s $1-billion sale of his Greektown Casino is fueling speculation he’s angling to own a Major League Baseball franchise, specifically the Detroit Tigers.

But there are at least three problems: The Ilitch family repeatedly says the Tigers are not for sale, despite the team's disappointing, 98-loss records in each of the past two seasons. Second, Gilbert’s interests in casino gaming through his Jack Entertainment LLC preclude him from owning any team under current MLB rules.

And third: it's not true, according to a ranking source close to the situation. Gilbert and Christopher Ilitch, president of the Tigers and CEO of the family-controlled Ilitch Holdings Inc., have not had any discussions about any possible sale — chiefly because the family, through at least one public statement and two separate Chris Ilitch interviews with The Detroit News over the past 14 months, has insisted it is "committed to long-term Ilitch family ownership" of the Tigers.

"We're not in conversations with them," Matthew Cullen, CEO of Jack Entertainment and principal of Gilbert affiliate Rock Ventures LLC, told The News in an email.  He said speculation that Gilbert is selling Greektown to free capital to buy the Tigers "just isn't accurate. Chris Ilitch made clear previously they intend to be long-term owners."

Yes, he did. And Ilitch, a prominent heir to the pizza-and-entertainment fortune, doesn't make public statements casually. He's cautious, precise, fiercely defensive of his parents' vision for their family of companies, including the Tigers, the Red Wings and their place in a reinvented Detroit. Skeptics are free to question his sincerity when it comes to the Tigers, but they may be waiting a long time to be proven right.

Ask yourself: if you'd just committed $1 billion or more to realize your District Detroit, anchored by a new Little Caesars Arena; moved ahead with plans to build a new corporate headquarters across Woodward from Comerica Park; and finally saw the revitalization of Detroit you chased for a generation coming to fruition — would you sell a cornerstone of that entertainment vision to a rival?

The short answer is no, not now, anyway. But times, conditions and opinions do change. Sports owners die — Mike Ilitch, the Lions' William Clay Ford, the Pistons' Bill Davidson, the Buffalo Bills' Ralph Wilson, a lifelong resident of Grosse Pointe Shores. And there are no guarantees their heirs will commit inheritances, fortunes or both to pursuing championships.

Wilson's trustees sold the Bills. Davidson's dealt the Pistons. The Ilitch family is holding the Tigers and the Wings. And Lions owner Martha Ford, 93, runs the team with her four children, but there's no guarantee the chronically troubled NFL franchise will forever remain a Ford family holding — especially if their shares in the Blue Oval remain stuck in neutral.

If the Fords someday put the Lions in play, or if the Ilitches prove the skeptics right and offer to sell the team in five years, or 10, would Gilbert be on everyone's short list as a buyer? Of course he would, if present business trends (and his health) hold.

He controls the largest mortgage lender in the United States, affiliated tech companies, start-ups attracting Silicon Valley venture-capital money, the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, a regional gaming company with five remaining properties, and a prodigious real estate portfolio transforming the face of downtown Detroit. The Bloomberg Billionaire's Index pegs his total net worth at $6.8 billion and the Forbes 400 says it's $7.1 billion.

Any effort by Gilbert to acquire an MLB franchise effectively is blocked by the league's no-gambling rule for owners. That forced the Ilitches to remove Marian Ilitch from the Tigers' ownership when the family pushed into casino gaming in Detroit, making Marian Ilitch the MotorCity Casino's owner of record — not her husband Mike.

Two things could change that predicament. First, Gilbert's move to sell Greektown Casino to Penn National Gaming Inc. and VICI Properties Inc. is the first step in what's likely to be a systematic divestiture of his Jack Entertainment gaming holdings. The market is attractive, valuations are comparatively high and the industry is consolidating.

Second, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on sports betting is likely to liberalize attitudes toward gaming and sports. That could lower barriers to cross-ownership of gaming interests and professional sports teams, especially as more franchises call Las Vegas, the American capital of casino gaming, home.

“This is a dry constitutional issue about states’ rights, but it will likely change how we have viewed sports for the past 100 years," Gabriel Feldman, the director of the sports law program at Tulane Law School, told the New York Times. "It’s called the gamblization of sports."

But it's not here yet. As long as Gilbert owns casinos, and as long as the Ilitches stand by their Tigers, the status quo stands — until conditions change.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.