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Henning: Tigers' future uncertain, but payroll rises

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

In something of a paradox, the Ilitch family, which has been behind some of Metro Detroit's most public investments and history these past 50 years, remains intensely private.

The secrecy extends to Mike Ilitch's highest-profile entity this side of Little Caesars Pizza — the Tigers.

It is not clear what's ahead. It is not at all clear why the mid-market Tigers, a franchise that would have reason to operate modestly, now owes more money on future contracts ($459 million) than any team in baseball this side of the Dodgers ($564 million), figures that were starkly presented two weeks ago in a story by

Detroit's debt is bound to grow as the Tigers pursue additional help for their bullpen, starting rotation, and lineup ahead of spring training.

Spend, spend, spend

There are several plausible scenarios for why Ilitch is running up such enormous obligations on future deals — money that is somewhat out of character even for a man of Ilitch's means and generosity.

One explanation is he is simply doing what he always has done. Ilitch began 10 years ago spending heavily on his baseball team. In the span of slightly more than a decade, his Tigers payroll now threatens to nearly quadruple and could reach a point ($189 million) where the Tigers pay a luxury tax on their salaries.

Only five big-league teams have ever been socked with a luxury tax, the Tigers being one of those five for barely eclipsing the ceiling by $1.8 million in 2008.

Ilitch likes stars and isn't afraid of paying handsomely for a roster that regularly puts the Tigers at or above the three million mark in attendance, which is astounding when two million was the gold standard for attendance at old, and bigger, Tiger Stadium.

The Tigers' brand name is huge — immeasurably bigger than it was before Ilitch and his flagship team began a string of playoff runs and box-office surges. And so further investment in that brand and in Comerica Park's turnstiles makes sense to the extent massive amounts of owed cash can be justified by a team from Detroit.

It is also known that the Tigers' long — and in retrospect short-changed — local television and radio contracts will expire early in the next decade. Once renegotiated, the Tigers, in step with other teams that have re-crafted their TV/radio deals, figure to make a killing on a new deal that eases any debt that might have accrued from those and future heavy salaries.

Sell, sell, sell

Another strong possibility exists based on America's professional sports franchise history.

The team could steadily be moving toward a sale.

It has long been said — minus public decrees from the family but with some understanding of their tastes — that the Tigers were Mike's baby all the way. His wife, Marian, we have come to know, even from Mike's playful quotes, was not viewed as having the same appetite or patience for issuing big baseball contracts.

Mike's son, Chris, who oversees the multi-faceted Ilitch Holdings, has also been said to be less enamored of the Tigers and perhaps more accepting of Ilitch's other team, the Red Wings, which now operates in a league with a salary cap that makes a pure businessman more tolerant of costs as jarring as players' paychecks.

The question is what happens post-Mike, which is relevant when an owner happens to be 85 and to our knowledge hasn't been granted the gift of immortality.

This is where it is more than fair, and in fact necessary, to wonder if the Tigers will end up in another person's or entity's hands once Mike has passed on.

This is a question that can be asked minus cynicism as a team rolls up huge paydays that now extend into the next decade.

What you can appreciate, from the Ilitches' point of view, is that a franchise for which they paid $82 million could today sell for something at or approaching $1 billion. That's not a bad return on their initial pledge, even if a new ballpark and an annual payroll of $150 million-plus classifies as serious overhead.

As an example of what the Ilitches might be looking at in a few years, imagine the Tigers are quietly placed on the block. Imagine that a well-heeled buyer (wink-wink Dan Gilbert), not especially bothered by a $1 billion sales price or a half-billion in future payday responsibilities, decides to buy the team.

It's reasonable to assume the salary elephant is simply part of a deal a new owner will view as a sales reality. As a figure that, in short time, will be viewed as inconsequential as all past money milestones have come to be known in professional sports. As ancient economic history.

What would happen, then, to a Tigers team defined during the past decade by Ilitch's investments and Dave Dombrowski's front-office stewardship is impossible to gauge. A personal belief, if the script calls for selling the team, is that much would change, probably beginning with the front office, which has been wedded to Ilitch and to his ways and philosophies.

That's getting ahead of the story, for sure. But not recklessly, not when an owner, his age, and a team's astoundingly liberal payroll are today viewed with as much curiosity as fascination.