Little Caesars Arena was the final piece in positioning Detroit as a player in the competitive sports/entertainment world. (Photo from Ilitch Sports/Entertainment)



Related Companies, Olympia Development of Michigan (ODM) and the City of Detroit announced plans to begin an extensive Community Benefits Ordinance (CBO) process for a multi-building development in The District Detroit. The CBO process marks the next phase of plans to build new residential with affordable housing, new office, retail, hotel, and public space across 10 properties in The District Detroit, aimed at attracting and retaining talent and inclusive economic development in Detroit and Michigan. (Rendering from Ilitch Sports/Entertainment)

  In the Game: The Motor City establishes itself as a walkable sports/entertainment venue

By Leland Stein III
International Syndicated Sports Columnist,
Special to Tell Us USA News Network

DETROIT – The dream of a viable, walkable, Detroit sports/entertainment district has manifest itself into a reality for the Downtown Development Authority.

This past Saturday, when the Michigan State University Spartans (5-5) contested the undefeated, No. 6 ranked Baylor Bears at the Continental Tires Motor City Invitational played at Little Caesars Arena, I tested the dream of a walkable sports entertainment district.

Comerica Park and Ford Field lit up for the late Saturday night NFL game. (Photo by Leland Stein III)

After witnessing the Spartans surprisingly dismantle Baylor 88-64 before a raucous 13,277, then sitting in on coach Tom Izzo’s animated post-game press conference, next running into Barry Sanders & his entire family, and, Steve Smith outside MSU’s locker room in LCA’s tunnel . . . finally, just three hours later I started my walk down Woodward toward the Fox theater.

Woodward was full with people leaving LCA and those coming to Ford Field to witness a hot Denver Broncos team contest a slumping Detroit Lions team that had lost two of its last three games.

As I walked through the mass of Lions fans, I could hear and see many were in worried anticipation of which Lions’ squad would show up for this critical contest for playoff positioning.

Getting closer to Ford Field, Izzo’s post-game projection that “maybe this (his team’s victory) will carryover across the street,” was ringing in my ear. Leland Stein, Barry Sanders and Steve Smith at LCA. (Photo by Lauren Sanders)

On that day in the Motor City, the Lions indeed reawakened and produced one of its most complete games in a month, with a thorough 42-17 thrashing over a Denver team that had won six of its last seven games.

In spite of the Motor City’s long flirt with negative financial and economic woes that has became a part of our City’s history, always in there fighting were those that saw through the negative haze and seized the opportunity to create.

Championed by the Detroit Economic Growth Corp and the Downtown Development Authority, after years of dreaming big and planning smart, plans turned into action and the vision of a sports entertainment district started to bear fruit.

W. Columbia Street all aglow.  (Photo by Leland Stein III)

Starting in 2000 with the opening of Comerica Park, followed by the opening of Ford Field in 2002, and finally, when Little Caesars Arena opened in 2017, the walkable sports entertainment district’s foundation became solidly rooted.

With all three facilities right near or on Woodward Avenue, Motown became the only city in the country that has four of its professional sports teams playing around the corner from each other in its downtown – Red Wings (NHL), Pistons (NBA), Lions (NFL) and Tigers (MLB).

Add in the annual Indy Car Racing Circuit’s return to downtown from Belle Isle in 2023, and, the PGA’s Rocket Mortgage Classic playing in the City up Woodward at the Detroit Golf Club, the Motor City, as much as a cold-weather city can, has surely positioned itself as a viable sports entertainment destination.

Many of Detroit’s concerned citizens implored our neighborhoods and schools need special attention too, and, rightfully so. However, the dynamics of inner cities in America are a national problem of economics, segregation, employment, shifting population, and old infrastructure.

Fox brought Jim Jackson and Detroit’s Gus Johnson to broadcast MSU vs. Baylor.   (Photo by Leland Stein III)

One problem is no reason to hold up another potential uplift.

I have covered sporting events in both San Antonio and Indianapolis, and, I have seen how each implemented the model of building all their sports venues in a walkable proximity. In conjunction with the arenas and stadiums . . . hotels, eateries and housing evolved.

Take the Los Angeles Staples Center — renamed the Arena — for example. I was in living in LA and covering the Clippers, Lakers and Kings when the developers started building the arena, and, many screamed “we don’t need it and that it was a waste of money and resources.”

Well, the Lakers, Clippers and Kings after seeing the new venue quickly abandon the famous Great Western Forum. The Arena has now become LA’s linchpin and has galvanized a three-block district – that has turned into 10-blocks – called LA Live that has clubs, restaurants, theaters, and hotels.

Ford Field bustling with activity.   (Photo by Leland Stein III)

That LA downtown area before the Arena and LA Live were built was a waste land of poverty.

Sounds familiar? Detroit’s Cass Corridor had similar concerns as LA.

Truth be told, everything originally proposed in the aggressive LCA pre-planning has not all come to fruition; however, no one can argue with the new venues and real energy happening around this walkable sports entertainment district.

Facts are, a few cities have already shown us how a mid-major city can use the sports entertainment model to re-galvanize a downtown and city.

“It’s always been my dream to once again see a vibrant downtown Detroit,” Mike Ilitch, chairman of Ilitch Holdings, told reporters in 2012. “From the time we bought the Fox Theatre, I could envision a downtown where the streets were bustling and people were energized. It has been a slow process at times, but we’re getting there now and a lot of great people are coming together to make it happen. It is going to happen and I want to keep us moving toward that vision.”

The Spartans discuss strategy.   (Photo by Leland Stein III)

A little more than 10-years later, Little Caesars Arena has indeed injected an extra shot of adrenaline from Brush Park to Martin Luther King Blvd to Cass Ave. to Fisher Service Dr and into downtown.

Indeed, sports and walkable entertainment collectively are the new model to ensure a city’s rotation in hosting the mega-sporting events.

About 10 somethings years ago, I wrote a column in the Michigan Chronicle beseeching and cajoling Detroit’s movers and shakers to seek to make the Motor City a national sports entertainment player – competing for concerts, Super Bowl, Final Four, NCAA regionals, NBA and NHL All-Star Weekends.

Spartan cheerleaders pump up the crowd. (Photo by Leland Stein III)

I think Ilitch and the Ford family saw what I saw in those two smaller cities that were both seeking to redefine themselves. Each city recognized and acknowledged the walkable sports entertainment future direction and took massive steps to regenerate themselves in that genre.

Detroit has indeed positioned itself as a real player in the mega-dollar sports entertainment world. Having already hosted two Super Bowls, the Motor City will also host its second Final Four at Ford Field in 2027, NCAA Midwest Regional in 2024, and the NFL Draft will also bring anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 people to Detroit in 2024 leaving a projected 200 million in the city.

Also, earlier in November of 2023, Michigan State football played its season ending BigTen game downtown versus Penn State at Ford Field.

San Antonio and Indianapolis, have modeled how a city can interject new energy and life into a decaying downtown. Unlike those other two cities, Motown has all four professional sports franchises, and, they are in walking distance from each other.

Philadelphia has all four of their pro franchises playing in two stadiums and an arena connected all in the same area; however, the facilities are in South Philly and not downtown.

The Motor’s next move should be to push the BigTen to rotate their football and basketball conference title games to Ford Field and LCA – presently both are contested only in Indianapolis, why?

(Excerpts from Michigan Chronicle in 2012 are included in this story)




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