Niyo: Efforts to lure big-time sporting events to Detroit have hit roadblocks

John Niyo
The Detroit News
It takes more than a new venue like Little Caesars Arena or huge capital investments such as Ford Field’s recent $100 million renovation to lure high-profile events to Metro Detroit.

Just because you build it, it doesn’t mean they will come. And just because they’ve been here before, well, there’s no guarantee they’ll come back.

So while Detroit’s downtown revival continues, and the “comeback city” label begins to stick, there are reminders everywhere about just how far there is to go. That’s true in the sports realm, too, as the local pro teams are mired in various stages of rebuilding and efforts to bring in major events — an NCAA Final Four, the NFL Draft, NBA and NHL All-Star games and so on — have all hit roadblocks.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” said David Beachnau, who certainly would know as a senior vice president for the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau and longtime former executive director of the Detroit Sports Commission. “People don’t understand the competitive nature of going after these events.”

Indeed, it takes more than a sparkling new venue like Little Caesars Arena or huge capital investments such as Ford Field’s recent $100 million renovation to lure the kind of high-profile events that sports fans here grew accustomed to a decade ago.

You remember it, right? In a seven-year stretch, the Detroit area hosted the 2004 Ryder Cup and 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club, the 2005 MLB All-Star game at Comerica Park, Super Bowl XL (2006) as well as the 2009 Final Four and 2010 Frozen Four at Ford Field. The Pistons also added to the fanfare by playing in consecutive NBA Finals in 2004 and ’05, as did the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals in ’08 and ’09.

But there hasn’t been much of that since. And while there are encouraging signs of progress — the Detroit Grand Prix just celebrated its 30th anniversary with another successful racing weekend on Belle Isle, and the PGA Tour is set to return to Michigan for the first time since 2009 with the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club later this month — getting back in the game is harder than ever, in many respects.

Detroit will host a variety of NCAA championships over the next few years, including hockey’s Frozen Four next March and the 2022 wrestling finals. The LCA also will host opening-round NCAA men’s basketball again in 2021. This August, the arena also will host the League of Legends Championship Series event that's expected to attract 15,000 eports gaming fans to Detroit. 

But last summer’s failure to land another men’s Final Four in the latest round of bidding was a blow for local organizers, losing out to other municipalities with built-in advantages ranging from government funding to larger hotel inventories and mass transit.

Still, Beachnau says, “I think we’re at a point now where the region really is poised for another run like we had 10-15 years ago.”

'United front'

One reason is because everyone seems to be on the same page, finally. The nonprofit Detroit Sports Commission, founded in 2001, decided in October 2017 to form a local organizing committee — the Detroit Sports Organizing Corporation — to consolidate its big-game hunting efforts. That 16-member group includes representatives from all four of the city’s pro sports teams, prominent civic and business leaders, the mayor’s office, even NBC Sports broadcaster Mike Tirico, who lives in Ann Arbor.

“It allows us to be much more strategic and collaborative as a community — that’s the thing that maybe we were missing early on,” said Michael Wright, the Wayne State chief of staff who chairs the committee, which meets quarterly to brainstorm ideas and hash out plans. “It’s a Detroit bid and having that united front, I think, really goes a long way. You’ve got some heavyweights around the table that are going to show the city in its best light and do their damnedest to bring in these big events.

“We’ve got a special situation here in Detroit. We’ve got a city on the rise, and we’ve got the four pro sports teams within spitting distance of one another downtown. So we want to make sure we integrate the people and the assets we have to present the best possible case.”

Jerome Bettis and the Steelers defeated the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL at Ford FIeld.

There’s certainly a better case to be made now than there was 20 years ago, when billionaire automotive icon Roger Penske helped spearhead a downtrodden Detroit’s Super Bowl bid and then worked tirelessly to make the event a surprising success. An “exclamation point,” as Penske describes it in hindsight, “that Detroit was coming back.”

 “And as I look now … the renaissance of the city is amazing,” Penske said. “(In 2006) we boarded up buildings, painted windows and everything else. I remember calling MDOT to clean up I-94 and I-75 so when people would come in, it would look like a real city.”

Real investment followed downtown, from corporations like General Motors and billionaires like Dan Gilbert to countless other young entrepreneurs. And now nearly five years removed from the “Grand Bargain” and the city’s exit from bankruptcy, what civic leaders see is a real opportunity.

Tourism is up, with the number of annual visitors to metro Detroit triple what it was 10 years ago. Cobo Center revenues have more than doubled over the last five years. And the DCMVB is seeing a steady increase in interest from convention and meeting planners from across the country.

“The conversation about Detroit has changed dramatically,” Beachnau said. “We couldn’t even get our foot in the door in many cases with some of these organizations 5-6 years ago. And now we may not be landing the larger meetings and conventions yet, but at least they’re considering Detroit, we’re making short lists.”

