The Detroit Pistons Basketball Company
The Detroit Pistons Basketball Company
Sales: $90.6 million (2000)
NAIC: 711211 sports Teams and Clubs
The Detroit Pistons Basketball Company is a member of the National Basketball Association (NBA), operating under an umbrella corporation, Palace Sports & Entertainment, Inc., which was created to build the team’s arena, The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Founded in 1941 as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, the team has had only two owners: the millionaire Fred Zollner and the billionaire William Davidson. During those same years of stable ownership, however, the team had a succession of coaches. It was during the Pistons’ one period of coaching stability, when Chuck Daly led the team for nine straight seasons, that the franchise enjoyed it greatest success in Detroit, winning back-to-back NBA championships in the 1980s. Since then, due in large part to shrewd management of its arena, the Pistons have become one of the most profitable franchises in all of professional sports.
Zollner Sponsored both Softball and Basketball in the 1930s
Fred Zollner inherited his father’s business, Zollner Machine Works, which was founded in 1912. He moved the company to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1931 and changed the name to Zollner Pistons. Initially, he had little luck in attracting business from the major Detroit automakers. His big break came when he landed an exclusive contract to supply engine parts for a company that wanted to cut up old Packards, then fit them together like contemporary stretch limousines to haul interstate passengers. Several years later that fledgling bus company became known as the Greyhound Corporation. With his piston business established, Zollner sponsored a company fast-pitch softball team. He recruited top players to work at his factory and play on the team, eventually assembling a powerhouse club that would win three consecutive world championships in 1945, 1946, and 1947.
In 1939 Zollner began to sponsor a company basketball team, which played in the Fort Wayne YMCA Industrial League. After the Zollner Pistons won the league title in 1941, Zollner was eager for stiffer competition. He sent one of his star players, Carl Bennett, to Chicago, the home of the fledgling National Basketball League, to line up exhibition matches with some of the professional clubs. Soon, however, Zollner decided to turn his team professional and simply join the NBL, entering play for the 1941–42 season. His players continued to work in Zollner’s factory for a weekly wage. It was only at the end of the season that they would be paid for playing in the NBL, splitting among them whatever profits were generated, which in the first year came to some $2,500.
The National Basketball League was not the first professional basketball league in America. As far back as 1898, a mere seven years after James A. Naismith invented the game in Springfield, Massachusetts, an organization called the National League played for pay, but lasted only five seasons. Other short-lived leagues that hired players on a per-game basis followed. Touring professional clubs also barnstormed the country, one of which called itself the Harlem Globetrotters, even though the club originated in Chicago. In 1925 the owners of the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins of the National Football League established the first true national league for professional basketball teams. The American Basketball League standardized the rules of the game and also signed players to exclusive contracts. Crippled by the Depression, the league essentially folded in 1933, although regional versions of it occasionally arose and played into the 1940s. The NBL, originally called the Midwest Basketball Conference, started in 1937 with 10 owner-operated teams, plus 3 company teams of the Midwest Industrial League: Goodyear, Firestone, and General Electric. By 1940 the league was reduced to 8 teams, and World War II further affected the organization.
The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons finished second in its first NBL season, prompting Zollner to recruit more top-notch players for his club. Not only did the Pistons win league championships in 1944 and 1945, they won three consecutive titles at the annual Chicago World Tournament, between 1944 and 1946. After the war ended, and more players became available, the NBL added new teams. It also faced new competition in 1946 in the form of a rival professional league, the Basketball Association of America. The BAA was organized by the Arena Managers Association of America, all of whose members owned hockey teams and were looking for new ways to utilize their buildings. The hockey connection influenced the new basketball league to adopt the playoff system of series, as opposed to elimination tournaments. The league also hired the commissioner of the American Hockey League, Maurice Podoloff, to serve as the commissioner of the BAA.
The Fort Wayne Pistons Switch Leagues in 1949
The NBL and BAA co-existed at first, with neither raiding the other for players. In fact, they relied on a uniform contract and traded players between the two leagues. After two dismal seasons at the gate, however, Podoloff decided to take drastic measures. He telephoned Bennett, Zollner’s former plant employee and company team player and now the NBL commissioner, about a possible merger. Zollner, as well as the Indianapolis and Rochester owners, agreed to switch leagues. Minneapolis and star player George Mikan, the biggest draw in basketball, soon followed. After the Toledo and Flint franchises folded, the days were numbered for the NBL. The league played one more season, after which its remaining six teams joined the BAA. On August 3, 1949, the BAA also merged its name with the NBL, becoming officially known as the National Basketball Association. The NBA, with its 17 teams, was far too large for the time, and following the 1949–50 season most of the smaller cities dropped out: Anderson, Indiana; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and Waterloo, Iowa.
