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In Detroit, Pistons try to beat an economic full-court press

By Dave McMenamin,
Posted Feb 17 2009 12:06PM

DETROIT -- Up until a couple of weeks ago, the Pistons were riding a sellout streak at the Palace of Auburn Hills that had stretched for more than five years, through five straight trips to the playoffs, two stops in the Finals and one NBA championship. While the lifeline of the city of Detroit -- the automotive industry -- struggled to remain economically relevant, the Motor City's basketball franchise flourished. The Pistons seemed, at times, immune to whatever it was that ailed the rest of this once-proud city.

That all ended on Feb. 4 against Miami. The sellout streak, which began in January of 2004, finally and somewhat quietly ended at 259 games (playoffs and regular-season games included). Now, the Pistons are staring down the same sobering financial realities that the rest of the city faces.

In many ways, the Pistons' sellout streak probably lasted longer than it should have. The team sold hundreds of tickets at severely discounted rates on several occasions just to keep it going. Given what the city is up against, the fact that the streak lasted more than five years is nothing short of amazing.

A recent glance at the front page of the Detroit Free Press says it all. All four of the stories chronicled the city's fiscal woes. The Greektown Casino needs $46 million to stay open. City workers face a 10 percent wage cut to help erase a $300 million deficit. Congress may step in to help the auto industry by offering drivers cash incentives to buy hybrid cars. Finally, the page's lead story, "Hard Times, Hard Liquor," chronicled how Detroit residents are hitting the bottle these days.

"On a whole, we've seen our economy go through rough times," said Pistons coach Michael Curry, "but even more so here."

Getting fans through the turnstiles is not the only challenge the Pistons face, economically speaking. Getting corporate sponsors to continue to lend their name -- and their dollars -- is proving more difficult, too.

Dan Hauser, the Pistons' executive vice president of corporate sales, said that the team has tried to be flexible with its corporate pricing options. Rather than maintain a strict price point and sever a long-standing relationship with a corporation because it can no longer pay the price, the Pistons have in some cases reduced the cost or length of the contract to keep its sponsors onboard.

In the past, for example, the only way that a soft drink product would get ad space on the Pistons' scoreboard was with a spot in all 41 of Detroit's home games. Now that soft drink company might buy an ad for 10 games and the Pistons will get a tire company, a bank or another corporation to pick up the rest of the time in 10-game intervals.

"That's one of the things we've been forced to do," Hauser said. "I say, 'forced' but I mean, you just have to work with what you got.

"The good news is, we're keeping the majority [of the corporate sponsorships]. The bad news is, we feel it just like the next person."

The Pistons aren't the only team feeling the economic crunch. The Sports Business Journal reported that the NBA plans on taking out a $175 million loan on Feb. 26 to split between 15 teams. Those teams requested the money so that they can cover their basic operating costs and other expenses.

The Pistons have a monthly one-hour conference call with six other teams to share information of what is working in other cities. Hauser says one idea that has come from the conference call is for Detroit to get a head start on its season-ticket renewal process in the spring, rather than waiting until June or July.

Dave Bing enjoyed a Hall of Fame career with the Pistons in the 1960s and '70s. When he was done lacing them up, he stayed in Detroit and made his fortune in the steel industry with The Bing Group.

Now Bing is running for mayor of Detroit. The primary is Feb. 24. "There's a tremendous need," Bing said when asked what prompted his decision to enter the political realm. "We have a lot of folks here in this city that are in pain, they are hurting financially. I think we got a lot of people who are basically losing hope because they are losing jobs and they don't see from a leadership standpoint, anybody trying to correct the direction that we're going in."

Bing feels that the Pistons and their problems -- or those of the other major pro sports franchises in Detroit, the NFL's Lions, the NHL's Red Wings and MLB's Tigers -- are the last thing that Motown residents should be worried about these days.

"If the teams are successful, I think people would rally around that because that's all good news and that helps from a pride standpoint. But in the real world, it doesn't mean that much to these people," Bing said. "They see athletes as being overpaid, spoiled, pampered and the guy that's got to get up and take a lunch to work everyday, he couldn't care less about some of the issues that the athletes are having or even the teams are having at this point because they can't connect. It's hard for them to connect with that today."

Maybe that's the reason for the growing patches of empty seats. Pistons season ticket holder Tony Jennings, 26, of Birmingham, Mich., says that he saw those empty sections pop up in the Palace months before the sellout streak officially ended.

It certainly hasn't helped that the Pistons have struggled on the court, either. In the 10 games before the streak ended, Detroit was 3-7. The Pistons traded former Finals MVP Chauncey Billups -- who manned the point the last six years as Detroit made the Eastern Conference Finals six times -- to Denver for Allen Iverson in a move that was explained by the Pistons' front office as one intended to jolt an aging team. Day by day, however, the trade seems to have been fueled more by salary cap considerations. Iverson's $22 million deal comes off the books this season. In contrast, Detroit would have owed Billups $25 million over the next two seasons.

The Pistons are 27-24 coming out of the All-Star break and would be the No.7 seed in the East if the playoffs started today.

"Our goal here is to build a winning team that competes for championships each year," Detroit president of basketball operations Joe Dumars told in an e-mail. "I evaluate every facet of our team and basketball operations to make sure that we are in a position to be a competitive team in the present and in the future."

Still, it's obvious that the Pistons have become a much tougher sell in this economic environment. Maybe nobody sees that better than Joe Morgan, 33, owner of Motor City Sports Gallery, a sports memorabilia and custom framing store.

Aside from the economy hitting his business hard ("If people can't afford to feed their families," Morgan said, "they're not going to buy this stuff"), Morgan said the Pistons pieces "sell less than anybody -- a lot less." That includes framed jerseys and autographed pictures from the Lions, who became the model of futility with the NFL's first-ever 0-16 season.

"For the first time this year I think people are looking at it and saying, 'OK, I've got $80 into these tickets, it's $10 to park, I've got gas, I've got beers, I've got two [hot] dogs at least, that's another $40 ... I don't know.' And they're willing to eat the $80 for a bad game on a Tuesday, in January with the snow falling," said Tom Wilson, president and CEO of the Pistons.

The Pistons have tried to ease some of the growing consumer fear by offering "Dollar Nights" where various concessions -- hot dogs, popcorn, nachos and cotton candy -- are priced at only $1.

"As we look forward, we're looking at cutting our prices, we're looking at all-inclusive kinds of things where parking may be included, where a food card or something like that may be included so that you pay us once and you pay us less once, but you get a much greater package," Wilson said. "We have to take away the obvious reasons that you can't justify coming."

It's no small task, especially in a city that was ranked No. 7 on Forbes' list of America's 10 Most Miserable Cities and No. 2 on Forbes' list of America's Emptiest Cities.

"We feel as though that we're peoples' escape," Pistons guard Richard Hamilton said, "where they can come out and enjoy a basketball game, have fun, enjoy it and put their problems to the side for a couple of hours and we're pretty much their entertainment."

It's unlikely, given the current economic climate in the city and the Pistons' struggles on the court, that Detroit will begin another legitimate sellout streak anytime soon. But the Pistons, like the city itself, are not about to give up trying.

"This is a resilient city," Curry said. "I think that Detroit is made up of fighters and that's why they embrace the team when the team is really fighting. That's what they want."

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