Sports Illustrated had a nice piece about Detroit and the city’s MLB rep, the Tigers. Lee Jenkins takes a look at the efforts of team owner Mike Ilitch and his staff, including coaches and players, over the past several months as they look to achieve their goals, a World Series championship, and how they have woven that into the life of a city that is facing a host of challenges.
You can find the full article at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1160513/index.htm, with excerpts provided below.
The sweetest image of this baseball season is the sight of Comerica Park, filled from the box seats to the bleachers. At the end of spring training, the unemployment rate in metro Detroit had climbed to 23%, the average home price fell below $12,000, and the Tigers calculated that season-ticket sales were down 13,000. Corporate sponsorships and luxury-suite sales were also taking a hit. “I was here in 2003, when we lost 119 games, and a lot of nights this stadium felt like an empty cathedral,” says third baseman Brandon Inge. “I expected it to be like that again.” Anybody familiar with the economics of baseball could envision how the summer would play out: Paltry attendance would lead to slashed payroll and a second straight last-place finish. “My only hope,” says centerfielder Curtis Granderson, “was that people wouldn’t go on vacation to Orlando or California and would come to our games instead.”
The financial forecast in Detroit has not necessarily brightened, but in a development as unexpected as Chevy’s unveiling of the Volt, the Tigers have provided a jolt—electrifying for much of the summer, slightly terrifying recently—for the city. They rank fourth in the American League in attendance, at 31,360 per game; are fifth in the majors in payroll, at more than $115 million; and, through Sunday, were still in first, albeit tenuously, thanks to a September skein of nine losses in 12 games. They were also 48–26 at Comerica Park, a record they attribute to the overwhelming responsibility they feel playing in front of their home fans, many of whom are presumably using what little discretionary income they have to watch the team play. In his first spring training meeting manager Jim Leyland told his players, “People are going to be spending some of their last dollars to come to these games, and we need to give them our best effort. This is not the year not to run out a ground ball.”
…Like most organizations, the Tigers are focusing less on their rock-star clientele and more on their blue-collar base. Duane McLean, senior vice president in charge of business operations, studied ticket-buying patterns closely this season and found that more fans were buying tickets to games one or two weeks in advance and fewer were buying tickets one or two months in advance. They might have been skeptical of the team’s long-term prospects, but more likely they were skeptical of their own. The Tigers responded with more $5 tickets, new $5 meals and two extra $5 parking lots. Season-ticket holders were offered month-to-month payment plans and partial-season-ticket holders were allowed to pick all their own dates. Many clubs have implemented similar programs in light of the recession, but in Detroit the effects of the downturn are more severe, so the programs are more important. Elaine Lewis, vice president in charge of community and public affairs, says the team has given away more than 80,000 tickets this year and worked with more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations, even inviting them to use Tigers home games to conduct 50-50 raffles.
The most stunning example of community outreach did not involve a nonprofit organization but a bankrupt one. At the end of last season General Motors decided it could no longer afford to sponsor the fountain over the centerfield fence at Comerica Park, which shoots great plumes into the air whenever a Tiger hits a home run. The fountain is the most valuable piece of advertising space in the stadium, and two corporations quickly expressed interest in taking GM’s place. One offered to pay $1.5 million for three years. Mike Ilitch, the Tigers’ owner, considered the offer seriously. Then he rejected it in favor of a deal that would pay him nothing at all. Ilitch kept the GM name where it was, free of charge, and added the Ford and Chrysler logos on each flank, over the message: THE DETROIT TIGERS SUPPORT OUR AUTOMAKERS. To emphasize the point, the Tigers invited one employee from each of the embattled car giants to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day. Before GM inspector Loretta Abiodun went into her windup, she turned and looked at the fountain. “It was breathtaking,” she says.
The deal made perfect sense to Ilitch, a pizza mogul who was born in Detroit, whose father worked as a tool- and die-maker for Chrysler and who still refers to Ford as Ford’s, as if it were a neighborhood drugstore. He is a businessman by trade, but he is consumed with two causes that don’t always lend themselves to profit. “Turning around our city,” he says, “and winning the World Series.” Ilitch, who is 80, wants to see those goals realized in his lifetime, which helps explain how the Tigers have managed to keep payroll high, ticket prices relatively low and the community-relations budget constant in a period of plummeting revenue. As one major league executive puts it, “Their owner doesn’t operate from a profit-and-loss standpoint. He treats the team more like a public trust.”
(The article continues at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1160513/index.htm)