Detroit Red Wings Coach Mike Babcock Sparks New Arena Rumor Frenzy

In a radio interview on Tuesday with Detroit’s 97.1 The Ticket, Detroit Red Wing coach Mike Babcock may have let slip the preliminary plans for a new arena for his team. When asked whether he’d rather have the team play in a new facility or a renovated version of their current home, Joe Louis Arena, Babcock gave the following response,

Mike Babcock Coach Red Wings
Mike Babcock's words have sparked a rumor frenzy. (Icon SMI)

“A new facility, no question. If you want the city to come back, you got to revitalize downtown, and a big part of that’s going to be the new arena, and the mall and the stuff going around it, and that’s very important. That’s why we need the state to jump onside, and the sooner the better, if we’re going to revitalize Michigan. It’s got to start right here in Detroit.”

While it’s no secret that the team’s owners, Mike & Marian Illitch, have been interested in a new arena for several years, Babcock’s words have sparked renewed interest.

The Detroit News is reporting that an area long speculated to be the location of any such new arena build has seen “at least 22 properties” scooped up since 2008. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that this area is located just blocks north of both the Fox Theatre and Comerica Park, two facilities already owned and operated by Illitch Holdings.

The mention of a “mall” somehow tied to the possible Red Wings relocation becomes one of several rumored additions to the downtown area, including a stop on the proposed Woodward Light Rail Project.

What really has people talking though, are the final sentences of the Red Wing coach’s statement:

“That’s why we need the state to jump onside, and the sooner the better, if we’re going to revitalize Michigan. It’s got to start right here in Detroit.”

The suggestion that the state must jump on board before the project can proceed has many residents enraged, mostly because Michigan’s economy is still recovering and Babcock was insinuating that public funds would be used to drive the project.

(Mrmiscellanious/Wikimedia Commons)

Pockets have been tightened in uncertain economic times, and taxpayers are understandably concerned about footing the bill for such a massive undertaking that a new arena complex would be, especially when the team could easily foot the bill themselves.

Mike Illitch’s net worth is estimated at $1.7 billion dollars, leaving many asking why he doesn’t fund the project himself. Part of the answer to that question may be the knowledge that he doesn’t have to.

It has become commonplace in today’s sporting world for the locale that will host the team to ante up some of the necessary funds in building a state of the art venue. Illitch himself has been a part of this trend, receiving “$115 million from the city of Detroit, Wayne County and corporate investors” to help fund the building of Comerica Park (home of the Detroit Tigers) which opened in 2000 (the total cost of the project was $300 million, Illitch funded $185 million on his own). If Illitch knows he can get money from elsewhere, why wouldn’t he try? Afterall, the construction would likely result in a net gain for the area down the road.

That’s the main argument for having the public fund at least a part of the building process for new venues. Owners have thrived on pressuring various levels of government to support them based on promises of financial prosperity for the location down the road. Usually, they’re right.

Building a new arena in the area will draw crowds regularly, making it a prime place for the  business to spring up, and significant help in the restoring Detroit’s once booming economy. The long-term benefits are clearly there, but are those promises enough to convince the public it’s a good idea? Probably not. Especially when the public isn’t even sure there is a need for a new arena in the first place.

Joe Louis Arena Detroit Red Wings
(DrVenkman/Wikimedia Commons

Opened in 1979, Joe Louis arena is one of the NHL’s oldest, and its various problems have long been debated. While some acknowledge the lack of certain “creature comforts” and pleasant nuances that newer arenas feature, others are too busy living in the nostalgia and basking in the glory of one of the NHL’s most successful teams. Still others have never been to the arena and spew uninformed opinions as they hang on to their wallets tightly, for better or for worse.

When it comes to those that have been to the arena, as mentioned, reactions are mixed. In consecutive editions of the NHLPA’s Player’s Poll, Joe Louis Arena has popped up as a member of the top 5 places players enjoy playing. That fact may be more due to the atmosphere than the arena itself, as fans have rated the Arena the 5th worst in the NHL.

So what’s to make of all this new arena insanity? For now, not much.

A new arena will take 1.5-2 years to build once an agreement has been reached and ground is broken. It’s reaching that agreement that will be the issue. With opinions so divided, the city of Detroit may not be willing to shell out much money during this difficult economic time. Illitch, in all his vast sums of wealth, wont jump the gun and fund the project himself if he feels he can wait a few more years for the city’s assistance, but at age 82 he may not be willing to wait all that long.

What we have now are simply rumors, and until something more concrete is put forward, rumors they will stay. To suggest that Detroit will have a new arena in the next five years may be a bit of a stretch at this point. Within 10? It’s almost guaranteed to happen.