Because Fort Wayne, the smallest remaining city in the league, boasted one of the richest owners in the league, the Pistons were able to maintain a place in the NBA, although their first playing venue was a high school gym that seated only 3,800. Eventually the team moved into the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum that seated 10,000 and hosted the 1953 NBA All-Star Game. The Fort Wayne Pistons enjoyed limited success in the NBA. The team received a great deal of notoriety in 1950 when it won a 19-18 game against the Minneapolis Lakers, employing a stalling tactic to negate the Lakers’ decided advantage in talent, in particular Mikan. In the fourth quarter of the game, in fact, the score was just Fort Wayne 3, Minneapolis 1. Although the 24-second shot clock was not instituted for another four seasons, the 1950 game was generally considered to be a major reason that the NBA began to look for a way to eliminate delaying tactics.
The Fort Wayne Pistons also raised some eyebrows following the 1953–54 season when Zollner hired a league referee, Charley Eckman, to coach his team. Jovial, colorful, and not one to mince words, Eckman was a shocking choice, especially to anyone who knew him well. He expressed obvious contempt for even the rudiments of coaching. Asked by a reporter what was his favorite play, he replied, “South Pacific.”
Nevertheless, with Eckman cheering on the players from the bench, the Pistons reached the NBA finals in 1955. Perhaps more surprised than anyone with the team’s success was the management of the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, which had scheduled a bowling tournament for the week of the NBA finals. The Pistons were forced to play their home games in Indianapolis and lost the championship to Syracuse in seven games. The team again made the finals the following season, losing out in five to the Philadelphia Warriors.
For several years rumors circulated that the Pistons were about to leave Fort Wayne. As the NBA began to expand the number of games that its teams played, from 60 in its first season to 72 in 1953–54, it was becoming clear that Fort Wayne was simply too small a market to support that many dates. Because the major customers for Zollner Pistons were the big automakers, it made sense for Zollner to move both himself and his basketball team to Detroit. On April 17, 1957 the NBA’s Board of Governors approved the request to relocate the Pistons from Fort Wayne to Detroit, which was hardly clamoring for an NBA team. The city had been represented by teams in both the NBL and BAA, neither of which enjoyed a long tenure. Many years later, Eckman told a reporter, “We had no place to practice. We were the last kid on the block. They had the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings. The first time I saw our home floor was the night we played our opening game on it.” After 25 games as the Detroit Pistons, the team had won just nine games, and attendance was lower than it had been in Fort Wayne. Depending upon which version of the story is told, Zollner either telephoned Eckman or summoned him to his office to announce, “We’re going to be making a change in your department.” Because he was the only one in his department, Eckman surmised that he had been fired.
- The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons begin play in the National Basketball League.
- Fort Wayne joins the National Basketball Association.
- The franchise relocates to Detroit.
- The team moves into Cobo Arena.
- The William Davidson-led investor group purchases the team from Fred Zollner.
- The team leaves Cobo Arena for Pontiac Silver-dome.
- The Palace of Auburn Hills opens.
- The Pistons win first NBA championship.
- The Pistons win second NBA championship.
Over the next dozen years the Detroit Pistons employed seven different coaches and fail to post a winning record. At first they played their home games at both Olympia Stadium, home of the Red Wings of the National Hockey League, and at the University of Detroit, but when neither facility was available during the 1960 playoffs, they were forced to play one game at the Grosse Pointe High School gym. In 1961 the Pistons moved into 9,500-seat Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit, which during the 1960s experienced race riots and a mass flight to the suburbs of middle-class people that should have formed the team’s fan base. Attendance was dismal, yet the team hung on. The Detroit Pistons finally posted their first winning record in 1970–71, yet failed to make the playoffs. After the team won 52 games in 1973–74, Zollner decided to sell the franchise to one of his rich neighbors, William Davidson.
Pistons Start Over With New Ownership in the 1970s
Davidson was born in Detroit and indulged his interest in sports by running track and cross country in high school and playing freshman football at the University of Michigan. He earned a law degree at Wayne State University and practiced law for a short time before going to work for himself in the early 1950s. After saving two troubled businesses, he turned his attention in 1957 to a bankrupt maker of car windshields called Guardian Glass that an uncle of his had founded in 1932. By 1968 he took the company public and changed its name to Guardian Industries. He then decided to indulge his passion in sports by becoming a team owner. “I was looking at both football and basketball at first,” he told a reporter in 1988. “At the time, they were bringing out the Tampa franchise for pro football, and I was friendly with Joe Schmidt, who played for the Lions. We talked about buying in. Then, the prices escalated, and that took care of that. But, I also had gotten to know Fred Zollner, because he lived three doors down from me. We started talking. Next thing I knew, I’d bought the team.”
