clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pistons Need Mike Ilitch More Than Mike Ilitch Needs Pistons

Mike Ilitch's bid to buy the Pistons may be the best chance at keeping the franchise in the state of Michigan.

Let the worrying begin.

Before most of us could digest the not-so-shocking news that Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch wants to add the Detroit Pistons to his collection, two more potential buyers popped up, as our esteemed colleague Brian Packey pointed out yesterday.

The fears of Pistons fans everywhere came to fruition, as an out-of-towner is now said to be in the running to buy the team. George Postolos is a basketball guy by most accounts, but he's has absolutely no commitment to the area, and that is definitely cause for concern. 

Ilitch on the other hand has made no secret about his commitment to the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan. Besides owning two of the more successful Detroit sports teams, he also owns Little Caesars Pizza, estimated to be the third largest pizza chain in the United States that operates out of the Fox Theater in Detroit. His wife Marian runs the Motor City Casino, and his subsidiaries control and operate the Fox Theater, Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena as well as many other smaller companies.

Together, the Ilitches have an estimated worth of about $1.4 billion. They don't need an NBA franchise. 

But Pistons owner Karen Davidson needs a buyer. And she's not going to find a better one than Mike and Marian Ilitch.

Postolos and Tom Gores, the other potential candidate mentioned by the Detroit Free Press, can shell out the money to buy the team. They may be even able offer closer to the $1 billion it's going to take for the rights to the Pistons and Palace Sports and Entertainment than Ilitch can. But Postolos and Gores both have risks attached to them. With Ilitch, the only risk is that he might actually put the team back in Detroit.

Gores has never owned a professional franchise before, much less an NBA team. He's got money, $2.2 billion of it to be exact. But money doesn't make a successful owner. Just ask William Clay Ford.

Postolos is a former executive with the Houston Rockets and is a former assistant of NBA commissioner David Stern. He's also a businessman, a stranger to the Detroit area that could move the team to a different market if his pocketbook doesn't add up to his liking.

Then there's Ilitch, the loyal Detroiter who's spent his entire life in Michigan. Ilitch isn't just trying to be a hero here though. He's also being opportunistic.

In 1980, he bought the Red Wings, then known as the "Dead Wings" for $8 million (yes, EIGHT) from Bruce Norris. After rebuilding the franchise and winning four Stanley Cups over the last 30 years, the Red Wings are now one of the most valuable NHL franchises, estimated to be worth around $337 million.

Adjusted for inflation, today's Red Wings would be worth $127 million in 1980. I think it's safe to say he's made his money back.

A similar situation has developed with the Pistons, and Ilitch knows it. The Pistons are coming off their worst season in over a decade, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2000. The franchise is worth $479 million, but with a sagging economy and lack of buyers (until now that is), Ilitch had a real shot at getting the team for under the market value.

On top of all that, Ilitch has a desire to win. The Red Wings have been one of the most successful franchises in all of sports over the past 15 years. The Tigers haven't been as successful, but it hasn't been for lack of trying. Ilitch pumped out a $122 million payroll in 2010, despite losing a ton of money last year on the team.

For Davidson, selling the team to Ilitch makes the most sense. He's already got the experience in running two professional franchises, and isn't afraid to spend money to make them better.

And if you're worried that running three teams might be too taxing, have no fear. Ilitch's son Christopher is the President and CEO of Ilitch Holdings (the parent company that runs all the Ilitches' private holdings), and I would assume be more than capable of running the team if he learned from daddy all these years.

But as with Postolos, there's a concern that Ilitch might move the team, but not out of state. Ilitch wants a new building to replace the quickly deteriorating Joe Louis Arena, and owning the Pistons would provide a big bargaining chip with the city of Detroit. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, a former Piston himself, also has a soft spot for bringing the Pistons back home to downtown.

With Ilitch, the city would be getting a cooperative business partner as well. Ilitch financed 50 percent of the building of Comerica Park out of his own pocket, which cost $300 million to build.

And let's face it, the Joe is not exactly fan friendly. A renovation may perk up its appearance, but there are only so many things a renovation can do. The entrance stairs can be a nightmare to climb in the dead of winter and the bathroom lines are some of the worst in all of professional sports. If you're fortunate enough to make it into the arena unscathed, good luck trying to get to your seat in the same condition. The section stairs are steep, narrow and made of that cushion-y concrete everyone enjoys to fall down on.

Unfortunately, a return to Detroit could spell doom for the city of Auburn Hills, which lives and dies with the Pistons after the collapse of the auto industry. But should the Red Wings relocate there temporarily while a new arena is being built in Detroit, the city could experience a boom and also give it time to brace itself for when both teams leave. 

This is still all speculation at this point. But if Ilitch lands the Pistons, rest assured you can kiss the Palace goodbye.

Selling the team to Ilitch and having him move them back downtown is one thing. Selling them to someone with no local ties and having them move out of state is a completely different monster. 

If Davidson sells the team to an out-of-towner and the team moves, she would never be able to set foot in the state of Michigan again. Not only would she endure Clay Bennett-esque treatment from Michiganders, she would tarnish the name of late husband William Davidson, whose Guardian Industries still makes its home in Auburn Hills.

An Ilitch-owned Pistons may be the less profitable route in the end for Davidson. But it's also the smartest route for everyone.