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Detroit Pistons: Moving Downtown Won't Necessarily Bring the Fans Back

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Detroit Pistons: Moving Downtown Won't Necessarily Bring the Fans Back
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The Pontiac Silverdome still sits on Opdyke Road; a vast, empty, mostly unused structure with its pillow-like top, visible from I-75 if you know the right place to look.

The Silverdome hosted concerts, monster truck rallies, RV shows and other events that called for high ceilings and seats in the nose bleed section. The Who played there, and so did the Pope. Elvis Presley tore through his pants at the Silverdome (it was called PonMet back then) on New Year’s Eve, 1975.

But the Silverdome was pretty much built for the Lions, giving them an escape from the northerly elements of outdoor football. Heaven forbid pro football be played in mud!

The dome seated about 80,000 for football and wouldn’t you know it, the Lions could manage to fill the place on occasion—more than occasionally in some years. Tiger Stadium could hold about 54,000 for football, so the Lions were cramming 25,000+ more fannies into the seats to watch them play in Pontiac, some 40 miles north of downtown Detroit.

The move to the northern suburbs was good for the football business.

As the Pistons moved unsteadily (as usual) through the 1970s, owner Bill Davidson saw the possibilities of appealing to a different breed of customer—the same type of folks who were piling into the Silverdome on football Sundays.

Playing downtown in Cobo Arena wasn’t getting it done. The Pistons were lucky to touch 10,000 on a good night.

Davidson saw the Lions pack them in, and he got some ideas.

In 1978, Davidson moved his basketball team north to the Silverdome. The Pistons were lousy, so to help trumpet the move, Davidson hired Dickie Vitale to coach the team in its first season playing domed basketball.

Davidson understood the appeal of a clown under a tent, to help distract the patrons from the manure dropped by the horses.

Vitale didn’t last long, but the Pistons were enjoying bigger crowds. The dome could fit well over 40,000 fans to watch basketball on a makeshift court in a corner of a football stadium that featured a huge blue curtain to keep the fans from having to see a ¾ empty building.

The Pistons papered the house with freebies and half off tickets and such, but at least the crowds looked good, especially on television.

Davidson didn’t have a winning team in Pontiac until Chuck Daly took over as coach in 1983. Then the crowds got even bigger. The Pistons didn’t have to give away tickets as much—though they still did, for the nose bleeds.

The Pistons began leading the entire NBA in home attendance. Their move up north, like the Lions’, proved profitable.

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The attendance was high because of one irrefutable fact: the Pistons were a winning team.

From 1983-88, when Daly’s coaching magic was at its zenith, the Pistons were building themselves up to be a championship contender. The records featured 50-win seasons and deep runs in the playoffs. The Silverdome was rocking, and not just for concerts. The Pistons had become a hot ticket—and one you even had to pay for.

The team made the NBA Finals in 1988—which was also the last season for them in the dome.

Davidson and his brain trust, by that time, were sick of the Pistons—mere tenants in the Silverdome—being nudged out of their so-called home in the playoffs by the aforementioned monster truck rally or concert. Too often the Pistons had to go up against the Celtics at Joe Louis Arena, on an unfamiliar court with unfamiliar lighting, to play a crucial playoff game.

Enter the Palace of Auburn Hills—to this day a model for other indoor athletic and entertainment venues. It’s still state-of-the-art, some 25 years after its opening.

The Palace was the Pistons’ home. If there were to be concerts and circuses and the like, those events would have to work around the basketball team’s schedule, not vice-versa.

The Pistons have played the Palace for 25 years, much longer than they played in Cobo Arena downtown, by the way.

Yet there is some sort of romanticism to some people when it comes to the notion of the Pistons returning downtown.

Those folks cite the crowds at the Palace in recent years, which on television look like those of the old WNBA Detroit Shock—and that’s not a knock against the ladies.

Move the Pistons back downtown, the romanticists say. The crowds will return.

The Red Wings’ recent announcement of plans to build a brand new hockey arena in the area near Comerica Park and Ford Field has fueled the Pistons-to-downtown rallying cries.

Luckily, the Pistons have an owner now who won’t take the bait.

Tom Gores didn’t find his money in a satchel somewhere. He wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t win the Lotto, nor sue for negligence. He wasn’t left a fortune by a rich uncle.

Gores got his money fair and square—by earning it and turning profits into bigger profits. He navigated choppy financial waters to build his portfolio into something pretty amazing for a guy who has yet to reach his 50th birthday.

Gores is smart enough to know that the only thing that will bring fans back to see the Pistons in droves is winning.

Gores knows that you can move the Pistons downtown all you want—put them right smack next to the RenCen if you please—but it won’t mean a hill of beans if the team keeps turning in 29-victory seasons, like the one just passed.

The Free Press hit Gores cold with the downtown question in a recent Q&A.

“I’m hearing about that stuff and really my No. 1 focus has been how to move the Pistons and the franchise back to the top,” Gores said. “That really has been my No. 1 focus. Right now the Palace is our home, and I’m excited about that. You know how it is; you got to take care of your home. It’s really doing a service and my whole focus — all of our Palace team, everybody — is how do we get this franchise back to the top.”

Translated: winning will solve everything.

Moving the Pistons downtown, while perhaps a nice trip down memory lane for certain grizzled basketball fans, is not the panacea. The Pistons tried that, and it didn’t work out too well. Why? Because the team was mostly lousy in the years it spent playing in Cobo. The Pistons only turned in three winning seasons in the 18 it played in the pill-shaped arena. And people wonder why the crowds were low.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say it one more time: Detroit is a front runner’s town when it comes to pro basketball. It’s been that way since 1957, when the Pistons were dropped on the city’s doorstep by then-owner Fred Zollner, who picked up his stakes and left Fort Wayne, perhaps in a fit of delusion.

You want to see the crowds come back to the Pistons? You’ll see it—when they start winning again.

Funny how, when the Palace was selling out every night in the early-to-mid 2000s, you never heard talk of the Pistons returning to their downtown roots. Also funny that those happened to be the days of winning basketball and championships. You certainly didn’t hear the drum beat of moving the Pistons downtown during the Isiah Thomas-led “Bad Boys” days of the late-1980s, either.

Gores gets it.

Of the Palace, the Pistons owner said in the Q&A with the Free Press, “It’s still considered, regardless of the questions about the location, one of the best facilities in the league and that’s not by me. That’s really by the experts. That’s our home right now.”

Gores likes what he sees from the likes of Dan Gilbert, who is showing how bullish he is on Detroit with his pocketbook and his investing. But despite Gilbert’s grandiose plans, Gores knows the only tried and true method of appealing to the city’s basketball fans.

“I’m excited for Detroit, but right now our single biggest job is to get the franchise back to the top and I think if we do that everything will take care of itself.”

Swish!

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