Does billionaire Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, want to buy the Detroit Tigers from the Ilitch family?
Various community leaders have told the Free Press that Gilbert is interested, some saying negotiations are underway. The Free Press sources, though, lack firsthand knowledge of such talks, and of course there’s no guarantee any deal will emerge even if there have been discussions.
Asked in person Tuesday whether he is working to buy the Tigers, after an obscure sports website said he was, Gilbert didn’t deny it. Leaving an appearance at Adcraft Detroit’s Quicken Loans Day at the Mike Ilitch School of Business, Gilbert said only that his organization doesn’t comment on speculation.
Things that make the idea seem logical: Gilbert in 2004 came up short in a bid to buy the Milwaukee Brewers and is a baseball fan who grew up in metro Detroit. He’s a pro sports owner already, with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers part of his empire.
Mike Ilitch, a minor leaguer whose baseball career ended with a broken ankle before Little Caesars pizza launched his fortune, bought the Tigers in 1992 and spent lavishly in pursuit of his dream of a World Series title. He died in February 2017, and afterward there have been questions of whether his family shared his passion.
But Christopher Ilitch, Mike’s son, said publicly a year ago that his family, including his mother, Marian, is not interested in selling the Tigers.
Others contacted this month by the Free Press have said they consider such a sale improbable, but also lack firsthand knowledge.
Yet talk of a possible deal gained steam recently amid reports that Gilbert wants to sell his interests in several casinos he owns, including the one in Greektown in Detroit. Major League Baseball doesn’t want team owners to own casinos, so word of Gilbert’s interest in selling his casinos led to speculation of a possible Tigers deal.
The Ilitches got around the casino ban by having Motor City Casino in Marion Ilitch’s name, separate from husband Mike’s public ownership of the Tigers.
Steps to a deal
There’s been no known movement on the casino front, and, presumably, that would have to happen before any Tigers deal could be struck. Other MLB owners would eventually need to approve any agreement.
Forbes magazine, which each year tracks the value of major sports teams, estimated this year that the Tigers are worth $1.225 billion, even in the depths of their effort to rebuild, making them the 19th most valuable team in Major League Baseball. A sale price anywhere near that would represent a remarkable return on the $82 million Ilitch paid for the team in 1992.
But beyond the question of whether a deal will happen, there’s the question of what kind of owner for the Tigers would Gilbert be.
Let’s go back to ’92, when Mike Ilitch bought the Tigers from then-owner Tom Monaghan, the Domino’s Pizza founder. There was joy in Mudville. Fans celebrated that a true local hero in Ilitch was buying the ballclub from an owner many thought had grown remote and eccentric. And, of course, Ilitch had already earned goodwill from owning the Red Wings and restoring the historic Fox Theater.
Would fans acclaim Gilbert as a new owner in the same way? Perhaps. He’d be the fresh face, the whirligig who has been transforming downtown in a few short years, a man with childlike enthusiasm for almost everything he does, much as Mike Ilitch himself was.
Not everyone agrees, of course. Some critics still see Gilbert as an interloper who scoops up dirt-cheap properties in a hard-hit city for his own profit. Then, too, he’s battling the U.S. Department of Justice in an interminable lawsuit over Quicken’s lending practices. And he has sought and received tax breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars for his downtown projects, intensifying the debate over Michigan’s tax incentives policy.
Moves fast, spends money
But a glance at Gilbert’s track record in Detroit shows many more positives than negatives:
First, he moves fast and he spends money. Arriving downtown in 2010 with about 1,500 employees, he quickly bought or acquired control of about 100 properties, including major landmarks. His workforce has swelled to 17,000 downtown, a key reason why the central downtown seems so crowded these days.
Second, he hires really good people. When Gilbert decided to enliven the street scene downtown, he engaged the Project for Public Spaces team in New York, led by Fred Kent, who for decades has led the effort to create more walkable urban environments.
It got results. Lots of downtown attractions, from the sandy beach at Campus Martius to the colorful street furniture dotting downtown sidewalks, came from that collaboration.
Third, he tackles big challenges. His Hudson’s site project, now under construction, will become Detroit’s tallest new building in a few years. And all his work in downtown Detroit has been matched by similarly ambitious efforts in Cleveland, which he also enriched by delivering an NBA title, the city’s first major sports championship in 50 years.
And fourth, Gilbert produces first-class results. Witness the popular Christmas markets he set up at Campus Martius these past couple of winters, or the decor of any of his offices. Those spaces show a lively, high-energy design that appeals to a youthful spirit
And the bid book that Gilbert and his team put together for Detroit’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, while ultimately unsuccessful in getting on Amazon’s short list, was among the best such efforts produced in Detroit in many a year.
True, Gilbert may not be Mike Ilitch, whose inventive marketing schemes were legendary, like his Pizza! Pizza! promotion. But it’s fair to say that Gilbert is a more public personality than the reserved Christopher Ilitch, who now runs the family empire. Christopher seldom grants interviews and usually appears in public at strictly programmed events.
Gilbert, by contrast, is more free-wheeling and unscripted. He’s out in public more than any other Michigan billionaire — speaking at conferences, breaking ground on his projects, answering reporters’ questions, serving on the city’s blight task force, heading up the Amazon bid team.
Sometimes, his openness gets him in trouble. The most notorious incident came in 2010, when he blasted the Cavaliers’ free-agent star LeBron James for jumping to the Miami Heat. In a scathing letter made public, Gilbert called James’ departure a “cowardly betrayal,” a “shameful display of selfishness” and the “exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn.” The league fined Gilbert $100,000 for his outburst.
Owner and player later reconciled when James returned to Cleveland for a few seasons. But the original remarks earned Gilbert a reputation of a hothead who often spoke first and sometimes thought better of it later.
This much we know: In a few short years, Gilbert has already grown into one of Detroit’s major public personalities. Should he buy the Tigers, his stamp on Detroit’s psyche would loom even larger.
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.
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