He had no shortage of suitors among pro sports owners looking for visionary direction for their teams when he resigned as president of the Los Angeles Dodgers amid the chaos that ensued from the very public divorce case involving owners Frank and Jamie McCourt.
But he chose the opening with the Pistons for an ideal mix of reasons that started with his faith in the energy and vision of new owner Tom Gores.
“The next opportunity I was going to take, I wanted to be with someone that was forward thinking,” Mannion said in his second week on the job as president of The Palace and the Pistons, overseeing all business operations, including sales, marketing, finance and administration, “Having a passion for the sport was first and having a track record of using data to make decisions – that’s where the world has gone. And Tom clearly has found that.”
But it wasn’t just about Mannion’s comfort level with ownership. It also was driven by his desire to get back to the NBA, which he’s found to be the most innovative and empowering of the four pro sports leagues; to work in a sports-mad town endorsed wholeheartedly to him by parents who spent what his mother, Marie, called the best 15 years of their lives; and to become the caretaker for what he considers two esteemed brands: the Pistons and The Palace.
“The second piece, frankly, was the success that both The Palace and the Pistons have had from a branding standpoint,” Mannion said. “I know about the winning. But when you think about big entertainment brands, and you think about big sports brands, everyone knows The Palace; everyone knows the Pistons.”
Mannion was a student at the University of Massachusetts – at the time, the only school in the country that offered an undergraduate sports management degree – when H.K. and Marie Mannion moved from Pittsburgh to accommodate H.K.’s new position as an executive with Crowley’s department stores.
“I love sports,” Mannion said. “I’ve been in towns like Pittsburgh that can get rabid – around the Steelers, anyway. Philadelphia was fairly rabid, but really big. Denver played the hot tickets and the hot teams and Baltimore was completely rabid over the Ravens. What I knew about Detroit I knew through my parents. They said there are six teams they’re rabid about. I thought, that’s pretty cool.
“I knew from many visits I had made here, everyone is talking sports. Red Wings, Lions, Tigers, Michigan, Michigan State, Pistons – that part of it was a huge attraction. I thought, I want to be in an area where what you do actually matters, that the people care. They’ll put you on the hot seat – that’s fine, but let’s get into it. Let’s have some fun.”
Mannion began his career with the Phillies, who hired him midway through his senior year at UMass, which not only gave him a degree “but a distinguished alumni award, to boot,” Mannion laughed. He thought he was signing on for an internship, but they put him to work full-time – on New Year’s Eve, one day after the job interview that he told his family didn’t go very well, making sales calls.
By the time he’d worked his way through management – starting in ticket sales and rising to run the department plus those that oversaw game-day promotions and entertainment, plus broadcasting and advertising – search firms were coming to him with opportunities.
He eventually left in 1998 to run business operations for the NBA’s Nuggets as well as the Avalanche in Denver, where Mannion also was charged with management of the Pepsi Center, in development at the time. Ownership turmoil left him looking for a more stable environment, which resulted in a move to the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens as senior vice president of business ventures in 1999.
After revolutionizing the business operations of a team that was becoming an NFL marketing phenom, Pam Mannion could tell her husband was ready to tackle another challenge head on.
“It’s been eight years with the Ravens,” she told Dennis, “and I can tell you really have the itch. She said, ‘I only have two rules: no baseball and no West Coast.’ So I picked the Dodgers.”
The Mannions have picked up their family of five children – Dennis’ sons Ryan and Kellen and Pam’s daughters Kate and Allie were 5, 4, 3 and 2 when they met 23 years ago and a year older when they married and brought what he calls “The Brady Bunch” together – but this time only their daughter Tatum, 15, will be uprooted by what he believes will be a long and successful run with the Pistons.
Building a championship-caliber roster remains the charge of Joe Dumars, whose role as president of basketball operations goes unchanged. Mannion says he’s always enjoyed strong working relationships with the men who’ve held similar positions in his other stops – specifically citing Ozzie Newsome of the Ravens, Pierre LaCroix of the Avs and Ned Colletti of the Dodgers – and anticipates more of the same with the Pistons, already picking up a similar vibe from Dumars as he got from Newsome.
“Ozzie Newsome was outstanding,” he said. “He was the one who told me, ‘I won’t get in the way of you making money if you don’t get in the way of me making wins.’ Joe’s wonderful. One of the most pleasant surprises, besides meeting Tom, was meeting Joe. You could tell he had a natural eye for people and natural instincts about the game and just gets it – really, really gets it.”
So what’s ahead for the Pistons under Dennis Mannion? Check out our Q&A later this week on Pistons.com.