Davidson was technically the managing partner of an ownership group that included 11 others, who in July 1975 paid Zollner $8.1 million for the Detroit Pistons. At first, under Davidson, the Pistons reverted to their losing ways and changed coaches on a consistent basis. One notable hire was Dick Vitale, who after leaving the Pistons gained popularity as a color analyst for college basketball telecasts and become a major personality. As a coach of the Pistons, however, he lasted little more than a season. It was also during Vitale’s brief tenure that the team left Cobo Arena for the suburbs, opting to play games in the indoor home of the Detroit Lions football team, the Pontiac Silverdome. The team was simply following its fans, and although the Pistons would on occasion record incredible attendance figures for a basketball game, including an NBA record crowd of 61,983 for a game against Boston, playing in the Silverdome was far from ideal. The lights were not conducive to basketball, and in the winter it was still cold enough inside the dome to require fans to keep their coats on.
Davidson finally began to turn around the fortunes of the Pistons in 1979 when he hired Jack McCloskey as the team’s general manager. Through wise drafting of college players and other transactions that earned him the moniker of “Trader Jack,” McCloskey slowly began to assemble the pieces of a championship club. In 1983 he hired Chuck Daly to coach the Pistons. By 1986–87 the team was strong enough to take the Boston Celtics to seven games before losing in the Eastern Conference finals. The Pistons became known as “The Bad Boys” for their hard-nosed style of play that troubled many in the league but was embraced by the Detroit fans. The 1987–88 team was on the verge of an NBA championship in its last season playing in the Silverdome, but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games after leading the series three games to two.
After the 1986 seasons the Pistons announced that they would leave the Silverdome when their contract ran out after the 1987–88 season. Davidson and a group of investors formed Palace Sports and Entertainment, Inc. to build the $70 million Palace of Auburn Hills (costing $30 million more than budgeted), which would establish a trend for every arena that followed it. Instead of simply adding in luxury boxes, a major source of team revenue, the Palace was designed around its three tiers of 180 suites. During their first year at the 21,454-seat Palace, the Pistons won the NBA championship, defeating the Lakers. The following season the team again won the championship, beating Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls along the way.
With success came the spoils. For five straight seasons the Pistons sold out every home game, a consecutive sell-out streak that reached 245 games. The Pistons also ranked high in merchandise sales in the NBA, which reached $1.1 billion in 1990–91. Four years later that league-wide figure grew to $2.65 million. Not only did the team make money selling the broadcast rights of some of their games to PASS, Detroit’s regional cable sports network, it was able to use its own production facilities at the Palace to produce telecasts of the remaining games, a practice the team started in 1979. By buying air time from WKBD-TV, the Pistons were able to sell advertising themselves. Davidson even talked about the possibility of the Pistons launching a sports network to challenge PASS, but lack of channel capacity on local cable systems scotched the idea.
The glory days of the Bad Boys were brief, however. Two years after winning back-to-back NBA championships, the Pistons lost more games than they won. Daly left the team, as did McKloskey. In the 1993–94 season the Pistons won only 20 games, and their consecutive sell-out streak came to an end. Excitement over well-publicized rookie Grant Hill boosted ticket sales the following season, and once again it appeared that the Pistons were building a championship-caliber club. Within two seasons the team posted a 54-win season, only to again drop off. Grant Hill left the club for free agency, and once again the Pistons began changing coaches each year. Former Pistons player Joe Dumars was hired in June 2000 to head the front office, but during his first year, the team missed the playoffs and once again fired its coach.
Despite poor results in the ten years since its NBA championships, the Detroit Pistons remained one of the most valuable franchises in the league and one of the most profitable in all of sports. According to Financial World, the team was the second most profitable sports franchise for a three-year period ending in 1997, besting such large market clubs as the Chicago Bulls and New York Yankees. According to Forbes in December 2000, the Pistons were the sixth most valuable franchise in the NBA. Purchased for $8.1 million 25 years earlier, the Pistons were now estimated to be worth $236 million. Although average game attendance for the club dipped to 14,000 per game in 2000, all of the corporate suites remained booked. The team’s greatest asset was the Palace of Auburn Hills and its marketing operation. From another perspective, however, the Pistons had simply become a valuable asset of the Palace, which posted the fourth highest amount of revenue among all indoor arenas in 2000. It ranked only second to New York City’s Madison Square Garden in the number of concert tickets sold. The Pistons continued to try to win basketball games and NBA championships, but, as was the case with most basketball and hockey franchises, it was the arena business that increasingly mattered more and more.
Chicago Bulls; Cleveland Cavaliers; Milwaukee Bucks; Toronto Raptors.
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