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Volume 20 No. 41



Chris Ilitch stood outside Little Caesars Arena and pointed to a pair of empty apartment buildings across the street being prepped for construction next spring. The restoration of those historic structures is just one piece of District Detroit, a massive 50-block redevelopment anchored by the arena, the new home of the Red Wings and Pistons.

As president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, whose assets include the Red Wings and Tigers, the 52-year-old Ilitch is entrenched in the effort to rebuild the Motor City’s core. “We really put our heart and soul into this project,” Ilitch said a few hours before the puck dropped for the Red Wings’ Sept. 28 exhibition game at the $870 million facility.

By virtue of its innovative design, the arena has played a key role in rebuilding the inner city and creating a vibrant downtown scene, a major emphasis after a long-term downturn for the Motor City. “It’s way more than an arena, and I think that comes through,” he said.

Originally, the Red Wings planned to develop a more traditional arena similar to United Center until Ilitch challenged the organization to think bigger and expand on the development already occurring elsewhere downtown. Working closely with their architect HOK, the Red Wings came up with the concept of a “deconstructed arena,” a series of brick buildings surrounding the arena structure, to blend into the neighborhood without towering over it.

Inside, it revolved around designing a seating bowl with a metallic exterior skin as the centerpiece and creating a unique streetscape walkway with stores facing fans along the concourse but also accessible to pedestrians outside the arena.


The arena concourse’s indoor streetscape theme was inspired by the outdoor shopping districts in Italy and France, plus Santana Row, a high-end mixed-use development in San Jose that impressed the late Mike Ilitch during a visit 10 years ago, said Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, the firm running the arena. Port Chester, N.Y.-based Street-Works, which designed that 42-acre property in Silicon Valley, has worked on the arena project over the past eight years.

The Via, a portion of the main concourse at street level, has a pronounced European feel with distinctly Detroit details such as decorative manhole covers celebrating Red Wings and Pistons greats. Overhead, the clear roof cover, made with the same ETFE material used at NFL stadiums in Atlanta and Minneapolis, gives the Via a bright and airy outdoor feel for those walking that piece of the main concourse. The plan is for the Via to be open to the public on non-game days after construction is completed on the streets outside the arena, Wilson said.

Little Caesars Arena

Project cost: $870 million
Area: 825,000 square feet
Owner: Downtown Development Authority
Operator: Olympia Entertainment
Tenants: Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Pistons
Architect: HOK
General contractor: Barton Malow, Hunt & White
Seating: 19,515
Suites: 62 ($350,000-$500,000 a year, seven- and 10-year terms; for Pistons games only: $175,000 to $210,000 a year)
Club seats: 1,450 ($240-$330 a person per game; for Pistons: $240-$300 per game)
Loge boxes: 22 ($25,000 a seat for Red Wings games and concerts; for Pistons games only: $10,625-$18,750 a seat)
Gondola loges: 16 eight-seat boxes ($80,000 a season for Red Wings games)
Huntington Legends Club: ($50,000 a year for Red Wings games only for four seats, all-inclusive, three- and five-year terms; for Pistons: $30,800 a year for four seats)
Naming rights: Little Caesars Pizza
Founding partners: Meijer supermarkets, Chevrolet, Comerica Bank, Huntington Bank, Anheuser-Busch, Labatt, Belfor Property Restoration, Coca-Cola, Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, Comcast, Motor City Casino Hotel
Food / retail concessionaire: Delaware North Sportservice

Source: Olympia Entertainment, SportsBusiness Journal research

As patrons begin to exit the Via walkway in the northeast and southwest corners, they encounter a dramatic change in design and finishes with low ceilings and terrazzo flooring. It signals a separation between the old and the new and a transition to ticketed spaces in the building, Wilson said.

One level above on the upper concourse sits the “jewel,” which sets this arena apart from others in the big leagues. The 600-foot-long aluminum wall, made of a material similar to Epcot’s centerpiece, Spaceship Earth, serves as a giant projection screen, extending from the southwest corner to the northeast.

On event nights, arena officials can display multiple video images tied to the teams, concert acts and sponsors such as Little Caesars Pizza, Coca-Cola and Huntington Bank that can clearly be seen on both concourses.

