Could the Detroit Red Wings Be on the Move?

Jim BalintCorrespondent IJune 6, 2010

The Detroit Red Wings are the crown jewel of Detroit sports, and a model of success for all of professional athletics. But could the team leave the city it has called home for the past 84 years?  Chances are the team will, at least temporarily, have a new address.

This idea hasn’t come out of nowhere.

Opened in 1979, it replaced Detroit’s original home, Olympia Stadium. Every season since then, the Wings have called 600 Civic Center Drive home.

While the concourse has been renovated and actually looks good for a building its age, once entering the arena, it’s quite apparent this is one of the oldest barns in the league. The seating is crowded, the luxury boxes were clearly an after-thought, and the general atmosphere just screams “I’m a product of the ‘70s!” Say what you will about nostalgia, but “The Joe” is very much resembling the crumbling city around it.

Don’t just take my word for it. Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press has said, “Objectively speaking, Joe Louis is one of the worst arenas in sports.”

With all the revenue and traffic the Wings faithful bring to the downtown area, it would be crippling for the city to lose its biggest draw. To put it bluntly, the city needs the Wings much more than the Wings need the city.

Owner Mike Ilitch has shown his dedication to the city and would love to keep the team where it is, but with renovation estimates in the ballpark of $150 million, it’s hard to imagine that being a fiscally responsible option. Where does the team go from here?

The lease on JLA is up July 1. The Wings are easily Detroit’s most successful team and constant draw downtown, so it is definitely in the city’s best interests to draw up a new lease and keep the team downtown.

With the deadline approaching, and the Wings currently without a home for the 2010-11 season, the situation has the potential to get very, very interesting. Here’s why.

On March 9, 2009, Bill Davidson, the owner of the Pistons and chairman of Palace Sports and Entertainment Group, passed away. With his passing, the ownership of both entities now belongs to his widow, Karen.

Reports flourished that Mrs. Davidson is exploring the possible sale of the Pistons, and Palace Sports and Entertainment, which includes the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Ilitch, who owns the Red Wings as well as the Tigers, also owns Olympia Entertainment, which includes venues like the Fox Theatre and Cobo Arena. Rumors have circulated that he is very interested in Palace Sports and Entertainment. Purchasing Davidson's empire all but gives him a monopoly on the entertainment venues of Southeast Michigan.

And why does this purchase make sense? How smoothly could it possibly go?

On February 23, Tom Wilson, former president and CEO of the Pistons and Palace Sports and Entertainment, resigned his position and joined Ilitch in Olympia Entertainment.

If that isn’t writing on the wall, I don’t know what is.

If Ilitch were to purchase Palace Sports and Entertainment, he would have a new home for the Wings, as well as other entertainment venues for about the same price a new downtown arena.

If lease negotiations don’t make headway, the Wings could find themselves playing in the Palace as soon as next season. Ilitch has been in talks with Palace Sports and Entertainment for years, and even toured the Palace in 2008.

Assuming The Joe's days are numbered, the biggest question becomes, will the Palace become the new permanent home for the Wings, or will a new arena be built downtown?

It would be a devastating move for Detroit and the surrounding businesses, but it would please countless Wings fans. 

Having to make the 45 minute or longer drive downtown, then going through the hassle of either scouring the city for free parking or paying the extra $10 is often more painful to the Wings faithful than watching Chris Osgood in net.

Playing in the Palace is less of a hike for the majority of the Wings’ fans, and with the on-site parking, there’s no need for ticket-holders to fork over even more money.

Whether the stop in Auburn Hills is only temporary while a new arena is built downtown, or the Wings end up being permanent roomies with the Pistons in the Palace, it looks to be only a matter of time before the Wings need to pack their bags.

Wings fans will have to accept that fact. Despite the longevity the building has enjoyed and all the championships it celebrated, the Joe is no Fenway Park. In Boston, the fans love the team and the building equally. Any love for JLA comes from the fond memories on the ice, not from the building itself. 

If the Wings moved to Ford Field, one Stanley Cup championship later, it would be Wings fans’ new favorite arena. If the old Olympia and Tiger Stadium can be replaced, transitioning from JLA will be a snap.

There are reasons to maintain hope Ilitch will keep the team’s permanent home downtown.

With all that Ilitch has done for the city of Detroit, it would be tough for him to permanently move a team from the downtown area. From investing in businesses to keeping downtown ventures alive, he has done everything in his power to help the regeneration and rejuvenation of Detroit.

Moving the team from the city might give people the idea that he has finally given up on the city and moved on.

Also, he owns land in the same area of his other holdings: Comerica Park, Hockeytown Café, the Fox Theatre, and the City Theatre. Using this land to build a new arena centralizes all of Detroit’s sports and entertainment options to a six-block radius.

All of this depends on Ilitch’s finances and the city’s willingness to cooperate in order to build a new arena for the Wings, with the likelihood that the Pistons will join them. Looking at the city’s current struggles, however, backing a $500 million venture is a tough sell to a city with 15 percent unemployment rate.

Without a significant change of heart from Detroit, it looks more and more likely that the city’s crown jewel will be kept in a Palace.