Stumbling block

The to-do lists for bidding on major sports events are anything but short, however. With a new arena downtown, Detroit seems a safe bet to host the NHL and NBA All-Star games in the near future, though the lagging District Detroit development raises questions about just how soon. The Lions, meanwhile, remain hopeful about prospects for hosting an NFL Draft — requests for bid proposals for 2022 and 2024 are expected later this summer.

"We can't do what they did in Nashville," Lions president Rod Wood said, after the most recent host set an attendance record with 600,000 fans filling the streets for the three-day event, "but there are things that we might be able to do that would be in that vein and have the whole downtown showcased and probably use multiple venues."

The NFL Draft, which was in Nashville in 2019, is on Detroit's wish list.

Hotel space remains a stumbling block for events of that size, despite all the new luxury boutiques downtown — The Siren, Shinola, Detroit Foundation, Element, and others. There are some 5,000 hotel rooms in the downtown area, with a few thousand more on the way. But it’s the “big box” hotels with 800-plus rooms like the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center that NCAA officials are seeking in Final Four bids, for example.

“We’re seeing more and more interest from hotel developers because it’s a very strong and hot market right now,” Beachnau said. “So we think, long-term, we’ll have our hotels.”

In the shorter term, there’s also a legislative push to help with the financial piece of the process.

In 2003, Texas became the first state to set up a public trust fund that helps cities attract major events. Not coincidentally, six of the last 16 men’s Final Fours have been held in Texas, and both Houston (2023) and San Antonio (2025) won return dates in the latest round of bidding. The other two cities that won out — Phoenix (2024) and Indianapolis (2026) — also are in states that have passed similar trust fund bills.

Here in Michigan, Republican Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth last June introduced the "Large Special Events Fund Act" to authorize using revenue from state taxes to help subsidize local bids for major conferences, conventions and sports events. That bill remains in committee but DSOC officials are hopeful it’ll come up for a vote and become legislation later this year.

Estimates on what it’ll cost to put on some of these events varies wildly. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, bid documents showed next year’s Final Four in Atlanta will cost as much as $8.5 million in taxpayer money, though the bulk of that will come from funds generated by a hike in the city’s hotel tax. Bids for future Final Fours could easily double that amount, though, “and that money’s got to come from somewhere within the community, whether there’s corporate or philanthropic contributions,” said Beachnau, who noted that the Super Bowl XL host committee budget was $18 million. (Atlanta’s budget for this year’s Super Bowl reportedly was $46 million.)

Of course, the cost-benefit analysis of such an endeavor is up for debate. Proponents will cite inflated economic impact estimates, while critics understandably will point to opportunity costs, question how much of the revenues stay local and ask whether billionaires and corporations really need another trust fund.

That hasn’t stopped the competition, however. And it’s not just Texas that Detroit will have to mess with these days. Other midsized markets have gone all-in.

'A matter of time'

Minneapolis hosted both the Super Bowl and the men’s Final Four this year, the men’s and women’s Frozen Four in 2018, the Ryder Cup in 2016, and is in the midst of a four-year run hosting the Summer X-Games. The Twin Cities also will host the NCAA volleyball and wrestling championship next year and the women’s Final Four in 2022. Cleveland will host baseball’s All-Star game this summer, opening-round NCAA tournament games next spring, the NFL Draft in 2021, the NBA All-Star game in ’22 and a women’s Final Four in 2024. And in a 12-month span starting in February 2021, Indianapolis will host the NBA All-Star game, the men’s Final four, the Indianapolis 500, the Big Ten football championship and the College Football Playoff title game.

All of which adds to the importance of events like the upcoming PGA Tour stop in Detroit, a move Gilbert engineered after Quicken Loans’ five-year run sponsoring a tournament in Washington D.C.

“I think we understand how important it is to the community, and we understand what it signifies for the city,” Quicken Loans CEO Jay Farner said. “Bringing these type of events to the city helps shine a light on all the great things that are happening here, the great people that live here, and that’s what’s really most important.”

The PGA Tour event isn’t a one-off event — it’s a four-year deal to start. And tournament organizers say the eight-day festival surrounding it this summer will only grow over time.

“We want them leaving here thinking this is not a comeback story, but that Detroit is back,” said Jason Langwell, executive director for the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

The rabid response, including nearly all the corporate and hospitality space selling out two months prior to the tournament, suggests other major golf events might be back, too, though most of the future sites are booked through at least 2025.

 “You’ve got a lot of great, smart leaders and organizations that have a deep commitment to the game,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “And given the strength of this marketplace, to me, it’s just a matter of time.”

Time and money may be the largest factors. But for local organizers, the real key is getting organized and then letting decision makers know times have changed in Detroit. That was evident last June when the DSOC hosted NCAA officials for a site visit, capped by a rooftop reception at the Madison Building.

“It’s a must for us,” Beachnau said. “We can talk about it, we can advertise, we can market to them all we want. But the key for us is to get them here to see what's happening in Detroit firsthand. I honestly don’t think we were taken that seriously with the men’s basketball committee until they got here and saw the change and saw all the community leaders come together to know that we’re serious about it."

Twitter: @JohnNiyo