Sports to Aid in Detroit’s Recovery

Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press

Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press

Over the past decade, the city of Detroit has symbolized defeat in the eyes of many American citizens. The facts do not lie; Detroit has endured some severe catastrophes over the better part of this century with the collapse of the auto industry, steady population decline, urban decay, lack of city funding to adequately support police officers and public education, and a volatile crime rate. Despite these issues, though, the Motor City has one unifying rallying point; its professional sports teams. Outside of the Pistons, who play 35 miles outside Downtown Detroit in Auburn Hills, the Red Wings, Tigers, and Lions have posted extremely strong attendance and local TV viewership over the past three years. Moreover, new projects like the Red Wings’ upcoming new arena and M-1 Rail will likely create a stronger atmosphere in the metropolitan area. Therefore, sports have and will continue to play a monumental effort in Detroit’s recovery.


Detroit’s problems first began with the destruction of the automobile industry, which drove the city’s economy during the majority of the 20th century. As the US imported Japanese cars like Toyota and Honda – and multiple major European brands such as BMW, Volkswagen, and Mercedes – American automakers, predominantly headquartered in the Motor City, saw their demand rapidly decline. Foreign competition derailed the American industry, as Chrysler, GM, and other American automakers poorly adapted to advancements in fuel efficiency and overall technology. As a result, the city, already facing over $15 billion in debt, filed the largest bankruptcy ever for a US municipality in 2013.

This fiasco caused a negative ripple effect to the entire region. Population has steadily diminished since 1950, when a record 1.8 million people lived in Detroit. Today, fewer than 700,000 people live in the metropolitan area of the city. Furthermore, racial segregation has significantly impacted the entire region. In the years immediately following World War II, several blacks immigrated from the South to work manual labor in the factories. As the black population of the urban area rose, many white citizens flocked to the suburbs, several of which remain extremely wealthy and intact.

Demographic disparity began to rule the city; the Census reported that blacks accounted for over 80% of Detroit in 2010 but totaled less than 15% of Michigan’s total population. Whites, on the other hand, made up just 10.6% of the city but 78.6% of the state. Consequently, many major companies in Michigan moved their headquarters to the suburbs, most notably Ford in Dearborn, which is located nine miles from downtown. Thus, many buildings and apartments in Detroit became abandoned, with no investments in maintenance or preservation of the properties. The city claims to have over 75,000 unused buildings and 30,000 defunct streetlights.

Nearly 40% of Detroit remains in poverty, leaving many buildings unused (Photo Credit: Detroit Urbex)

Nearly 40% of Detroit remains in poverty, leaving many buildings unused (Photo Credit: Detroit Urbex)

Violence has resulted from the racial divide and economic inequality in the city. The FBI released a report in 2014 stating Detroit’s murder rate is 10 times that of the national average, as the city logged 14,500 violent crimes in 2013 alone. 45 out of 100,000 people are murdered every year, easily the highest among any city with over 200,000 people. Some of the crimes that the FBI mentions include rape, burglary, aggravated assault, and murder. Their report further claims that homicide ranks as the leading killer for children under 18 years old.

Issues like violence do not come as a surprise considering the lack of funding provided to public education, police, and health care. Police staffing reduced by over 40% from 2000 until 2013, which placed excessive burden on the remaining officers, who reportedly received over 700,000 inquiries per year. As a result, it takes an average of 58 minutes for Detroit police to respond to a call; the average national response time is 11 minutes.

Over 200 out of 317 public parks in Detroit have closed (Photo Credit: Beaumont Enterprise)

Over 200 out of 317 public parks in Detroit have closed (Photo Credit: Beaumont Enterprise)

Other issues have arisen with Detroit’s lack of resources. Only 14 out of the city’s 38 ambulances work, and the fire stations are vastly outdated. Unemployment in Detroit averaged 19% between 2010 and 2014, significantly more than the national average. Approximately 70 hazardous waste sites, detrimental to the city’s public health, still exist and two-thirds of the city’s parks have closed since 2008. Technology in the functioning buildings needs significant upgrades. The city needs help.


Few people, though, would ever know of the magnitude of Detroit’s problems if they just looked at the professional sports teams that play in the city. The Red Wings have acquired the nickname “Hockeytown”, which they registered as a trademark in 1996, due to their extreme popularity and rabid fan base. They have won the most Stanley Cups (11) out of any United States franchise and have reached the playoffs for 24 consecutive seasons (and counting).