“It’s a work in progress right now, and we’re still working on the best ways to use it,” said Pete Skorich, Olympia Entertainment’s vice president of entertainment services. “It’s such a big canvas that we can do many different things with it.”

Ilitch picked up other elements along the way. The LED lighting system in the ceiling high above the seating bowl, for example, is something he first saw on a smaller scale at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. In Detroit, it’s part of the Sky Deck, modeled after a rigging system common in theaters that allows stagehands to walk freely across a metal mesh floor for quicker changeovers between events.

As part of the grid, the LED displays enable arena officials to use those lights as part of the event presentation, whether it’s creating an image of the American flag for the national anthem or turning the ceiling all red for Red Wings games.

The seating bowl itself is steep and tight, designed with catwalk-style gondolas hanging from the roof along the sidelines. They pay homage to the NHL Original Six arenas of the past in Boston, Chicago and Detroit, where the Red Wings played at old Olympia Stadium for more than 50 years before moving to Joe Louis Arena.

The west-side gondola has 14 eight-seat loge boxes, six of which the Red Wings sold for hockey only under one-year deals. The eight remaining units are available for single games, and it’s the only premium inventory left to sell, said John Ciszewski, the team’s vice president of sales.

“The gondolas did two things,” Ilitch said. “They honor the tradition and make the place feel incredibly intimate by taking up more cubic volume. People are energized, and we think it creates a fan atmosphere that’s special.”

Diners pack Kid Rock’s Made in Detroit.

Two summers ago, the Red Wings sold all 62 suites in 40 days. In November 2016, the Pistons completed their agreement with the Red Wings to move to Little Caesars Arena. Forty suite holders then bought the Pistons’ package on top of their original purchase, Ciszewski said.

The Pistons are responsible for selling the remaining 22 suites for their games, he said. All suites have banks of five televisions, something new in the layout of the highest-priced real estate, and the private spaces are available for companies to use for meetings and presentations, Wilson said.

At event level, the Red Wings’ path to the ice goes through the middle of the Comerica Players Club, separated by movable glass walls. The design follows a trend at other NHL facilities such as PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. In Detroit, Little Caesars Arena takes the concept one step further by providing views of the visiting team walking past the south end of the club.

Mike’s Pizza salutes former team owner Mike Ilitch.

Chevrolet highlights its role as a founding partner with some creative activation. The automaker has naming rights to the northeast entrance as well as the outdoor Chevy Plaza on the arena’s southwest side, where up to 4,000 people can congregate for pregame festivities, watch parties and other events. Inside the northeast doors is Chevy’s primary piece of activation, where a new Corvette appears to defy gravity, running up a track where it’s attached to a wall. Nearby is the display of the Red Wings’ logo made of about 200 Chevrolet auto parts.

“Even on sponsor activation we wanted to be innovative,” Ilitch said. “This is the Motor City, after all, so we should have a Corvette on our wall. “We also have one in our fountain in center field at Comerica Park. The automakers are such a big part of the history in this city.”

The Red Wings’ route to the ice goes through the Comerica Players Club.

The same is true for former owner Mike Ilitch, Chris’ father, who died in February. His legacy is on display inside Mike’s Pizza, with photos documenting his days as a baseball player in the Marines and as a Detroit Tigers minor leaguer. The green neon “Haig’s” sign recognizes the bar where Ilitch first sold pizza out of a converted broom closet in his early days as an entrepreneur before founding Little Caesars Pizza. Today, the nine businesses making up Ilitch Holdings generate $3.4 billion in annual revenue.

“None of this would be here if he didn’t start that little pizza bar,” Chris Ilitch said. “I thought it would be an appropriate tribute to him and he took a lot of comfort when I told him we’re going to do this. He was honored.”

Little Caesars Arena stands out for the multiple displays of sports memorabilia that tell the stories behind the rich history of the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons.

There’s a lot of history to document: The Red Wings have won the most Stanley Cups of the NHL’s U.S. teams, and the Pistons are the NBA’s oldest franchise and second-oldest professional basketball team behind the Harlem Globetrotters.

The task fell to Marcel Parent after Olympia Entertainment hired him as the building’s director of curation and content activation.

