Pistons fans split on team's decision to move downtown

James Hawkins, and Tony Paul
The Detroit News
New photos show the progress at Little Caesars Arena, which is set to open in September 2017.

Auburn Hills — Love it or hate it, fan opinions are all over the map on the Pistons' pending move back to the city of Detroit.

Fans on board seem to like the pregame and postgame dining and drinking options available in an on-the-rise City of Detroit.

Fans not on board appear to enjoy the convenience of The Palace of Auburn Hills, especially the parking, which is much trickier downtown.

"It'd be a total mess going down there," said Shayne Salmon, 42, a season-ticket holder of five years who lives in Roseville. "It's a lot more safer to go up here than downtown.

"I'm not even going to set one foot down there."

Other fans are much more receptive to the move, which is expected to become official Tuesday afternoon at a press conference at Detroit Cass Tech High School. Pistons owner Tom Gores and Ilitch Holdings CEO Chris Ilitch both are expected to be in attendance during the announcement that, starting in 2017, the Red Wings and Pistons will share the new, state-of-the-art, $733-million Little Caesars Arena.

Starting in 2017, all four Detroit major pro teams — the Tigers (Comerica Park), Lions (Ford Field), Red Wings and Pistons will play within several city blocks of each other, separated only by the Interstate 75 overpass.

"I like the idea of downtown," said Garrett Abramson, a 26-year-old from Westland who doesn't own season tickets, but attends a handful of Pistons games a season. "There's stuff to do after a game, compared to now. There isn't a lot out that way to do after a game. Plus, it's another hour (drive) back (home)."

This is an intriguing move, one Gores has spent considerable time looking into since the day he bought the Pistons, in 2011. The Pistons' home, The Palace, remains an elite sports and concert venue — despite opening in 1988, it's stood the test of time, thanks, in no small part, to the millions Gores has poured into renovations and upgrades.

But the location leaves plenty to be desired for many Pistons' fans.

"While I am not necessarily in favor of the move, I acknowledge the benefits it has to the team, fans, and City of Detroit," said Dan Cox, 24, of Fraser. He has attended 15 or more Pistons games each of the last three seasons. "Auburn Hills is a bit of an island."

Pistons plan practice facility in Detroit

The Red Wings and the Ilitches are building a new arena because Joe Louis Arena, which opened in a rush job in 1979, hasn't aged well, at all — structurally or, frankly, even smell-wise.

Most cities that have an NBA and NHL team playing downtown have shared facilities. NBA and NHL teams each play 82-game schedules —  meaning, 41-game home schedules —  and combined with concert bookings, shared facilities typically make sense, financially.

"Great move," said Eric Watson, 56, of Dearborn. A season-ticket holder for three years, he spoke ahead of Monday night's game against the Houston Rockets. "They'll have 220 days or something out of the year there will be some type of entertainment in downtown Detroit, which I think is good for the city.

"Embrace the change."

The Pistons used to play downtown, decades ago, long before late owner Bill Davidson moved the team out of Cobo Arena and to the Silverdome in Pontiac in the 1970s. They moved a decade later to The Palace, which Davidson built for $70 million — which is about double that in today's dollars.

Gores, a Flint native and Michigan State alum, bought the Pistons, Palace and DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston from Davidson's widow, Karen, for $325 million two years after Bill Davidson's death.

"I live near The Palace so I'm not excited about the move, but I love having the tickets," said Robert Leale, 36, of Clarkston. This is his first year with season tickets, and the convenient commute to The Palace is even closer from his office.

Still, he said he plans to keep them next season, but added, "I'll probably go to fewer games."

There are a few theories why the move makes sense for Gores. For starters, The Palace land is said to be uber-valuable, perhaps even worth more than he paid for the entire package of The Palace, Pistons and DTE.

Plus, basketball is very popular within the City of Detroit, which is filled with fans — particularly, younger ones — who can't make the trip to Auburn Hills. Depending where the new ticket prices are set, the Pistons could bump an attendance mark that's been down since the championship run in the early 2000s. The last five seasons, the Pistons have ranked no better than 25th in league attendance, and that was last season, when the Pistons made the postseason.

"It'll bring people together as one," said John Medved, 18, of South Lyon, who shares season tickets with his uncle, Ed Miski. "I think it'll really help the fan base."

Initial designs far different for Little Caesars Arena

Parking is a big concern, though. As part of Little Caesars Arena construction, the Ilitches also are building a new garage adjacent to the arena. They also are building a second garage across from Comerica Park, adding spaces to what had just been a flat lot.

That might be enough for some.

"It's like going to many of the Big Ten games where for football, you've got to park forever (away) or pay through the nose," said Tom Pease, 67, of Clinton Township — a season-ticket holder since 2005.

"Up here, three nights a week is no big deal because the fact is, we prepaid for the parking that's right here. But downtown, where's the parking? You give them $25, and the closer you can get, well that's $75 right off the bat. It's above and beyond."

There are other fans who don't like the move simply because if they're diehard Pistons fans, they want to see Pistons stuff on the arena walls — and vice versa if they're diehard Red Wings fans. The two sports don't have very similar fan bases.

Then there are the logistics, of which one astute fan pointed out.

"I feel in arenas where this is the case, the ice always suffers," said Susan Smiley, 57, of Warren — a big Red Wings fan, pointing out that in joint buildings there's always the switching of surfaces.

"The Palace is a fine basketball venue, and I would be fine if they just stayed put."

But that's just not going to happen, and it'll become official Tuesday — adding entertainment options to a city that's already buzzing every weekend night, from Greektown to Foxtown, and many weekdays, too.

The commute will be tougher for fans in the north — especially with the years-long I-75 construction under way — but will be easier for the fans in Wayne County and in the City of Detroit, especially with the building of the light rail along Woodward Avenue which is scheduled to be up and running shortly before Little Caesars Arena.

"It'll be a better environment than it is around here," said Tim Muraeky, 19, of Utica. "It'll definitely energize the whole team, I think."

Said Sheldon Usher, 46, of Detroit: "With the city moving in the direction it's moving, it helps. I mean, there's already the baseball team and the Lions are already down there.

"Why not the Pistons?"