If you only went by what you read in the Detroit papers this week, you’d think Mike Ilitch—the pizza baron and owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers who died last week at the age of 87—was a god incarnate. And for the last three decades, if you’d asked anyone in Michigan, you’d have gotten the sense he was revered as such in the Motor City. Actually, they’d tell you, It’s Mr. I.
“Detroit native, pizza magnate revitalized two sports franchises in his city, along with the city itself,” the Detroit Free Press wrote.
“And there, in the midst of Detroit’s catastrophic financial woes, Ilitch’s pride glimmered,” legendarily hamfisted columnist Bob Wojnowski wrote in The Detroit News.
This is the kind of purple-crayon boosterism he was accustomed to during his life, so it’s only fitting that he received it in memoriam.
That’s not to say he wasn’t shrewd with his franchises. Ilitch was a tremendously devoted owner: Unlike peers who opt for assured profits over victories, he poured money into his rosters. He stocked his mid ‘90s and early aughts Red Wings juggernauts with stars in the pre-salary cap era and approved George Steinbrenner-worthy payrolls for a mid-market team during the Tigers renaissance over the last decade. His Wings won four Stanley Cups with Hall of Famers up and down the lineup. (At one point during the 2001-2002 season the Wings iced Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, and Luc Robitaille together on what coaches called The 600 Goal Line.) The Tigers, despite a string of division titles and deep playoff runs, never won him the World Series ring he openly told the press his life would not be complete without, but it wasn’t for want of resources. And what was good for fans was good for him. The Red Wings, most recently valued at $625 million, may go down as one of the best franchise investments of all time; he and his wife Marian bought the team for $8 million in 1982.
Ilitch’s legacy is more complicated than just Hometown Kid Does Right, though. His boosters will be the first to tell you that he singlehandedly revitalized the city and invested in his hometown when no one else would. But this glosses over the real story, which is that Ilitch was an opportunistic businessman. He saw a wide open lane in downtown Detroit—and a generous tax abatement—and had a few friends on the city council always willing to help. Ilitch’s empire was about budget lines, not goodwill. This was business. And business in the city of Detroit was good for the Ilitch family.
In 2003, a Detroit News headline screamed “Fox Theatre’s Rebirth Ushered In City’s Renewal,” highlighting the downtown theatre that Olympia Entertainment, the sports and entertainment arm of Ilitch Holdings, bought and renovated in 1987. This was the media’s rote characterization of Mr. I: a white knight, riding into town to cure the city of all its ills. Rebirth and revitalization was his calling card.
I believed it for years. The son of a third generation Detroiter, I grew up on Tigers baseball, Red Wings hockey, and weekend jaunts around the city, from Belle Isle to the Fox Theatre. Those Fedorov and Yzerman-era Wings were something to behold! It wasn’t until I started reporting on the Red Wings arena deal that Mr. I’s sheen lost its glow. I quickly turned into the dude who, three beers deep at a Tigers game, would talk about how much of a scam artist Ilitch is, taking the taxpayers for all they’re worth.
And how! Ilitch left behind a messy legacy of taxpayer subsidies and real estate speculation. (Not to mention that he outright refused to sign a community benefits agreement that would have ensured a specific percentage of permanent, non-construction jobs at the new hockey arena would go to city residents.) The amount of public money he accepted over the years is vast—the Wings alone secured $284.5 million in public money for their new arena a week after the city of Detroit declared for bankruptcy—and dominated the headlines. But the Ilitch family’s years of land speculation were deemed too dull and arcane for the readers of a major metro daily newspaper, and relegated to the occasional space below the fold.
That changed this week, when the Detroit News, which might as well be called The Ilitch News & Record these days, praised Ilitch’s robber baron acumen on the business page. “He was an entrepreneur with a demonstrated knack for buying low,” Daniel Howes wrote, “holding on and building value in the myriad assets Ilitch’s clan still controls today.”
Ilitch’s cheerleaders love to endlessly emphasize how he was so courageously buying up Detroit real estate as if he was colonizing Mars. And though this is ridiculously offensive to the residents and small business owners of Detroit who weathered years of blight and disinvestment, there is some truth to it: The Ilitch family did invest in the downtown core when other developers found it too risky. But they also gobbled up property and let it sit. It was a badly-kept secret around Detroit that Ilitch wanted a new rink to replace Joe Louis Arena and had his eyes on the rapidly developing Midtown neighborhood—ask any Detroiter, they’ll tell you it’s called the Cass Corridor—which sits just north of the Tigers’ ballpark and the city’s central business district.
This is no coincidence. The Ilitches had been snatching up parcels in the new arena district for years. Then, in 2014, City Council agreed to fork over 39 parcels surrounding the arena for the tidy price of $1 as part of the development. A Detroit Free Press analysis found “that several private landowners succeeded in netting millions for themselves by selling similarly situated land in the arena’s footprint to Ilitch-controlled corporations.” For years, suburbanites and former Detroiters griped about how unsafe and drug-riddled the Cass Corridor had become, and celebrated when the new arena was announced. But part of the reason redevelopment had come to a relative standstill was because developers knew the arena was coming. And Ilitch held all the cards.
“I would say this is typical Detroit planning negligence,” a Detroit development source told me in 2014. “From the bitching around town, I get the impression that Olympia has been buying and hoarding that land for like 20 years. They’ve been letting it sit vacant and sad until the right time—apparently, now.”
This is not to piss on Ilitch’s generosity—he helped pay part of Rosa Parks’ rent late in her life—but rather to point out what many won’t, or at least haven’t. Ilitch was simply a tremendously wealthy pizza mogul with a bad wig who exploited the city council, capitalized on a depressed real estate market, and spent money on his sports teams commensurate with metro Detroit being a well-off area hungry for championships. He wasn’t a savior. Sure, if we’re going by the extremely low bar for scumbag billionaire sports owners, Ilitch looks like Mother Teresa compared to Dan Snyder. Yes, he had a measurable impact on the city—creating short-term construction jobs, part-time concessions gigs, and hourly-wage jobs at the Motor City Casino (which is in his wife’s name, per MLB’s collective bargaining agreement)—but it’s patently ridiculous to paint him as Bruce Wayne (if Wayne Enterprises sold stale breadsticks).
Ilitch’s legend could never have been told without the deep roster of water-carrying lackeys at Detroit’s papers who took it easy on Ilitch interests and functioned, on good days, as a glorified PR firm. The beat writers for the Lions have always been the best in town, never afraid to throw rocks or hold the Ford family to account while the Wings and Tigers beat writers operate like state-sponsored media. The same goes for business and real estate writers who painted him as a visionary tycoon rebuilding the city from the ashes, when he just created a lot of barely-living-wage jobs and sold a ton of mediocre pizza. The truth is, Mike Ilitch was a rich old man who owned a bunch of stuff and never saw a tax break he didn’t like.
Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @billbradley3. Know something he should? Drop a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM him on Twitter for a way to securely contact him.