Parent, who came from the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., was fortunate. The Ilitch family, owners of the Red Wings, compiled an extensive collection of artifacts dating to the early days of the Red Wings, an NHL Original Six team. The late Mike Ilitch, who bought the team in 1982, had a climate-controlled room reserved in the Fox Theatre, one of his properties, to store hockey sticks, gloves, skates and other items gathered from Gordie Howe and Terry Sawchuk, two Red Wings superstars from the past, as well as modern heroes Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov.

Red Wings and Pistons history is displayed on the concourses, as well as in premium spaces and a special event space.

Many of those items are on display at the new arena on the public concourses and premium spaces, in addition to display cases in Heritage Hall, a 4,000-square-foot room one floor above the team store that doubles as a special event space.

Most important, the Ilitch family, before Parent came on board, had the foresight to hire individuals to catalog every item in the storage room. From Parent’s experience in the museum world, that’s not typical for most organizations because it’s not a revenue generator.

“It all starts with the extraordinary vision of the Ilitch family that the new arena had to be dripping with history,” Parent said. “We wanted the arena to have history, art, branding and heritage, and it was a matter of finding a path where we could tell some of the great stories.”

The restored letters forming the old Olympia Stadium marquee are attached to a brick wall inside Little Caesars Arena. Six are original letters, the “O” a replica. (The original “O” was recently unearthed after a local resident informed the Red Wings that it was in his garage.)

“The letters are cool to look at during the day, but to really get goosebumps … you have to see them glowing at night,” Parent said.

The Pistons’ back-to-back NBA championship trophies during the “Bad Boys” era of the late ’80s and early ’90s are on display at the Ring of Honor on the northwest corner of the upper concourse. “We had to play catch-up after they decided to move downtown,” Parent said.

First came the Detroit Tigers’ Comerica Park in 2000, and then the Detroit Lions’ Ford Field in 2002. Now Little Caesars Arena adds another facility to Detroit’s core, part of a push for an urban renaissance built in part on sports.

“Sports has been kind of a beacon for [redevelopment], and now there are people walking the streets and having a good time,” said Pete Skorich, the Detroit Red Wings’ vice president of entertainment services. “It’s not just happening on game nights but all the time now.”

For many working downtown — such as the architects at sports design firm Rossetti, which moved its offices back to the city in 2013 — there’s now a tendency to stick around after hours. Instead of driving home to the suburbs, they’re more likely to eat and drink at the more than 100 restaurants and bars that have popped up downtown over the past few years. The arena is poised to expand that trend to what’s being called District Detroit, an area to the northwest of downtown that also includes the stadiums.

The four restaurants attached to Little Caesars Arena are year-round parts of the surrounding neighborhood.

“Before we even put lines on paper, it was about the district, something bigger than just a venue, and that informed us as architects about thinking a little bit differently about arenas,” said Ryan Gedney, HOK’s lead designer for Little Caesars Arena. “We had a unique opportunity. … It came from the motivation of trying to do everything to thread it in a more friendly way with the district at large.”

The four restaurants attached to Little Caesars Arena open up to the district as part of their year-round operations, including Kid Rock’s Made in Detroit and Mike’s Pizza, named for the late Mike Ilitch, Chris’ father, the Red Wings’ former owner and Little Caesars’ founder. All four eateries were crowded with diners before a recent hockey game, seated both indoors and outdoors on a beautiful early fall afternoon.

Apartment buildings being restored across the street from Little Caesars Arena are part of the initial phase of development, covering 700 units with a goal of providing 20 percent affordable housing in the district. Cleveland Cavaliers owner and Detroit native Dan Gilbert is already a major investor in the 50-block district, and over the next decade, project officials expect $3 billion to $5 billion in total development. For longtime Detroiters such as Skorich, the transformation will breathe new life into what he described as a “dead zone” for the past 50 years.

Olympia Development, part of Ilitch Holdings, controls about $1.5 billion in development underway in the district, covering the arena, plus multiple apartment buildings in a partnership with American Community Developers, including those being restored across the street.

In our First Look podcast this week, SBJ’s Abe Madkour, Don Muret and Bill King discuss this week’s stories, including the debut of Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, the Modelo-UFC deal, and MLB’s postseason.