Monday, March 30, 2009

The Demise of Detroit Sports?

I was a strange kid. Even though I loved sports and music, my obsession was with numbers. I was the only 6th grader dying for the 1980 census to come out.

When I downloaded the information to my then full complement of brain cells, I learned that only six US cities boasted a population of one million or more: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, and Detroit.

But even then, when the American auto industry was still rolling and when Motown was still printing some serious vinyl, Detroit was a punchline.

"It was a rough place - the seediest dive on the wharf. Populated with every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta. It's worse than Detroit." - Ted Striker, Airplane!

Now the Final Four descends upon Ford Field in Detroit and the perception of The Motor City goes way beyond the butt of jokes, even if it came as a dirty text message from the former mayor himself. I mean, didn't The President just effectively fire GM's CEO?

But Detroit has always thrived as a sports town:

Ernie Harwell called Tiger games at "the corner" of Michigan and Trumbull.

The Pistons' "Bad Boys" were the last juggernaut before Michael.

"Hockey Town" is the preeminent US hockey town.

Joe Louis called it home. Thomas the "Hit Man" Hearns came up through the Kronk.

And where football is king, those loser Lions might be the favorite of them all.

I personally have worked 4 Motor City Bowls and they always drew - including 60,000+ for the epic Central Michigan-Purdue battle in 2007. (Purdue won a thriller 51-48)

In recent years, Detroit has hosted the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals, and now the Final Four. It currently owns the Stanley Cup. But can it survive as a major league town if its fans can't show up in this woeful economy?

Tigers' spring training in Lakeland is already a soap opera with Dontrelle Willis going on the DL with an "anxiety disorder" wait til' they break north and start playing in front of 18,000 at Comerica Park.

If the fan's hard money isn't coming in, then ownership will have to cut payroll. If they have to trade away their best players, the product suffers, and attendance dwindles even more. The public interest in the team may well go the way of Detroit Free Press home delivery.

Then repeat the cycle for Detroit's other major sports. They can hang on for a while, but the wait for a Tigers, Lions, or Pistons championship may be longer than the wait for Eminem's next album. Let's hope the teams can hang on long enough to find out. And defy the numbers.

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