New ownership would bring winning back to Detroit

Christopher Ilitch is president of Ilitch Holdings and the main man for both the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers.

Since the death of Mike Ilitch nearly two years ago, many have expected the next generation of Ilitch’s to sell the Detroit Tigers. After all, it was the senior Ilitch who desperately wanted a World Series trophy.

So far, the younger Ilitch’s have resisted pawning the team, insisting they want to keep it in their portfolio.

The Detroit Lions have been owned by the Ford family since November of 1963. They actually bought it the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Their ownership of the franchise has been only slightly less tragic than that sad event.

Nearly five years ago, William Clay Ford, the last grandchild of Henry Ford, passed on to the great car lot in the sky. Ford was actively involved in the operations of the Lions and he loved the game. Fans didn’t appreciate Mr. Ford, since the Lions haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. Still, after Ford’s death, his widow Martha Ford made it very clear that the family was committed to shepherding the franchise.

Whether you love or hate those two influential Detroit billionaires, they’re absence makes it much easier to say what needs to be said:

The Lions and Tigers both need ownership if they ever want to win.

The Ilitch kids don’t care about fielding a winning baseball team, they don’t know a thing about baseball, and they don’t care at all if this team wins a World Series. Other than the impact that would have on the cash register short-term.

The Ilitches crave an entertainment empire. Which is what they’re building in downtown Detroit. They have a hockey team, baseball team, a theater, and they’re threatening to start their own television network. The Ilitches want people to come back to downtown Detroit to spend money. They want to get their hands on as much of that money as they can.

The Tigers and Wings are a reason for people to come downtown. But the Ilitches, these Ilitches, they don’t care if those teams are championship caliber. They just want them to be attractive enough to entice you here. Or maybe you go to a restaurant in a property they own and watch it on TV. Whatever. As long as you are in their city spending money on their things.

The Tigers and Wings aren’t going to become a contender as long as their ownership is more concerned about an entertainment empire than winning games. Crazy about the Tigers? Great, the Ilitches can charge more for the broadcast rights. Want to wear a Wings jersey like your dad? Cool, pay an outrageous sum for it in their official team shop. Want to stay at home? That’s ok too, because the Ilitch’s get hundreds of millions in broadcast rights. The baseball and hockey teams are entertainment channels. Championships are not high on the list.

Oh, and another thing (and this won’t make you happy, but it’s true), the Ford’s and Ilitch’s know you’re going to support their product no matter what. Your dad was a fan, your grandmother was a fan, you talk about the games with your brother, etc. It’s ingrained. The Ilitch’s don’t need to earn your attention.

The way owners are spending their record profits is troubling, says Craig Calcaterra in a recent article. Major League Baseball’s revenues are rising in spite of lower attendance, in spite of fewer teams trying to win, in spite of fewer teams going after free agent players. Yet while owners are raking in profits, most are choosing to pocket the profits.

The Ford’s are one of the longest-running ownership groups in professional sports. They’re decent folk, they care about Detroit. They employ a lot of people in the state of Michigan. But they don’t have any idea how to run a football team, and they’ve had a long time to figure it out. The franchise would not only benefit from new leadership at the top, but if the Ford’ s jettisoned the team, most fans would throw a party.

I realize this is wishful thinking. The Ford’s have their name on the football stadium. They have a tremendous relationship with the NFL, which helps them get publicity for their cars. And I understand that Martha Ford probably looks at the team as a last connection to her deceased husband. I get it. But, it sure would help this city if someone new owned our football team.

The Ilitch family keeps saying they won’t sell the Tigers. The most attractive buyer, Dan Gilbert, keeps saying he isn’t planning to buy them. That might be true, or it might be posturing, it might be one or both parties being coy.

The Tigers are in year three of a rebuild. They have one of the least impressive front offices in baseball. They have their future pinned to a dozen prospects, and we know 80 percent of those usually flame out.

I’ll tell you something else: the Ilitch’s, these Ilitch’s, they aren’t going to write big checks like Daddy did. We aren’t going to see superstars coming to Detroit for hundreds or even dozens of millions of dollars any time soon.

Sports teams are part of the lifeblood of a city. They are tied to the identity of that city and the entire state. They belong to the fans, not the owners. The people that own them should take care of them, treat them well, be caretakers. They should also earnestly want to improve them so they can become champions. That’s not in the plans for the current ownership of at least two teams in Detroit.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.