'It makes sense': Ilitch-led TV network would deepen family’s imprint

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Beyond the Red Wings and Tigers, the Detroit Pistons, owned by Tom Gores, are viewed as potential fare for an Ilitch-owned network.

What it might be called is uncertain, although Little Caesars Sports Network is a popular early pick.

Ilitch Holdings, Inc., instead is boring into issues and timetables after it was formally announced Thursday that a new Ilitch-owned sports network was in the “exploratory” phase, which could lead to a new television home for the family’s pro sports teams, the Tigers and Red Wings.

The Tigers and Red Wings each have long-term contracts with FSD that are set to expire early next decade. FSD, however, could be sold within months after its parent company, Disney, was ordered in July by the Justice Department to dispense with its sports properties acquired last year when it bought Twenty-First Century Fox.

Whether any sale would free the Tigers and Red Wings from their FSD contracts was not known Thursday, according to one team executive familiar with the agreements, who asked to remain nameless.

That sale, if it’s forthcoming, must happen within a 90-day window that has not yet been finalized as both public parties continue to negotiate resolution.

There has been no hint from the Ilitches that any Disney-FSD flux has fueled thoughts of their own television and entertainment empire. But the family is known to have long been interested in the kind of team-attached network arrangements enjoyed by the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Orioles, and Nationals, and by the Knicks and Rangers in New York, both of which are part of the Madison Square Garden Network.

“If you’re the Ilitch family, with very strong properties in the Red Wings and Tigers, this makes sense,” said Maury Brown, a sports business writer for Forbes Magazine. “Not every team or town is going to be able to do this.

All-weather coverage

“But the beauty of this, what makes this so unique, is that across pro sports, you don’t have a baseball team and a winter team (in Detroit’s case, the Red Wings) under the same ownership that covers the calendar year.

“Because of Detroit’s market, and the Tigers and Red Wings being an extension of the Ilitch family’s holdings, it just makes a lot of sense.”

Any such network would bring new realities for the owners, and for a sports audience that, per capita, is one of the most television-rich in professional sports.

Kirk Gibson, right, and Matt Shepard are among the Fox Sports Detroit broadcasters who worked Tigers games last season. An Ilitch Holdings-led venture would need to hire staff, announcers, technicians, camera people, and staff. There are no guarantees FSD personnel would simply shift employers.

Any such network would bring new realities for the owners, and for a sports audience that, per capita, is one of the most television-rich in professional sports.

The Ilitch network would need space for at least two, and probably three, new studios. It would need to hire staff, announcers, technicians, and camera people, not to mention sales staff — with no assurance FSD personnel would simply shift employers.

Gains would be significant beyond cutting out a partner that today shares with the Tigers and Red Wings its cut from an estimated several hundred million in annual revenue.

Any such move to its own TV empire could further bind and consolidate the Ilitch family’s imprint not only on two Detroit pro teams, but on their venues, Little Caesars Arena and Comerica Park, as well as on the Foxtown district in which both rest as part of a booming sports and entertainment zone that now also hosts the town’s NBA club, the Pistons.

The Pistons, too, are viewed as potential fare for an Ilitch-owned network. Although the team is owned by Tom Gores, and its contract with FSD is known to be longer than those governing the Tigers and Red Wings, the Pistons play at Little Caesars Arena and, in Brown’s view, make a potential network move more than possible.

The Tigers and Red Wings for years have finished 1-2 in local prime-time programming, even though the respective teams have undergone rebuilding periods.

The Tigers and Red Wings for years have finished 1-2 in local prime-time programming, even as two teams fell from the playoffs and spun into rebuilding cycles, with steadily lower ratings among the region’s nearly 4 million FSD subscribers.

It is conceivable an Ilitch network would simply replace FSD as the local cable carriers’ Tigers-Red Wings venue.

The Ilitches would have at the heart of their network two teams neatly splitting time — the Tigers with a regular-season schedule from April until October, and the Red Wings calendar a perfect complement from early October into April.

‘Natural business extension’

The family’s plans are believed to extend even deeper, as was made clear Thursday in words from Chris Granger, group president for sports and entertainment at Ilitch Holdings.

“As leaders in the rapidly evolving sports and entertainment industry,” Granger said, with the word “entertainment” perhaps key, “the creation of a new network would be a natural business extension for our organization.”

It is understood the Ilitches and their allies are thinking expansively, perhaps to televising concerts, as the MSG network has done, which would mesh with the Ilitches’ ownership of two concert/show sites: Little Caesars Arena and Fox Theater.

“You don’t want tractor pulls, and lacrosse isn’t going to do much for anyone,” Brown said, “but programming is going to suddenly get real interesting the next five years.

“And all that plays to the Ilitches’ favor.”

Brown mentions another possible menu item that became viable earlier this year following a Supreme Court go-ahead.

Legalized sports gambling.

“Sports betting is going to be a real thing here,” Brown said. “What’s happening already in New Jersey — the handle is substantial and it’s growing very quickly.

“Certainly, in Vegas (NHL presence, NFL headed there) it’s going to soar, and the Ilitches have had their hands in that end of it,” he said, referring to Marian Ilitch’s stake in Motor City Casino.

“ESPN already has been doing some work on that front. What all of this does is potentially provide additional programming for everybody. It’s just one more revenue stream, one more thing to chew on for a new network.”

It is beyond pure TV, of course, the Ilitches, and an entire sports industry, are gazing.

Cable subscriptions no longer are exclusive as games become available by way of Streaming and digital access. Ilitch Holdings is known to be considering possibilities there, also, as a sports market heads deeper into the 21st century.

For now, those curious about the family’s grand plans are being reminded this foray into a possible new sports network galaxy for Detroit is “preliminary” and “exploratory” and remains in something of an embryo stage.

But behind company doors it is acknowledged that plans are becoming increasingly broad and real and potentially serious, all as FSD’s status is determined, and as the Ilitches’ grand vision takes shape.

Twitter: @lynn_henning