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Mike Illitch: Sports Caesar?

I tend to be suspicious of billionaire corporate barons, just because mostly...but I have to admit that I have an appreciation for Mike Illitch.

Illitch is the Little Caesars pizza tycoon and Detroit native who has spent a good portion of his fortune turning around downtown Detroit, with specific emphasis on the city's sports teams. He bought the Red Wings in the '80s, back when they were unaffectionately known as the Dead Things, and transformed them into a perennial National Hockey League powerhouse. Along the way, he ushered in the age of "Hockeytown"  (as much a marketing ploy as municipal moniker) that has helped lift not only the Wings but the metro area as a whole. He did pretty much the same thing for the Detroit Tigers, turning what was once the worst team in baseball into a regular contender, this year's slide notwithstanding. Along the way, he also built the gorgeous Comerica Park baseball stadium and changed the nearby Fox Theater from the ratty karate-flick emporium of my youth into the neon-draped anchor of a resurgent entertainment district.

Now, Illitch is seeking to hit the sports-owner trifecta by buying the Detroit Pistons from current owner Karen Davidson and bringing the team back to the city proper to play in an as-yet-to-be-built arena that would also house his hockey team.

You know me: Bad Boys for life, so I'm thrilled at the propsect of the Pistons coming back home to play. And there's little question that having all four teams playing downtown would mean a huge financial boost for the city. (And it also does away with what would be nightmare flipside scenario for the city: The Wings bolting Detroit for Oakland County.)

But I'm also curious about what this could mean in other respects. How would a dual-use stadium be financed and how much of that bill would this struggling town have to foot? And how long would it be before one of the teams sharing the arena starts to complain about wanting its own space? More significantly, what are the implications of one man owning three of a city's four major sports teams? There are certainly bigger issues to be hashed out, but as in cities across the country, pro sports in Detroit is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Illitch already holds a massive amount of sway citywide. Is giving someone a virtual monopoly on Detroit pro sports a good thing, even when the monopolist is a homeboy with an undeniable passion for the city and an admirable willingness to put his deep pockets where his heart is?

And if it somehow is, then can he look into buying the Lions next?

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  • 1


  • 2

    I'm sure Brooks Patterson is privately fuming, and I don't care-- I want this to happen. If this goes through, there will be a local owner who will keep the team in Detroit, what's more they are willing to move the team downtown, this can help bring more economic activity downtown, bring jobs to the area like construction, restaurants and other service-industry small businesses, and more.. Mayor Bing needs to publicly declare his support for this, regardless of Brooks' inevitable rant.. Just remember, "It's just business, nothing personal!"
    As for financing, if Ilitch has to coax some outside investors to partner up, so be it, just make it happen.

  • 3

    Let's not analyze this to death. It's a very good thing. In fact, it's a great thing. It will have a huge impact on our beloved city. Other "barons" should take a lesson. Mr. Maroun, listen up.

  • 4


    Illich has a problem...

    He didn't and doesn't know that Detroit was dead and gone and that there was no possibility at all.

    I mean that was the conclusion of all the people flying off the to the suburbs and boon docks.

    They knew that it couldn't be done. So they flapped their wings off to their coo-coo's nests.

    There needs to be a new Joe. It's in the way of Cobo expansion and it was stupidly designed with no windows looking out on the river. Engaging not.
    Blocking yes.

    Wasn't too long ago a Canadian planner started talking about the necklace and now it sounds like we'll have a sports belt.

    Notice that the necklace is below the sports belt... I simply don't know what that means...

    Mitch is all about sports and things maybe he can tell us.



  • 5

    Taking into account all the incentives and tax breaks that typically accompany any such development, communities that host major league sports franchises are doing great if they break even. With all of southeast Michigan in a deep rut, making this kind of huge investment and allowing such a monopoly strikes me as the same kind of unwise, long-term thinking that got us into this mess. We would be better off making a similarly sized investment in something that will draw money into the area from across state and country borders.

    Michigan is hurting because this level of cross-boundary income has been dropping for a long time as more manufacturing has moved overseas. The only thing that moving the Pistons downtown does is hurt our neighbors and business community in Auburn Hills. It has no net positive affect for southeastern Michigan.

    • 5.1

      keyserfamily,...It also doesn't have any NEGATIVE aspects. I agree with detroitrocks: Let's not analyswe this to death. Perhaps the Detroit Shock would STILL be here if Mr. Ilitch could have purchased earlier?...As I've often said ,...'...only in Detroit... Putting a negative spin on ANY positive news...'. By the way : Our neighbors in Auburn Hills and environs have done quite well borrowing Pistons, many former businesses, ,etc.,. from Detroit.

  • 6

    It would be cool, sure. Detroit sports teams should be in Detroit.

    But contrary to Rochelle Riley's column in today's Freep, I'm with @keyserfamily: sports stadiums don't save cities. I blogged a bit more on this at:

  • 7

    [...] since we all love Ilitich, I want all my fellow Detroit Lions football fans to check out detroit.blogs.time and tell me what you think about[...]

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