DETROIT - Leadership teams representing Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and the Ilitch family have been talking to NBA and Detroit city officials over the past few weeks about two key issues as they try to finalize a historic deal to bring professional basketball back downtown, according to a person briefed on the discussions.
The Pistons could move in time for next season, the source said. But the deal isn’t quite at the finish line.
- The sides are researching what it would take to modify the still-under-construction Little Caesars Arena, which is being built for the Ilitch-owned Detroit Red Wings, to accommodate the requirements of an NBA team.
- The Pistons also are considering potential downtown locations for business offices and a multimillion-dollar practice facility.
At the most senior level, Gores and Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, have directed their executive teams to work on a framework agreement that would permit the move, subject to approval by the NBA and city officials, the source said.
The two sides spent most of the summer working through details. The discussions have triggered speculation that an announcement could be imminent. But the person with knowledge of the negotiations cautioned that there is still a lot of work to do. A detailed agreement — if it can be reached — could be weeks away, the source said.
How we got here
Almost immediately after Gores completed his $325-million purchase of the Pistons and Palace Sports & Entertainment from Karen Davidson in 2011, whispers began that the Los Angeles-based billionaire from the Flint area would look to get his team downtown.
Things got moving in earnest when longtime sports agent Arn Tellem was hired as Palace Sports & Entertainment vice chairman in the summer of 2015. PS&E is the umbrella organization over the Pistons and the concert business.
Tellem was given a number of tasks, chief among them to explore ways to partner with the Ilitches — including possibly moving downtown.
The arena is a natural area of cooperation, but issues have to be resolved. The Pistons are thought to have three main goals:
- Gores wants to be an equal partner in the building, not just a tenant.
- The Pistons want to get a return on the substantial improvements made to the Palace since Gores bought the team.
- The Pistons have to ensure that the move doesn’t negatively impact season-ticket holders and sponsors.
The talks have a heightened sense of urgency because the new arena, located just north of downtown, is nearing completion. (It's expected to open next fall.) The window for easier and less-costly adjustments is quickly closing.
The finance committee of the NBA Board of Governors would review the lease agreement, and the entire board would vote on approval.
The Pistons' home opener is Friday against the Orlando Magic. Gores will be in attendance and is expected to address the media.
Gores has been asked about the possibility of moving downtown on numerous occasions, most recently at the team media day in September, he said:
“We’re always looking at it. We’ve gotten a chance to really know (Mike and Marian Ilitch). I know Chris (Ilitch), not well. They’re a great family. I respect a lot of what they’ve done for Detroit,” Gores said. “We’re always assessing it. We have to for the city. We’re constantly assessing it. It has to be good for everybody, us included. We’re really in the middle of assessing it.”
So why the possible partnership?
The Red Wings organization would get another 41-plus game nights of occupancy at the new arena
For the Pistons, just look at attendance figures.
Once the hosts of a 259-game sellout streak that ended in 2009, the Pistons have finished in the bottom six in NBA attendance for five straight seasons. Even last season, which saw the franchise end a six-year playoff drought, the team only finished 25th in attendance.
Then there's the fan experience. Lions, Tigers and Wings games fill downtown restaurants and bars with patrons, whereas the Palace sits lonely in Auburn Hills.
Gores has spent more than $50 million in Palace upgrades — including refurbishing locker rooms, investing in a new scoreboard and new seating and improving the wireless experience for fans.
Although the Palace is still considered a great venue for fans, upkeep costs likely will only rise.
And there’s also the would-be competition of the shiny new arena downtown, which is expected to significantly hurt the Palace’s concert business.
The organization has struggled to sign a naming-rights deal for the Palace, with the age of the venue cited as a stumbling block.
Contact Vince Ellis: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @vincent_ellis56.
Detroit Free Press