Joe Louis Arena, where the team plays its games, seats 20,066 people. Dating back to the 1996-97 season, the Red Wings have averaged over 19,540 fans per game in all but one season (2007-08 – 18,870 average attendance). During this span, the Red Wings have had eight seasons in which they have attracted over 20,000 fans per game.

Like hockey, Detroit adequately supports its baseball and football teams. Comerica Park has attracted over 30,000 fans per game every single year since 2006, when the Tigers reached the World Series. Over 3 million total fans have come out to the Park for four different seasons during this span. As a result, the Tigers had the financial power to sign a $295 million deal with Miguel Cabrera, which is the richest contract signed in MLB history.

Furthermore, the Tigers have received extremely strong TV ratings in the region. The Tigers had the highest local TV ratings on Fox Sports Detroit in both 2012 and 2013 and dropped to second place in 2014. Over 140,000 viewers tuned in to each primetime telecast during this span.

Comerica Park has remained one of the premier ballparks nearly 15 years after it was built (Photo Credit: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

Comerica Park has remained one of the premier ballparks nearly 15 years after it was built (Photo Credit: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

The Lions have received remarkable support, considering their long run of futility this millennium. Ford Field opened in 2002, and the stadium sold out their first 50 home games all the way until 2008, when the Lions became the first team in league history to finish with a 0-16 record. They have only had two winning seasons since playing in their new stadium, both within the last four years. Not coincidentally, over 500,000 total fans packed Ford Field to watch the Lions in each of the past four seasons, nearly selling out every game in the process.


With a unified fan base, the city’s citizens have rallied around their sporting venues to connect with the city. Even though it opened in 2000, Comerica Park has maintained a prestigious atmosphere with a Ferris wheel ride, massive fountain, and a view of downtown Detroit from inside the stadium. It appeals to a family-friendly environment and its array of food options just adds icing on the cake. The park sells extremely well 15 years into its existence, which has helped the Tigers remain a big market team in the MLB.

Ford Field, which opened in 2002, is widely regarded by opposing teams as one of the best home atmospheres in the league. The field has a VIP neighborhood on one side of the field that targets corporate groups, and the remaining three sides consist of fans interested in watching the game. Team executives have designed a “Ford Field 2.0 Project”, which will provide fans with access to field-level seats to get even closer to the players. Ultimately, both downtown venues have fared exceptionally well since opening earlier this century.

Now, the Red Wings will further bolster the downtown region with an extremely grand proposal of their own; a $650 million investment for a new arena combined with a surrounding village featuring bars and restaurants. The arena will reportedly cost $450 million with the rest of the money going to store and restaurant development outside the arena, spanning 45 blocks. The 20,000-seat new arena will also include a new parking deck that can hold up to 1,200 vehicles.

The Red Wings have designed the arena to create a better atmosphere before, during, and after the game. They will hold 9,000 seats in the lower bowl, compared to 7,000 in Joe Louis Arena, so more fans will sit closer to the action. The Ilitch Group, architects of this master plan, will design a walkway to connect the concourse/outdoor bars and restaurants to the arena.

The Red Wings new arena is set to open in 2017 (Photo Credit: Dennis Allain Renderings)

The Red Wings new arena is set to open in 2017 (Photo Credit: Dennis Allain Renderings)

Similar to Maple Leaf Square in Montreal, where millions of people can watch games outside the arena on a jumbotron, this new arena will include “The Piazza”, where people can watch select events on a massive LED screen. Retail stores and bars/restaurants will be built just 50 feet from the arena. Corporations will take over the remaining surrounding areas of the venue.

This new “village” is expected to approach the size of downtown Grand Rapids, MI, where nearly 200,000 people reside. The Red Wings hope this project will boost several businesses and provide year-round hospitality and entertainment for people in downtown Detroit.


With the new Red Wings arena set to open in 2017, the city has invested in a new public transportation system within downtown Detroit. The M-1 Rail, a streetcar line, will span 3.3 miles on Woodward Avenue and will include stops at each of the downtown sporting venues. Six cars will be used for operation and people can drive on both sides of the car.

