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Palace Coup
Jack McCallum
November 05, 1990
Out in suburbia the Detroit Pistons have it all—titles and affluence—but there's bitterness downtown
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November 05, 1990

Palace Coup

Out in suburbia the Detroit Pistons have it all—titles and affluence—but there's bitterness downtown

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Davidson took those words to heart. "Isiah made the point that you have to make players want to be here, to have the kind of franchise that good players want to come to," says Davidson. "Our conversation was general in nature, but it led to my doing some specific things, like the plane and the arena."

Coincidence or not, the Pistons are 2 for 2 in the NBA Finals since they began playing at The Palace in 1988. The financial success of the $80 million arena is based primarily on its 180 luxury suites. They are leased on a multiyear basis for between $30,000 and $120,000. The Palace can command such sums because the suites are closer to the court than skyboxes, and because dozens of other events (concerts, wrestling matches, tennis matches, circuses, trade shows, rodeos) are included in the price. The yearly revenue of between $11 million and $12 million generated by the suites not only covers the debt service on the building but also is larger than the ticket revenues for about half the teams in the NBA. No doubt about it—the luxury suites, primarily the brainchild of Wilson, were a stroke of marketing genius and a shortcut to profitability.

The Palace's $2 million television studio, which is far more sophisticated than that in any other arena, can be counted on for about $1.5 million a year in rental fees. The Pistons' Great Stuff stores, which sell souvenirs and clothing for all Detroit sports teams, are located in four upscale suburban malls, and they are good for between $250,000 and $500,000 in annual profits, not to mention priceless p.r. The Pistons also make money because they own their own printing franchise.

The $14 million generated by this miniempire last year is believed to be the second-largest one-year profit (behind Boston) by a team in NBA history, and there's no reason to suspect that it won't be exceeded this season. Michael Megna of American Appraisal Associates in Milwaukee, a leading appraiser of sports teams, estimates the Pistons' worth at $100 million, slightly less than that of the Celtics, Lakers, Knicks and Bulls. How respected are the Pistons around Detr.... O.K., around the suburbs? Well, the Lions turned their marketing and promotion over to them this season.

Yet, as the Pistons grow cozier and cozier in their suburban Palace, their ties to Detroit grow more and more tenuous. Only the Richfield Coliseum, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., where the Washington Bullets reside, are as far removed from the cities that those teams represent as The Palace is from Detroit. Yes, the trend in arenas and stadiums is toward the kind of luxury seating featured at The Palace, and it will be included in NBA arenas planned for Seattle, Phoenix and Chicago. All three of these arenas will have close-to-the-court luxury boxes—as do the brand-new Bradley Center in Milwaukee and the Target Center in Minneapolis—though on a smaller scale than The Palace's. But none will be so distinctly suburban.

And make no mistake about it, the Piston crowd, which is overwhelmingly white, is a suburban crowd. It comes to ogle the long-legged Tuxedo Girls, who escort celebrity shooters to the free throw line, it cheers the dot race on The Palace-Vision scoreboard as loudly as it cheers the Pistons, and it leaves early to beat the traffic. The Palace has about it an ambience of manufactured excitement. On the other hand, every one of the Pistons' 102 games at The Palace has been a sellout.

For most Piston players, performing outside of Detroit is a nonissue. "I'm a suburban kind of guy, anyway," says center Bill Laimbeer (page 136). Thomas and Salley, however, are not suburban kind of guys, and the weight of maintaining relations with the city seems to have fallen upon their shoulders. "I hear it from both sides," says Salley, who participates in many inner-city programs and is the only Piston who lives within the Detroit city limits, albeit in a 62-room mansion. "I hear, 'Hey, John, you guys are great,' and I also hear, 'Yo, Homes, whatcha' play way out there for?' I tell them, 'I'm just a soldier in the war.' Look, it's not a major factor in my life, and I obviously can't do anything about where we play. But I look at the crowd and I sometimes wish it were a little more mixed, that some of the real city people got to see us play."

Thomas is the Piston most strongly associated with Mayor Young and downtown causes. "I still feel a responsibility to the city because the people there built this franchise," Thomas says. "I was raised with a strong sense of community, and our community, as a Piston, very much includes downtown Detroit.

"The decision to leave the city, I'm convinced, was not for any reasons of black and white, but for sheer economics. I know the mayor and I know Bill Davidson, and they are more alike than they can ever realize. It would be nice if all parties could have their way, but that's going to be tough."

Impossible is more like it. Whether you call it white flight or sound business sense, the fact remains that no team in sports has made more of its move to the suburbs than the Pistons. "I'm frankly torn," says longtime Piston broadcaster George Blaha, "because I loved those days at Cobo; they were really special." He shakes his head and continues, "But when I walk into that Palace, it's hard to miss the old days too much."

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