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Dave Bing, Mike Ilitch Want to Transform Detroit's Sports Landscape

Aug 10, 2010 – 7:15 PM
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Joe Lapointe

Joe Lapointe %BloggerTitle%

Dave Bing (right) was a lanky Detroit Pistons' rookie in 1966 when the Motor City was relatively robust and the Pistons were a chronically losing team that drew few fans downtown to Cobo Arena.

Bing again works in the neighborhood -- just down the street at city hall, where he is the mayor of a troubled city. He completed his Hall of Fame career in 1978, the same year the Pistons moved to the northern suburbs.

Although the team has struggled lately, the franchise is an established moneymaker with a proven fan base and three NBA championships, the most recent in 2004.

Mayor Bing wants the Pistons back downtown. And now, despite a lingering recession, Bing and Mike Ilitch might bring the team within fast-break distance of city hall and reshape Detroit's center in a major way.

Ilitch, who already owns the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, said this week he wants to buy the Pistons from the widow of the late owner, Bill Davidson. She wants to sell.

If Ilitch succeeds, he will own three corners of a four-sided market for major sports in a major city. And he wants to move the Pistons downtown to share a new arena with his Wings.

But there is more to it. Should Ilitch also buy the Palace of Auburn Hills and its Pistons-spawned entertainment conglomerate, he would control most venues for concerts and other shows in the suburbs as well.

And that's not all. Ilitch's wife, Marian, owns a casino attached to a hotel downtown. The Ilitch family, which started in the pizza business, has a restaurant near Comerica Park and Ford Field, where the Tigers and Lions play. The Ilitches also operate the Fox Theater, an elegant showplace across the street from their baseball stadium.

Should the Wings and Pistons move to a new arena in the Grand Circus Park neighborhood near the baseball and football stadiums, this tidy web of streets will be filled by thousands of sports revelers on close to 200 days each year, not including playoffs and non-sporting events. That might create synergies for restaurants, casinos and new hotels.

A key player is already in place. Tom Wilson, who used to run the Pistons and the Palace, moved downtown earlier this year to work for the Ilitches.

Wilson and Bing go back a long way in a culture where sports and its promoters play a disproportionately large role in civic life.

In a downtown blighted by many vacant skyscrapers, other local power brokers include Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Quicken Loans Arena, who also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Peter Karmanos, who built the Compuware building downtown and owns the Carolina Hurricanes.

A third is Roger Penske, who made his name in auto racing. He ruled Detroit's Super Bowl host committee in 2006 and established the "Clean Downtown" initiative that now sweeps streets and sidewalks.

Moving the basketball team back onto those streets would probably alienate some of the Pistons' suburban fans, but there is precedent and cultural logic.

Ilitch celebrates the Red Wings' Stanley Cup victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008
The Lions played in the northern suburbs from 1975 through 2002 but moved back; and basketball is often called the city game, even in a city nicknamed "Hockeytown.''

Fair-minded people certainly might express legitimate reservations, including:

-- Will control of so many venues give the Ilitch empire unfair domination of a show-business market in a way that violates the spirit of anti-trust law if not the letter?

-- What would happen to Joe Louis Arena, the Wings' current home, and Cobo Arena next door, both about a mile away from the stadium district? Could the Palace, barely two decades old, thrive without its anchor tenant?

-- Can Bing negotiate city, county, state or federal funds and cooperation to help a private investor when economic distress has forced him to cut back the fire department?

Bing, successful in the steel business following his playing career, is a novice at his new game, and Detroit politics can get petty, short-sighted and corrupt. A recent mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is in prison.

But Bing, as a young Piston more than four decades ago, was a fast learner. This Pistons arena synergy might be a long shot, but Bing used to hit a few of them and he also knew how to share the ball.

Bing still enjoys considerable goodwill in a region at a time when Michigan has a Democratic governor and two Democratic U.S. senators.

Oh, and the president just happens to be a lanky Democrat who loves basketball and shoots some hoops, too. Perhaps Bing can get him on his team to play ball.
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