The federal government approved the $140 million project in late 2012 and most of the finances will come from private investors. A group led by current Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert contributed $100 million to the project, $25 million came from federal funding and the rest will come from the city. Officials claim that construction has progressed extremely well and should finish the entire project by 2016.

If completed, this would mark the first major public transit system since the early 1950s. It could potentially have a profound impact on the city’s lifestyle. People can consume more alcohol, youngsters can freely enter the city, fans have more incentive to tailgate before every Detroit sporting event, and most importantly, people can park their cars a few miles away from the stadium and take public transportation to the area. This could possibly allow more businesses to locate into the urban areas, closer to the public transit system, which would further boost economic activity in the region.


Nobody can fix all of Detroit’s problems overnight. These will take several years to clean up. To begin the road to recovery, though, everyone in the region must look at the positives. The local sports teams symbolize a unifying force with the Motor City. Wealthier suburban residents use the Tigers, Red Wings, and Lions as their primary reasons to visit downtown Detroit.

Success from local sports teams will send a ripple effect to other industries in the area. The M-1 Rail or the Red Wings new “village” would not amount to anything if the state did not support their sports teams. Otherwise, what’s the point of spending over $100 million to build a 3.3-mile transit system if nobody would use it? Would suburban residents eat at downtown Detroit’s restaurants, especially with an alarmingly high crime rate, if they did not have a sporting event to attend in the city?

People like Dan Gilbert have significantly aided with the recovery process by establishing businesses in downtown Detroit. Gilbert moved the headquarters of his business Quicken Loans (an online-mortgage company) to downtown Detroit, and he claims that the company has instilled over 6,500 new jobs in the region. He has a vision to use the M-1 rail system to connect the Business Plaza to the Midtown District, where Comerica Park, Ford Field, and the new Red Wings arena will be located. Gilbert also owns a casino and will look to expand the entertainment district with time. These kinds of ventures can attract more people to the area and potentially minimize the wide racial inequality gap in Detroit.

Ultimately, though, the success of the sports teams will have the largest economic and social impact through the entire region and Gilbert knows that. He has been linked to purchasing the Detroit Tigers, and as the current owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the world’s most popular player in LeBron James, Gilbert has seen first-hand just how the city’s economy is affected by the success and failure of the Cavaliers. When James first left Cleveland in 2010, the value of the Cavaliers dropped by 26% in 2011, which amounted to over a $100 million decline. TV ratings tanked, merchandise and ticket sales dropped, and downtown restaurants and bars in Cleveland reportedly lost over $150 million in revenues.

In July 2014, LeBron James returned to Cleveland and the economy has soared to unprecedented heights. Local bars have reported between 30%-200% increases in revenues from last season. The Cavaliers doubled in value and are now worth well over $1 billion. In the year after LeBron first left, Forbes valued the Cavaliers at $355 million. Cleveland has not sniffed a championship since 1964, but the hope of the Cavaliers has rallied the entire city together.

LeBron James single-handedly revitalized the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise and brought hope to the town (Photo Credit: AP Photo)

LeBron James single-handedly revitalized the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise and brought hope to the town (Photo Credit: AP Photo)

Detroit follows an extremely similar blue-collar, Midwestern culture similar to Cleveland. Sports bring the city together and fans ruthlessly support their teams. In fact, Anderson Economic Group estimated that the Tigers brought in $117.3 million in the 2008 season alone. A 2013 opening weekend series between the Tigers and Yankees reportedly brought in close to $15 million. The Red Wings owners believe their new complex could bring in over $1.8 billion to the city.

The recent success of Detroit sports teams has fueled some of the new investments that have taken place in the downtown region. As long as the Red Wings, Lions, and Tigers continue to field competitive teams, people will have more reasons to move into and/or spend more time in downtown Detroit, which would boost the economy of surrounding businesses. Then, maybe the Pistons can finally move out of their suburban home, where many Detroit residents have no access to and from the Palace of Auburn Hills, into downtown Detroit, which would add at least 41 home games to the area.

Sports alone cannot revitalize the entire city of Detroit; however, they can serve as a rallying point, which would allow businesses to expand and people to occupy vacant buildings in downtown Detroit. Leaders like Dan Gilbert, who has a plethora of resources, can build upon the passion of the sports teams to continue to grow and revive the city, which can provide hope to the city. Few people understand the power of hope more than Gilbert himself.