Many Detroiters have bought a ticket ... out of town

The Tigers aren't the only game in town. The Red Wings are down 3-0 in the NHL Western Conference...

The Tigers aren't the only game in town. The Red Wings are down 3-0 in the NHL Western Conference semifinal against the San Jose Sharks. The NBA's Detroit Pistons missed the playoffs after going 30-52. (REUTERS)

BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:07 AM ET

The bar at Cheli's Chili, located on Adams St., a ground ball away from the home of the Detroit Tigers, is jammed on a cold, damp Tuesday night not exactly perfect for baseball in the Motor City.


The New York Yankees, baseball's equivalent to America's team, are in town for four-game set and there's a 45-minute wait for a table at the establishment owned by former Detroit Red Wings all-star defenceman Chris Chelios.


No, the Yankees aren't as attractive as they used to be, but they still draw big crowds everywhere. Not in Detroit, though. The 23,551 on hand at beautiful Comerica Park were enthusiastic, but there were plenty of good seats available.


The night before the attendance was 22,852 at the 45,010-seat ball park -- the smallest crowd for a Yankees-Tigers game in the 12 years since the club opened Comerica Park, according to the Detroit Free Press.


Not since an afternoon makeup game in 2001 have there been fewer fans on hand for a visit by the Yankees. So, it's not hard to figure out that the Tigers are feeling the effects of these tough economic times.


That's why a guy with a handful of tickets standing on the corner is willing to take just about any payment, with the skies threatening and the temperature dropping.


Tickets are a tough sell in a town going through tough times.


Not many cities in North America were hit harder by the economic downturn than Detroit. The global recession -- especially to the car industry, which is the lifeblood of this place -- had devastating effects.


People just didn't lose their homes here, they moved away. Reports indicate the population of Detroit has dropped 25% in 10 years. That's a little misleading because many of those people are in the suburbs now.


You see, the Tigers aren't the only game in town. The Red Wings are down 3-0 in the NHL Western Conference semifinal against the San Jose Sharks. The NBA's Detroit Pistons missed the playoffs after going 30-52.


Ford Field, the home of the NFL's Detroit Lions, isn't far from Comerica Park. Nobody is certain they're even going to play this season, but fans are excited because there's a Monday Night game against the Bears on the schedule.


But there is concern everywhere you turn.


"It has been tough the last four years," Jim Devellano, the Wings' senior VP/alternate governor, said in an interview this week. "It has been really tough with the auto industry down, the high unemployment rate and what makes it harder is that there are four major sports in Detroit.


"The NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL. So, there's lots of competition for the sports dollar."


Mike Ilitch owns both the Red Wings and Tigers, and both organizations have had to work hard to put butts in seats.


Wings ticket sales have been helped by the fact the team hasn't missed the playoffs in 20 years. There's a strong core of fans who have been there through the ups and downs, playoff victories and disappointments. As for the Tigers, it's a completely different story.


They knocked off the Yankees 4-2 Tuesday night, but before then the Tigers had lost seven in a row. Losing, coupled with lousy weather in April, can make it hard for people to want to go to the park.


This has forced the Tigers front office to rethink their strategy for selling tickets. Both of Ilitch's teams go beyond the Detroit area into southwestern Ontario to try to attract spectators.


"If you stuck a pin in a map and circled every area within 90 minutes of downtown Detroit, that's where we're trying to draw from," Devellano said.


"What has worked for us is marketing pretty hard into western Ontario. Big time. Windsor, Chatham, London, St. Thomas, Sarnia. We've marketed big into Ontario, and with the Canadian dollar now strong, it has helped.


"We've made sure that people in western Ontario understand there is an availability of tickets. That has helped. We're actually up a fair amount with the Red Wings. We haven't been too bad, but I can't tell you the last four years haven't been a tough sell because they have been."


The Wings/Tigers didn't just dream up the strategy, they've seen it work elsewhere and borrowed the idea. All they had to do was study the success of the Buffalo Sabres and Bills.


The Sabres and Bills lure Canadians across the Peace Bridge for Friday night hockey or Sunday afternoon football. It only makes sense to the economics.
"About four years ago we saw our season tickets take dramatic drops and we knew that wasn't normal when we had a Stanley Cup champion," Devellano said. "Fairly quickly we were able to get a read that the economy was tanking, the car companies were having a problem and people were moving out of the state.


"It didn't matter how good the Red Wings were, it was just an economic problem. Being Canadian, and having a bit of a feel for it, I just said, 'Hey, we've got to get into Canada.' There are a lot of hockey fans in Canada who are a lot closer to Detroit than they are to the Toronto Maple Leafs."


You would think some of these franchises might be in trouble, but all are well funded with deep-pocketed owners. Not only is Ilitch not going anywhere, William Clay Ford (yes, the Ford Motor Company) owns the Lions.


Billionaire Tom Gores, a Flint native and Michigan State grad, has reached a deal to buy the Pistons and the Palace at Auburn Hills. He has a net worth of $2.4 billion, according to Forbes Magazine.


There is hope the pro teams can thrive again in this area. Detroit is a good sports town and the U.S. car industry is coming back. There is optimism for better days ahead. Heck, maybe another championship.


A new Joe Louis Arena is being talked about with the city, because the Wings building is getting old.


"I read the Canadian media making fun of places like Phoenix in the NHL," Devellano said. "Well, in Canada they don't have to battle competition from the NBA, the NFL or Major League Baseball."


"I guess what I'm saying is that in Canada we shouldn't be so 'haughty' about it. We've got four franchises in Detroit that have to sell. It's a lot of work.

It's not easy. We now have to be a regional team to survive. Anything within (90 minutes) is what we've got to target. That's what we're doing."


And they can hope for better days ahead. Optimism always reigns supreme in the spring.


bruce.garrioch@sunmedia.ca


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