Ilitches weigh starting own sports TV network

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Christopher Ilitch

The Ilitch family is considering forming a regional television network dedicated to coverage of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings professional sports franchises they own, The Detroit News learned Wednesday night.

The network would not be launched until early in the next decade, after current Tigers-Red Wings contracts with Fox Sports Detroit have expired, said an executive with knowledge of the family’s preliminary plans. The source requested anonymity because of the potential project’s uncertain nature.

The Tigers and Ilitch Holdings declined comment Wednesday night, but Ilitch Holdings released a statement Thursday morning, confirming the exploration of the regional sports network.

"The (regional sports network) would serve as the television, broadcast and distribution home for the Detroit Tigers, the Detroit Red Wings and additional sports- and entertainment-related content. The extensive exploratory process will begin immediately, and no deadline has been set for completion."

Christopher Ilitch is president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc.

The Tigers and Red Wings have been airing on FSD for the past two decades, and in their peak years posted ratings that per-capita were among the best of any market in professional sports. They have consistently finished 1-2 in local prime-time programming during their regular-season schedules, even in recent years as both teams have fallen out of the playoffs and dealt with the desolation of rebuilding cycles.

“FOX Sports Detroit is a great partner and we look forward to discussing renewal and extension possibilities,” Chris Granger, Group President, Sports and Entertainment, Ilitch Holdings, Inc., said in the statement.  “At the same time, we have two perennially highly-rated and historic franchises, which provide compelling year-round content and programming. As such, we feel our organization is uniquely positioned to explore the launch of what we believe could be a highly successful regional sports network.”

More: Chris Ilitch: We're committed to long-term Tigers ownership

The Ilitch family’s prospective move comes at a time of turbulence in the regional sports network galaxy. FSD is a division of 21st Century Fox, which last December was purchased by Disney for $71 billion. But the Justice Department ruled this summer that Fox must divest itself of its 22 regional sports networks because Disney already owned sports-network giant ESPN.

FSD thus becomes part of a potential sales bloc, which, regardless of how ownership is resolved, is not primary in the Ilitches’ end game.

They are studying the potential for a Tigers-Red Wings network that would rival other sports’ teams that are covered by in-house networks: the Yankees on YES, the Red Sox on NESN, the Knicks and Rangers on MSG, the Dodgers on Spectrum Sports.

It is also possible the Pistons could join once their longer-term deal with FSD expires. While the Ilitches have no ownership stake in the Pistons, a potentially favorable shift for Detroit’s NBA team is at least plausible.

It is known, too, that technology and its revenue arc is also part of the family’s considerations. Streaming, digital distribution, iPhones — as network television audiences and subscriptions have diminished, more expansive tech corridors have gained viewers and customers.

The possibility of a Tigers-Red Wings network implies also that the Ilitch family is in no hurry to sell the Tigers, or the Red Wings. An in-house network could be seen as integral to Ilitch Holdings as a downtown footprint that includes the two teams’ venues on either side of Woodward: Little Caesars Arena and Comerica Park.

Any such Tigers-Red Wings venture would require studios, staff, announcers, camera people as Ilitch Holdings — rather than FSD and its expertise based in Los Angeles — become stewards over an enormous local sports-TV ecosystem.

While it is far from being secured, initial musings are under way, with more serious stages perhaps to follow.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning