Niyo: Silence isn't golden for Detroit's pro owners

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Pistons owner Tom Gores lives in Los Angeles, but he spoke to the media at the team’s home opener last week.

A penny for their thoughts?

No, you've given them a lot more than that. And though the growing anger is palpable, with the Lions coming up lame again and the Tigers licking their wounds while the Royals celebrate a World Series title, don't forget: The season for ticket renewals is nearly upon us.

Which makes this an oddly unsettling time to be a pro sports fan in Detroit, doesn't it?

Not just because we're more than seven years removed from the last championship parade downtown, the longest title drought this sports-crazed city has endured since the early 1980s. Not just because the Tigers began their season with a whopping $173 million payroll and finished last in their division. And certainly not just because the Lions again are a laughingstock, limping home from London after the kind of international incident that generally results in someone getting court-martialed.

Nope. Mostly, it's because no one seems all that sure what's next, in large part because ownership isn't saying. Or speaking, really. At least not in any meaningful way.

And while that's not uncommon — the Titans just trotted out a team president as ownership's proxy after firing their coach Tuesday — it only adds to the unrest here for fans demanding more even as they're getting less from the teams in which they invest the most.

The one owner we hear from regularly these days is the Pistons' Tom Gores, a guy who spends most of his time in Beverly Hills. (The one in California, not Michigan.) It's refreshing, nonetheless, especially now that we can see the vision he has tried to articulate coming into focus, with Stan Van Gundy in charge — candidly so — and new vice chairman Arn Tellem arriving to lend a hand.

"I feel right now like my vision is able to walk the talk," Gores said last week, prior to the Pistons' home opener at the Palace, "because of the people on the ground."

No roar from Lions

Down in Allen Park, though, all the talk is about walking papers. And so we wait now, to hear from the Ford family, as this season has come undone in dramatic fashion. The Lions are 1-7 heading into their midseason bye, and at the risk of sounding negative — sorry, Jim Caldwell — this team no longer looks competitive on the field.

Lions owner Martha Ford has only spoken to the media once since assuming control after the death of her husband.

In January, the Lions brass all agreed last season's 11-5 record and wild-card playoff loss signified "a good year, not a great year." There is no downplaying what this season is, however. It's an embarrassment. And last weekend's 45-10 shellacking by the Chiefs in London left everyone wondering if more changes were in store, with general manager Martin Mayhew — and possibly Caldwell — seemingly next in the firing line.

But that's just idle chatter because owner Martha Ford has spoken publicly just once — briefly in June — in the 20 months since she assumed control of the franchise following William Clay Ford Sr.'s passing. Before that, her late husband's last extended interview came with a group of beat writers in June 2009.

Bill Ford Jr., the Lions vice chairman who many viewed as his father's likely successor running the team, spoke for the family at Caldwell's introductory news conference in January 2014. But he made it clear this fall he has limited input in the decision-making process. And his sisters, who appear to be more involved, have yet to share any thoughts publicly.

Mayhew was asked about that shift in dynamics last week, but declined to answer, saying, "I'm not gonna get into that."

"Obviously the family's very disappointed," he added. "I mean, they're very passionate. They love this organization. They love this football team. They understand what this football team means for our community."

And yet, what few in this community can understand is why they seem incapable of producing a consistent winner. That's a question a huge segment of the fan base would love to hear the Fords answer, preferably at a news conference announcing Mayhew's dismissal, among other changes.

No answers from Ilitch

Then again, that's something we're still waiting for from the Ilitch family as well.

Mike Ilitch's passionate pursuit for the biggest prize — on the diamond and the ice — has been well-documented and, in the case of the Red Wings, well-rewarded. But he hasn't answered any serious questions about what's happening with the Tigers since last November, when he showed up for a news conference to announce a hefty extension for Victor Martinez.

Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch hasn’t had anything to say to the media for nearly a year.

He laughed off any concerns about the hefty Tigers payroll that day. (At one point, he pretended to check his wallet, then joked, "Yeah, I'm OK. I've got some 20s in here.") But he also declined to say much about his disappointment with a quick playoff exit, or his rookie manager's growing pains, or that troublesome bullpen.

"You know, I'm not gonna say anything," Ilitch said. "I'm just gonna be quiet and, you know, just do some things that I should do. And let the chips fall where they may."

Maybe that was his way of putting team president Dave Dombrowski on notice. But when the chips fell the way they did, and Dombrowski abruptly was fired in early August after the trade deadline, there was only a written statement from ownership.

Three months later, we still haven't heard an explanation from Ilitch — or his influential son, Chris, the president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings — as to why things went down the way they did. Or why assistant general manager Al Avila was installed as Dombrowski's replacement. Or why the team waved the white flag on 2015, selling off All-Stars David Price and Yoenis Cespedes. Or why manager Brad Ausmus was retained following an 87-loss season.

Or why 2016 will be any different, particularly with the family's focus squarely on the new District Detroit project, including a new hockey arena that's carrying a $627 million price tag. If I'm buying a season ticket, I'd like to know how that might affect the Tigers spending. And I'd prefer to hear it from the guy writing the checks.

Of course, there are plenty of successful sports owners who remain quiet and let their front-office executives do the talking. That's their prerogative, and it's often understandable, particularly at an advanced age. But silence doesn't sell when things don't go well. And if they're going to peddle this relationship with their fans as a public trust, it sure would help if they shared some of their feelings — and maybe even their plans — publicly. And personally.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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