Ilitch Eyes Pistons, PSE

Mike Ilitch, the Little Caesars pizza mogul who already owns the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, said Monday that he wants to buy the Detroit Pistons in part to make sure another buyer doesn’t move the NBA franchise out of town.

The Pistons declined to comment on Ilitch’s interest in the team, which Forbes valued at $479 million last year.

Pistons owner Karen Davidson has said she’s considering a sale of the team by itself or as part of a package with Palace Sports and Entertainment, which includes The Palace of Auburn Hills, DTE Energy Music Theatre and Meadow Brook Music Festival.

Her husband, Bill Davidson, died last year. The late owner known as “Mr. D” helped the Pistons win NBA titles in 1989, 1990 and 2004. Karen Davidson has said she expects the deal to be done by the opening game in late October.

“When I read in the paper there was the chance that this great sports town could lose one of its professional sports franchises, I just didn’t see how we could let that happen,” Ilitch said. “The Pistons, just like the Red Wings, Tigers and the Lions, have a rich and storied tradition in this community.”

The announcement by Ilitch, who wants to build a new downtown arena for the NHL’s Red Wings, raised the prospect that the Pistons could end up sharing space. Whether the Pistons might leave their suburban home at The Palace if Ilitch’s bid succeeds, a spokeswoman noted, is just speculation.

One owner for three of a city’s professional teams has been done before, and only the NFL prohibits such cross-ownership, said Stephen Ross, director of the Penn State Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research.

At one time, media pioneer Ted Turner had baseball’s Atlanta braves, the NBA’s Hawks and the NHL’s Thrashers.

Ilitch, who founded the Little Caesars chain with his wife, also owns a number of Detroit entertainment venues. With three teams, Ilitch could leverage corporate sponsorships across the teams to make them move valuable, Ross said.

“There’s all sorts of potential synergies,” he said.

Earlier this year, Michael Jordan paid $275 million for the Charlotte Bobcats, and the owner of the Golden State Warriors agreed to sell that franchise for $450 million. But a weak economy and the threat of a work stoppage in the NBA after next season could play a role in how much a Pistons sale can bring.

Ilitch said he has notified the Pistons of his interest, calling the move a required step toward a possible purchase. In Monday’s statement, Ilitch said he fears the Detroit area could lose the Pistons if an out-of-town buyer comes forward. He said Ilitch Holdings Inc. would be a “local, engaged owner” for the team.

“We believe we could bring a lot to the table that could be tremendously positive for the Pistons franchise, the NBA and the fans of this community,” Ilitch said.

Ilitch bought the Tigers in 1992 and built a new home for the team at Comerica Park, which opened in 2000. The Red Wings, which Ilitch acquired in 1982, has been one of his most stunning successes, winning four Stanley Cups under him.

The Red Wings, who play at Joe Louis Arena, have been contemplating whether to build a new arena, renovate their current home or move at least temporarily to The Palace, the suburban home of the Pistons. Plans for an updated Red Wings arena downtown, however, aren’t contingent on Ilitch buying the Pistons.

The Red Wings plan to play the 2010-2011 season at Joe Louis Arena, Ilitch Holdings spokeswoman Jennifer Haselhuhn said. The team and the city agreed in June to extend discussions on a new lease deal for the arena, which opened in 1979.

Talks about a new agreement continue, Haselhuhn said. If Ilitch succeeds in buying the Pistons, Haselhuhn said she couldn’t say whether the team would move back into the city limits, calling such talk “speculation.”

Still, the prospect of Ilitch buying the NBA team sparked interest in the office of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, a former Pistons star. In a statement, spokeswoman Karen Dumas said: “The news is early, but promising. The city of Detroit is excited about the opportunity of welcoming the Pistons back home.”

The Pistons played at Detroit’s Cobo Arena from 1961-78, then played at the Pontiac Silverdome until 1988, when they moved to Auburn Hills. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, whose county includes the suburb where the Pistons play, said he would encourage Ilitch to keep the team at its current home.