Monday, October 19, 2009

Why Detroit Failed

The Detroit Shock are still alive, thank goodness. However, they most likely will not be in Detroit at the beginning of the 2010 season. Can anyone say "Tulsa Shock"? AP sources claim that the Shock are definitely moving to Tulsa. Tulsa gets a team - albeit a used team - and Detroit gets left out.

Part of Detroit's good luck was a man named William Davidson. Davidson - the former owner of the Shock - loved both the NBA and the WNBA. Every time either the Pistons or Shock would win a championship, he'd rename the home street of the Palace of Auburn Hills "X Championship Drive" with "X" standing for the number of combined titles. In this case X = 6 - three from the Pistons and three from the Shock. The jockocracy moaned every time the number was incremented because, in their eyes, WNBA championships weren't "real" championships. Davidson didn't care.

Unfortunately, Davidson passed on and control of both franchises passed to his widow, Karen Davidson. My understanding is that the Guardian Glass Company, the source of the Davidson fortune, has suffered particularly in the Great Recession. Karen Davidson - who was probably not as attached to the Shock as her husband was - let the Shock go off to Tulsa.

I had stated earlier that in order for a sports franchise to have value, the franchise has to either turn a profit or to have stable and predictable losses. However, the economic downturn in the United States has necessitated a tightening of the budget wherever losses are occurring, and for those owning both NBA and WNBA franchises, it is most likely that the WNBA franchise will be the first to go. Why? For the same reasons that when you have to cut your budget, you cancel your magazine subscriptions before you stop making car payments. Make the easiest cuts first and make the hard cuts in case of necessity. Cutting the WNBA was an easy choice for Davidson.

So clearly, we have one reason why the Shock failed - it wasn't a high priority enough for the Davidson family in the economic downturn. However, that's only one reason why the Shock moved to Tulsa.

Part of the problem - the biggest - was the lack of fan support in Detroit. I realize that there was a core of passionate and numerous Shock fans, but the problem was that they weren't numerous enough. It's been an open secret in the WNBA that Detroit's announced attendance numbers must be due to giveaway tickets, because it certainly didn't look like there was anything close to the announced attendance when the Shock played on television. The cavernous Palace at Auburn Hills didn't help the Shock much either - all you could see was row after row of empty seats. If there's no fanny-in-seat revenue, subsidiary sources of revenue - like sales of T-shirts, concessions, parking - were also unavailable to the Shock if they ever were available.

One problem of the Shock - and one problem any future ownership of the Atlanta Dream should pay close attention to - was the location of the Palace in a suburb of Detroit instead of the city itself. I won't get into the history of race relations of Detroit, but there has been a long-duration flight from the city center out to the suburbs, and as a general rule, it's harder to get from suburb to suburb than to the city center where all roads lead. This might have made it difficult for the Shock to draw. I don't know if Auburn Hills had the mass transit access that, say, Philips Arena has.

Another problem was the city center itself. Detroit is a city in crisis, with double-digit unemployment a dysfunctional city government and a flight out of the city's core. The old billboard of the 70s might need to be resurrected - "Will the last person to leave Detroit please turn out the lights?" Most of the Detroit city dwellers were having difficulty making basic ends meet; it was unlikely that they were going to drive out to Auburn Hills to see a WNBA game.

The local press didn't help much. My impression was that the Detroit Free Press weren't exactly WNBA supporters. I don't know of a sports franchise in any sport that has survived long term with an indifferent or a hostile press.

Horrible local economy, loss of patron, suburban arena, indifferent press - all of these combined to put the whammy on Detroit. Which is sad, because my understanding is that the franchise itself was intelligently run. Money certainly wasn't being thrown away and there was no mismanagement. The Shock's front office did all they could, but they were at the mercy of forces out of their control.

Maybe the first sign that the Shock were going to lose their franchise was when Bill Laimbeer left his head coaching position after just a couple of games into the 2009 season. He might not have had insight into the inner machinations of the Davidson family or the WNBA front office clique, but he was smart enough to put two and two together. (Laimbeer's intelligence has always been underestimated.)

So what does this mean for the WNBA as a whole? The good news is that the franchise itself has survived - it has simply relocated. Franchise relocation and franchise termination are not the same thing; the tent simply folded up to find another set of paying customers. Tulsa, here's hoping you have good luck with the Shock - you have to live up to the glory of this franchise. Treat it well.

It's also good that the WNBA has one less combined NBA/WNBA owner. Even though it's great for WNBA teams to have access to easy income, it always means that the franchise will come in second place if there's any financial difficulty. Tulsa might not have the capacity to borrow cash from the Davidson private vaults but at least they can survive or fail on their own terms.

It's definitely a sad day. Fans from Salt Lake City, Orlando, Miami, Portland, Cleveland, Charlotte and Houston can sympathise. The Shock have been "rescued" in a matter of speaking, but it will take a while for the Detroit Shock fans to learn to love WNBA games again. The next step for the WNBA is to make sure the same fate doesn't befall Atlanta.

1 comment:

pilight said...

The Detroit People Mover does not go out to Auburn Hills.