Ilitch ex machina. Savorless pizza baron Mike Ilitch is planning to storm into Auburn Hills on his gleaming white horse to buy the Detroit Pistons, saving them from an uncertain fate in some other city. The trouble is that he wants to use the team to increase his leverage to get funding for a new downtown arena for the Red Wings. For Detroit, that is a terrible idea.
Mike Ilitch is not evil. He spent to keep the Red Wings relevant. Even if Dave Dombrowski took advantage of him, Ilitch refused to dismantle the Tigers, despite taking a $30 million loss last season. He sponsored the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl to keep it from leaving Detroit. He allowed GM to continue sponsoring the Comerica Park fountain for free. He does inflict insipid pizza on the world, but at least it’s reasonably priced.
Buying the Pistons is fine, but the new stadium should be a sticking point. Detroit needs genuine economic development. Whatever the rationales and promises, new stadiums don’t provide that. Building one would cost hundreds of millions in public funding. Taxpayers would never see the money back. Comerica Park and Ford Field were supposed to revitalize downtown Detroit. The majority of the $730 million combined cost came from public funding. Despite the venues hosting a Super Bowl, a MLB All-Star Game and a Final Four, the economic effect for the city has been negligible. Fans pay for the team for the ticket, pay the team to park, pay the team for sustenance and leave.
The area around the stadium has not built up, save for a couple bars and a misguided condo development. The neighborhoods five blocks away from the stadiums looked like a bombed out war zone ten years ago. They still do. MLB teams stay 45 minutes away in Birmingham, because it’s the only place to find a decent hotel with accessible restaurants. The vacant lots that surrounded the stadiums are no longer vacant, only because the teams appropriated them to stop people parking there for free. The only “jobs created” were temporary construction jobs. Most of those people were already employed.
Detroit exists because of the auto industry. Afflicted with that industry’s cancer for decades, it had an economic crisis long before that was fashionable. The idea of a downtown stadium is cool, but for a city struggling to maintain basic infrastructure, it’s hard to find a less prudent investment.
The Pistons don’t need a new venue. The Palace is renovated, well-designed and convenient. It has adequate luxury boxes. It was built in 1988 yet remains one of the best venues in the NBA. Detroit had the highest attendance in the league from 2002 to 2008. If Ilitch buys the Palace, it is fully capable of supporting the Red Wings, should Joe Louis Arena no longer be tenable.
[Photo via Getty]