Gores Gets The Palace & The Pistons

The Detroit Pistons announced Friday that billionaire California investor Tom Gores has agreed to buy the struggling NBA franchise, ending a drawn-out sale by longtime owner Karen Davidson that stretched back before the season.

The tentative deal, which also includes The Palace of Auburn Hills and DTE Energy Music Theatre, must be approved by the NBA. Terms were not disclosed, but the deal is expected to close by June 30.

Gores, the chairman and CEO of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Platinum Equity, also is buying the operating rights to the Meadow Brook Music Festival.

Davidson became the owner after her husband died in March 2009.

“We are pleased to welcome Tom Gores as the new owner of the Detroit Pistons and Palace Sports and Entertainment,” she said in a statement. “Just as my late husband, Bill Davidson, was the face of the Pistons, I am confident that Tom will bring the same energy, dedication and love to this organization. I look forward to seeing Tom follow in Bill’s footsteps, and carry on his legacy.”

Gores founded Platinum Equity in 1995, and in its 2010 list of the 400 richest people in America, Forbes put him in a tie for 153rd with a net worth of $2.4 billion. Gores, 46, is a Flint native and has a degree from Michigan State University, though he now lives in California with his wife and three children.

“I am very proud to have this opportunity to be part of such a tremendous organization,” Gores said. “I know it’s been a long process, and I appreciate the patience and support of the Detroit community. I have been impressed with the Davidson family and the way it has protected and built such a storied franchise.

“I grew up here, I am glad to be back and I am very excited about all the possibilities looking forward.”

An NBA spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Davidson had hoped to reach a deal to sell the team before the season. The Pistons were negotiating terms with Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch around that time, but those talks fell apart. Gores was among the other suitors last year, along with The Postolos Group president George Postolos.

The Pistons play in suburban Auburn Hills, in Oakland County. County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said it’s a sale with “many complex parts,” referring to the team, The Palace and other entertainment venues.

“I wasn’t surprised to see long negotiations,” he said. “I am delighted with Gores’ ownership. He’s made it clear he’s keeping the team in Auburn Hills in Oakland County, and there’s no question where my loyalties are.”

Gores’ private equity firm made a popular splash a year ago in the community of Cadillac, 200 miles northwest of Detroit. Platinum Equity essentially bought the bankrupt Four Winns boat manufacturing company in a move officials said saved or created hundreds of jobs.

“I am completely convinced that unless Mr. Gores had bought the company and his particular interest in Michigan that the facility would close down, and they would have moved all their manufacturing out of Michigan,” said Paul Brown, vice president of capital markets for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The Pistons’ sale, if approved, will end the long and storied ownership of the team by the Davidson family.

Spurned in his bids to buy the NFL’s Detroit Lions and NHL’s Red Wings, Bill Davidson became majority owner of the Pistons in 1974.

He acquired the team from the late Fred Zollner, the man who founded the team in Fort Wayne, Ind., in the 1940s. The franchise moved to Detroit in 1957.

Davidson bought Roundball One for the Pistons, making them one of the first pro sports team with their own airplane. He built a state-of-the-art practice facility for the club and was among the first to put luxury boxes closer to the court in arenas.

The Palace was built for $90 million – all of it Davidson’s money – and won instant acclaim as a sports and entertainment venue when it opened in 1988. The Pistons won three championships when Davidson was the owner, including back-to-back titles in 1989-90.

Gores, who coaches youth sports and serves on the board of trustees for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will have a challenge returning the Pistons to prominence.

In 2009, Forbes valued the Pistons at $479 million, but that figure was down to $360 million this year.

Detroit won the NBA championship in 2004, part of a six-year streak in which the team reached at least the conference finals, but the Pistons went 27-55 last season and haven’t been any better in 2010-11.

Detroit was 27-51 and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference heading into Friday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks. Empty seats have been common at The Palace this season, and that, coupled with feuding between coaches and players, have only added to a sense of gloom.

One of the franchise’s all-time greats, Dave Bing, is now mayor of Detroit. Bing said Friday he was “pleased that there appears to be some finality to the ownership question” of a team he would like to see move downtown.

“While relocating the team to Detroit may not be an option or priority, they are always welcome back home to Detroit,” Bing said.