What the what?
When news started circulating Friday morning that Oakland University — and not some tech company — has emerged as the apparent leading bidder to purchase The Palace of Auburn Hills, the reaction was more confusion than anything else.
But if you really sit down and start to process it, this isn't some wackadoodle plan. Rather it makes some sense on a number of fronts, and Golden Grizzlies athletics almost certainly isn't the main motivating factor.
Higher-ed funding from the Michigan Legislature has fallen drastically over the past decade-plus, leaving universities scrambling for more revenue streams. Often, that means higher tuition, which can lead to angry prospective customers (students), which can lead to declining enrollment. Investing in an uber-valuable property such as The Palace, which sits on more than 100 acres just an eight-minute drive from the school's Rochester campus, could bring millions into Oakland's annual coffers — with the added benefit of, since it's a public university, being property-tax-free.
Here's a look at some of the ways Oakland University could utilize The Palace property, which includes The Palace, the Pistons' practice facility, and a massive parking lot.
►The obvious thought is Oakland simply wants to expand its footprint, with an extension campus — which would continue the long, frustrating process of killing the "commuter school" reputation. Theoretically, this would include the building of student housing, which can't go up quick enough on the Rochester campus. As recently as a few years ago, many of the 20,000-plus undergraduate students actually had to take up residency in nearby hotels.
►The Palace property could serve as a permanent home for one of the university's schools, like, perhaps, the William Beaumont School of Medicine, which still is in its infancy, having been granted full medical accreditation in February 2015, in partnership with hospitals in Troy, Royal Oak, and Grosse Pointe. Moving a school off the Rochester campus would have the added benefit of easing a long-standing parking problem.
►It's unclear what the purchase price would be from Tom Gores — who paid $325 million, considered then and now a significant bargain, back in 2011 for the Pistons, The Palace and DTE Energy Music Theatre — to Oakland, but, barring a sweetheart deal, it would figure to be substantial. Oakland could look to immediately recoup some of that money by selling off parcels of the rich land.
►Oakland could utilize the 24,276-seat Palace for its own special events, most notably its graduation ceremonies, which have become an all-day affair for winter and spring commencements at the 4,000-seat O'Rena in Rochester. Oakland also could rent out The Palace to high schools for their own graduation ceremonies, as Palace Sports & Entertainment used to do.
►The Palace used to be the premier concert venue in southeast Michigan, and again could be utilized for big shows — though, granted, not as much as you'd think. Little Caesars Arena has become the go-to for big acts, and any big-time promoter, given a choice, would pick downtown Detroit. That said, given the tight scheduling at LCA, which houses both the Red Wings and Pistons, The Palace, which is only 30 years old and remains a world-class venue, would provide an alternative for big acts who can't make LCA work, as well as for acts who aren't quite big enough to justify being on LCA's calendar. Oakland does already own one concert venue, the outdoor Meadow Brook Amphitheatre, but leases it to Gores' folks at 313 Presents.
►Now, onto sports usage. Oakland University has long been considering building a practice facility for its basketball programs. Right now, the men's and women's basketball teams plus the volleyball team all share the O'Rena, which isn't equipped with a whole lot of bells and whistles. Film sessions often are held inside the gym, with video projected onto the walls of the O'Rena. The Palace site, which also includes the Pistons' old practice facility — which they will leave for downtown within the next year — would solve that problem, without the added hassle of constructing a new building on campus.
►If Oakland is to continue moving up the athletics food chain, and eventually out of the Horizon League, it would need a bigger arena in which to play basketball. Its arena already is small by Horizon League standards, though Oakland men's basketball — the department's marquee program — doesn't regularly fill it up anyway. That's why the O'Rena would figure to remain the mostly permanent home, at least for the foreseeable future, with perhaps the bigger games (Detroit Mercy? Michigan State?) moving to The Palace.
►Speaking of the Horizon League, the 2019 men's and women's basketball tournaments almost certainly will be the last at LCA, which can't keep giving up valuable dates for an event that only is a modest draw. The league has expressed interest in sticking with "Motor City Madness," but the feeling probably isn't mutual from Olympia Entertainment's point of view. The Palace could provide a landing spot for 2020 and beyond.
►Oakland also recently started exploring adding Division I men's and women's hockey to its roster of teams but only was interested in doing so if it could have its own standalone arena. The Palace can be equipped for hockey, as the Detroit Vipers used to play there. Any newly constructed rink could cost up to $70 million, university officials told The News in April. (The upper deck, of course, would have to be reconfigured for alternative uses, or curtained off.)
►That brings us to another revenue stream, and perhaps a big one: Renting ice time to local youth hockey teams. There is a dearth of options in Metro Detroit for local teams, often leading rinks to schedule right down to the minute for game and practice usage. The Palace would provide another option, and would be a desirable booking for teams, given the building's built-in cachet.
►The Palace also could be of significant interest to the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which often has to scour the state for suitable venues for some of its state championships. Girls basketball recently relocated from East Lansing to Calvin College; that short-term agreement is up after 2019. The boys hockey finals' contract with USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth is up after 2022. The wrestling finals always were a hit at The Palace, until moving to Ford Field in Detroit in 2018, after The Palace closed its doors when the Pistons packed up and moved downtown for the 2017-18 season.
►Oakland also could cash in on selling the naming rights to The Palace. Oakland has been in talks with companies to re-name the O'Rena but never closed a deal. A building with the long, storied reputation of The Palace could reignite and accelerate such negotiations.