By E. Martin Nolan
A month ago, when it became clear that The Winter Classic would be played in Ann Arbor and not Detroit, I argued that the NHL was wrong to deny Detroit the opportunity to host the game, all for the cash incentives offered by the use of Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. But most of the responses to that post went something like, “I see what you’re saying, but it’s not that big a deal and it’ll be awesome to see them play in front of a record crowd.” The local press said essentially the same thing. I didn’t get this. I wanted the game in the city, where I thought it belonged. But most, with the notable exception of Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch (more on this later), seemed to accept the decision with little to no resentment, even if they would rather have seen the game at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit. “It’s all about the money” they concluded, shrugging. Depressing.
This was a realistic attitude, to be sure, but given Detroit’s famously defiant pride–recently tapped into by Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad featuring Clint Eastwood–you’d think the decision to host the game outside the city would stir up more emotion. Even The Detroit Free Press–which can be such a blatant Detroit-cheerleader that it once covered Detroit 187’s first episode as if it were actually watchable–didn’t suggest the city should host the game instead. Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg wrote that the decision was bound to upset some and, for sure, it did. He suggested a compromise might be reached by hosting a Wings/Leafs alumni, collage and/or minor league games at Comerica. But that compromise seemed a token gesture that could hardly make up for denying the city the Classic itself.
As it turns out, Rosenberg’s prediction was accurate. Soon, rumors mounted that there would be at least a few events at Comerica, including the tradition-rich Great Lakes Invitational college hockey tournament, which is hosted annually at Joe Louis Arena. Still, even with the addition of the GLI, you could argue that spotlighting some minor league games and a college tournament is something, but it doesn’t replace the Classic. But while, again, there was little public sentiment (aside from reader comments) calling out that inadequacy, there was one very important private voice making the argument behind the scenes: Mike Ilitch. Conveniently, Ilitch’s initial concerns were also my initial concerns, which means that I and those who shared my concerns had a powerful ally and spokesman. That, in turn, explains:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the 2013 Winter Classic Plan
Initially, I considered a few explanations for the apparent apathy with which so many Detroit fans perceived the Big House decision:
Maybe Detroit’s over it. Maybe the city’s done playing the victim and is more than happy to host a few games at Comerica.
Maybe the majority of Red Wings fans are suburbanites who don’t actually have that much pride in the city.
Or maybe it’s not even that deep. Maybe I’m a native Detroiter who no longer lives there and so is being over-sentimental (and overly dismissive of suburbanites).
And maybe we shouldn’t expect the NHL to make a decision based on what fans want, or what some think is “right.” Instead, the league will choose the option that will generate the most benefit (in profits and prestige) for the league.
These explanations may all be true. Clearly, for some people, hosting the game outside of the city was never an issue. But for those of us who were bothered by the decision, the above explanations left us cold. I suspect the same was true for Ilitch. Ilitch had a very obvious economic incentive to have the game played at Comerica: he owns A LOT in downtown Detroit and pretty much makes money any time anyone even thinks of their wallet in the area surrounding the ballpark. But while that incentive, on its surface, isn’t all that different from the NHL’s incentive to host the game at The Big House, the consequences of those two decisions are far different.
Consider those consequences through their effect on the city of Detroit. The NHL’s decision to host the game at Michigan Stadium benefits the NHL, but draws people away from Detroit, resulting in a loss for a city that has earned the right to host the Classic and reap the benefits therein. Ilitch’s desire to host the game at Comerica would benefit his businesses, but it would also benefit the city by drawing people there. So while both interests can be boiled down to the profit motive, Ilitch’s carries with it the added value of benefitting a deserving city. Unfortunately for him, his interests were trumped. But fortunately for him, and Detroit, he still had enough leverage to extract some valuable concessions from the league.
My change of heart on this issue comes down to those concessions. What once looked to be a token alumni game, and maybe some minor league and college games, to be held at Comerica, has now morphed into a reported two-week-long winter festival designed to draw 250,000 fans downtown. That may not replace the Classic, but it will add significant value to Detroit’s role in the event. In fact, if the 250,000 number holds up, the Detroit festival will dwarf the presence in Ann Arbor. I’m especially pleased to see that the public will be able to use the ballpark rink, in the form of youth league games and a public skate (if only that ballpark were still Tiger Stadium…but that’s another story). So in the end, this is probably the best solution anyone could have hoped for. I can even appreciate the potential record-breaking crowd that will be at The Big House now that I know it’s not coming entirely at the expense of Detroit and that it may actually benefit Detroit by drawing more people to the area.
To sum up, it’s good to have Mike Illitch on your side. That is in sharp contrast to the sentiment with which I ended my last Hockey In Society post. There, I doubted that the new owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs would value their fans over the economic gains they might extract from their fans through TV contracts and ticket prices. But there is no such conflict with Illitch. What is good for Illitch’s businesses is generally good for the fan and good for downtown Detroit. For instance, in response to fans’ economic struggles during the height of the Great Recession, he lowered ticket prices for Tigers games to as little as five dollars. Another case in point: I wasn’t planning on being home for the Classic, but I now plan on being there, all because Illitch took some lemons and made an intriguing festival out of them. In the process, I’ll probably pass some bucks his way. That’s what I’d call a healthy owner-to-fan relationship. But with Illitch you get the sense that in addition to the profit motive, there’s also a genuine dash of that thing no one expected from the NHL when they became fixated on hosting the game in Ann Arbor: doing the right thing. Of course, that doesn’t mean the NHL won’t take credit for the city of Detroit and the loyal Red Wings fan base receiving a more equitable share of the Winter Classic’s benefits, or from sharing in those benefits itself. Sometimes it’s good to be right.