May 5, 2016
Get over it. Ilitches can call new
hockey arena whatever they want
By KEITH GAVE
All the complaining about the name of the Red Wings’ new home in Detroit – Little Caesars Arena – would be amusing, if it wasn’t so damned sad.
I mean, come on people, life must be awfully good if these are the kinds of things we have to grab onto to get angry about. An online petition aimed at changing the name? Seriously? With thousands of virtual signatures? Just more evidence of how spoiled Wings fans have become over the last 25 years or so, how entitled a new generation that has no memory of the two decades of futility the team experienced before the Ilitch family bought it and turned it into the model professional sports franchise.
For all Mike and Marian Ilitch have done for the City of Detroit, all they have invested in transforming downtown into a showplace where rubble and decay once reigned, they have earned the right to name the $627 million, 20,000-seat building whatever they want – and we should applaud it and be grateful.
The name is a tribute to the legacy of one man, and it has Marian’s fingerprints all over it. When Mike Ilitch scraped together enough dough from selling pots and pans door to door in suburban Detroit to open his first pizza parlor in Garden City on May 8, 1959, it needed a name. Mike wanted to call it “Pizza Treat.” Marian, however, wanted something more ostentatious. With his mop of curly hair and his confident, unequivocal manner, Mike reminded his wife of a Roman emperor. He was always her little Caesar, and that’s the name she wanted.
So that first store was called Little Caesar’s Pizza Treat. Three years later, they sold their first franchise and their global empire has grown to become the third-largest pizza chain in America.
In 1982, the Ilitches branched out into the sports and entertainment industries, buying the Detroit Red Wings. After two moribund decades, they built a hockey team people could be proud of again as they hadn’t been since the 1950s. Within 10 years, the Ilitches were considering building a new arena, even though Joe Louis Arena had opened just three years before they bought the Wings. The Joe was outdated by arena standards before the first shovel went into the ground. But that’s the way Detroit did things in the 1970s.
By the early 1990s, the Wings had a season-ticket base of about 16,000 and a waiting list nearly that long. Mike Ilitch was entertaining the idea of building a state-of-the-art arena then, with upwards of 25,000 seats to better accommodate all the fans who wanted to see his team play. There was talk of turning The Joe into a freshwater aquarium, giving the city a unique tourist attraction on the banks of the Detroit River.
Call it Little Caesars Arena, I wrote then in a column for the Detroit Free Press. It makes just as much sense to me now. But plans for the new arena were shelved when the Detroit Tigers went on the market, and Mike wanted to buy the team over Marian’s strenuous objections.
A former minor-league shortstop in the Tigers organization, Mike has a love for the game that many of us understand. And he had the wallet to make his dreams come true. He bought the team and built a new ballpark across the street from the fabulous Fox Theatre, which the Ilitches acquired and renovated in the late 1980s to start the city’s renaissance.
Comerica Bank agreed to pay $66 million over 30 years to put its name on it when it opened in 2000. Didn’t hear a lot of outrage from fans about that at the time. A few years later, the Lions built their stadium next door and named it Ford Field, which made perfect sense to most of us.
Under the naming agreement for the new arena, Little Caesars will pay an average of about $6.25 million per year – or more than $125 million over the next 20 years when it opens in September 2017. Considered the largest deal of its kind in North America, it includes advertising on the roof of the arena and branding around the exterior and on center ice, as well as on the Red Wings’ website and social media outlets.
So what does it all mean?
For starters, it means that the Red Wings are lot more important to the family than the Tigers. In fact, the smart money says that as soon as Mike Ilitch, 86 and in failing health, is no longer with us, the family will sell the MLB franchise to someone like Dan Gilbert, who is also investing heavily in the city. Until then, though, expect Ilitch – who refers to himself as a fan with an owner’s checkbook – to keep doing everything in his power to deliver a World Series championship to this city.
But whether or not it’s part of his legacy to the city, it’s on us now hail this little Caesar – and his new arena – rather than criticize what the family wants to call it.
Better for us to consider what we prefer to nickname it, as we did with The Joe. One of the radio folks in Detroit suggests fans might want to refer to Little Caesars Arena as The Dough. My suggestion, considering that ice level will be 35 feet below street level: The Deep Dish.
What ideas do you have?