Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pistons and Wings: Better off going their separate ways

The long-rumored, long-awaited, long-delayed and long-overdue sale of the Detroit Pistons is all but complete, with only final NBA approval pending on the deal between current owner Karen Davidson and new buyer Tom Gores.

It was obvious from the moment longtime Pistons owner Bill Davidson died in March 2009 that his widow had little interest or inclination in running the team, and it was only a matter of time before it was unloaded.

Unfortunately, this process was dragged out about 18 months too long, resulting in the team stumbling zombie-like through a completely wasted season in every sense.

More on that later, but first, let's simply breathe a sigh of relief the proposed (at times rumored to be nearly completed) sale to Tigers/Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch did NOT go through.

Ilitch obviously has been a great owner for the Red Wings and a decent one for the Tigers, but the proposed purchase of the Pistons appeared to be really nothing but an attempt to build leverage to get a new multipurpose downtown arena built for the Red Wings -- almost certainly primarily at taxpayer expense.

Had Ilitch bought the Pistons, he could have used as a "carrot" for financing of  a new downtown arena the idea that the Pistons would join the Wings as tenants.

Fine idea -- Joe Louis Arena certainly needs to be replaced --  but one problem: such a move would have ultimately left The Palace of Auburn Hills, still a virtual state-of-the-art arena (due to constant renovations and remodeling under Bill Davidson) for the most empty with no pro sports franchise as an anchor tenant.

"But they'd have plenty of concerts," comes the retort, but in fact the concert schedule would be severely cut into by the new Wings arena, which would attract most of the marquee events.

So essentially, the taxpayers would be "asked" to finance the construction of a new $300-$500 million arena, while another $300-$500 million arena (paid for completely at PRIVATE expense) sits vacant in the suburbs, probably eventually to be demolished.

"Asked" in the way these things are usually done: first with subtle hints, then some not so subtle, and finally with an out-and-out threat to move (or sell) one of the franchises (almost certainly the Pistons) out of town.

Instead of "if you build it, he will come," it's "if you DON'T build it (or more accurately, pay for it), we will leave."

(It's not totally inconceivable the early-season rumors about a possible Pistons move might have been floated as early-warning signals in just such a campaign. The rumors, you remember, started to bubble up when the sale to Ilitch was supposedly on the verge of completion.)

Not totally incidentally, a minor side effect of the deal would have been the complete monopolization of the concert business in Southeast Michigan under the auspices of the new combined Palace/Olympia Entertainment banner, allowing the new company to jack up ticket prices to any event held anywhere in the area pretty much as high as they wanted to.

Now, in case you haven't noticed, we're in a bit of a financial crunch around here -- there isn't enough money to run the public school system OR the municipal government in Detroit OR any number of other public/governmental services which are being chainsawed away every day.

And we're told the state is broke too. (Not quite broke enough not to give away $1.8 billion to corporations but let's leave that alone for a while.)

So the whole idea of the taxpayers -- ohh, it might be through some kind of subterfuge like a hotel room tax, a rental car tax, maybe bond guarantees, any variation of other financial flim-flammey, but in the end it would be the taxpayers shelling out -- spending $300-$500 million to build a new arena for two professional sports franchises owned by a billionaire would seem a little far-fetched.

Happily, with the purchase of the Pistons by Gores, that whole scenario is most likely off the boards for good. The Pistons can get back to the idea of putting together a decent team (after next year's lockout of course) and the Red Wings can continue their pursuit of the Stanley Cup. And the Palace/Olympia concert businesses can both continue to operate separately -- and occasionally compete, which might actually (shocking!!) result in slightly lower ticket prices for fans.

If Mike Ilitch really really wants a "New Olympia" downtown, he can get one the same way most businesspeople get new buildings: he can arrange the financing himself. He's a billionaire, so it shouldn't be all that hard.


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