Friday, November 20, 2009

Is Detroit Still a Major League Sports Town?

Is Detroit Still a Major League Sports Town?

By Evan Weiner

November 20, 2009

10:00 PM EST

Has Detroit ceased being a middle market franchise? There are three not so subtle clues that Detroit has slid into a small market city that has cropped up in just the last week. Mike Ilitch’s Detroit Tigers baseball franchise has a lot of money tied up in players and the rumors are that Ilitch is about ready to shave millions from his payroll and is looking to trade Curtis Granderson, a 28-year-old All-Star outfield, who has three years remaining on a five-year agreement with Ilitch that pays him more than six million dollars annually.

Granderson remains a member of the Detroit Tigers, but the 2009-10 hot stove league is far from over.

Granderson plays in a market that is going through more than just a bad recession. Detroit and the surrounding area lost been devastated by the retrenchment of the auto industry with both General Motors and Chrysler hanging on because of government bailouts from the United States and Canada. The only good news Ilitch has seen is that the American dollar has weakened while the Canadian dollar has flirted with par with the US greenback, which is a good development in the Detroit market as a good chunk of the metropolitan area is shared with Windsor and nearby Ontario cities. The bad part is that the automobile industry was a major part of the Windsor/Ontario economy as well.

Whether Granderson or Edwin Jackson is entirely up to Tigers management. But there is a question of just how much money that corporate Detroit can sink into two of Ilitch’s teams, the Tigers and the NHL Red Wings, William Ford’s Detroit Lions and the Auburn Hills-based Detroit Pistons.

The answer seems to be, not as much as the old days. In some aspects, it seems as if the Detroit Lions franchise has gone back 75 years. This Sunday’s home game against the Cleveland Browns will be blacked out in the Detroit metro region, an area that includes Toledo, Ohio, Lansing, Michigan and the Saginaw-Flint, Michigan market. Granted both the Lions and Browns are terrible football teams, both have won just one game and lost eight, but there would seem to be enough Cleveland Browns backers to make the relatively short trip up to Detroit.

This is the fourth time in six games that a Lions home contest has been blacked out in 2009. Detroit did sell out earlier this year against Pittsburgh and a lot of Steelers fans made the trip to Detroit but Ford’s team has had a lot of trouble selling 40,000 or more tickets per game. In 2008, as Detroit’s football team continued to lose and the auto companies were on the verge of failing, five of the Lions last six home games were not shown in the Detroit and secondary Detroit markets.

Of course, it cannot be said that a winning team in Detroit would do that much better considering the deteriorating economic conditions in Detroit and the surrounding area.

Detroit will be facing an old Thanksgiving Day rival this year on turkey day, the Green Bay Packers. More than likely, Detroit will fill up the stadium with help from Packers backers.

The Detroit Lions franchise was born in the Great Depression that started with the stock market crash in 1929 after the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans franchise was on the financial ropes in 1933. The owner of Detroit’s WJR radio, Gene Richards bought the Spartans and move the team to Detroit where the newly minted Lions franchise was looking to get people into Briggs Stadium.

Richards scheduled a Thanksgiving Day game in 1934 with the hopes that Thanksgiving Day parade goers in Detroit would wander over to the stadium and watch. There was significance to that game that is mostly lost today. The Chicago Bears-Detroit Lions contest was the first NFL game ever to be heard coast-to-coast and border-to-border in the United States. Detroit has hosted 69 Thanksgiving Day contests from 1934-38 and 1945-today. In 1939, United States President Franklin Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving and moved the holiday up a week to November 23 in an effort to spark Christmas sales and help the still struggling economy.

Political parties never change stripes and a silly battle ensued between Democrats and Republicans (this in the days prior to ersatz arguments on talk radio and cable TV news) and by 1940 there were states that “celebrated” the Democrats’ Thanksgiving a week earlier than the Republicans Thanksgiving. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia played each other in 1939 and 1940.

They were in the same state.

The municipally funded Pontiac Silverdome opened in 1975 with the Lions football team as the main tenant. The new facility cost $55.7 million. William Clay Ford’s Lions played football there from 1975-2001. The dome also played host to Detroit Pistons games from 1978-88. After Ford moved his Lions back to downtown Detroit, the then 27-year old football facility has virtually useless. The Jehovah’s Witnesses left the facility in 2004 after using it for years for an annual convention.

Between 2003 and 2006, the Pontiac Silverdome parking lot was the home for a Drive-In movie theater.

Two leagues that never got off the ground took a look at the facility. The World Hockey Association and the United States Football League. The reincarnation of the WHA was an ill-fated idea but there were plans to put a rink in the building in 2003 and the reincarnated USFL was looking to purchase the building and playing games there in 2010 along with hosting concerts,

The new USFL never got financial backing. On November 16, a Toronto-based company bought the old stadium for $583,000 at auction with the hope of placing a Major League Soccer team in the building.

The “new” USFL appears to be in the hands of another promoter with the hope of starting up in 2011 but that league will not be buying the old dome.

At least the building is still standing which is more than can be said for old stadiums in Seattle and Pittsburgh which were blown up after new facilities for major league sports teams were build with taxpayers money. Seattle (King County) and Pittsburgh (Allegheny County) taxpayers are still paying off the debt on the long departed Seattle Kingdome and Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium.

Some may suggest the cheap purchase price for the Silverdome is the result of a crashing Detroit real estate market and the weak economy. While that is a major factor, the real reason the price went so cheap is that once a stadium gets to a certain age, it becomes useless and has virtually no value because it lacks what sports owners want today, luxury boxes, club seats, wide alleyways for concessions, in-facility restaurants and shops.

What was state-of-the-art in 1975 is a dump in today’s sports marketplace.

Detroit was once a major market thanks to the auto companies a half century ago. Today, the city and the surrounding area are hurting economically and the population is shrinking. That has taken a toll on Detroit sports properties and raises the question, can Detroit remain a major sports town that can support big time pro and college sports or will Detroit become a city like Louisville, Kentucky, which was once major league town in a different century?

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