05 April 2009

Detroit's Game Plan For The Final Four

City is Counting on Basketball to Lift it Out of Economic Doldrums, at Least for the Weekend
As Originally Posted to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Detroit -- Not everyone in this city cares about college basketball, certainly not the guy standing outside a downtown office building with a ladder.

A cold wind rattles down the avenue as Joe Gwisdalla and the rest of the maintenance crew hurry to replace a row of exterior lights above the sidewalk.

"We're just doing what we're told," he says.

The owners want the building looking sharp for hordes of fans expected to arrive for this weekend's Final Four, the NCAA's annual extravaganza that is equal parts basketball championship and celebration.

Detroit might seem like an odd place to throw a party these days, what with rising unemployment and foreclosures, the economy dragged down by a staggered auto industry that has come under pressure from the federal government.

Yet, Gwisdalla notwithstanding, much of the populace appears eager to give itself over to "March Madness."

"Every day we're getting slapped with something. You can't even watch the news," said David Frank, an engineer at a nearby General Motors plant. "If nothing else, we get a weekend off."

It helps that a local team -- Michigan State -- upset top-seeded Louisville to reach the Final Four. But once you know something about this hard-knock city, it makes sense that people would turn to sports in a time of need.

The way Greg Barbee sees it, his hometown has "always been a national joke." The attorney is talking about a legacy that includes the bloody riot of 1967 and a chronically high crime rate giving rise to the nickname "Murder Capital of the U.S."

More recently, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned in disgrace and served jail time for obstruction of justice after trying to cover up an extramarital affair with his chief of staff.

Now the Big Three automakers -- the heart and soul of this region -- have fallen on desperate times with the Obama administration using the threat of bankruptcy to demand an industry-wide overhaul in exchange for billions in federal bailout money.

The psychic toll has extended well beyond auto workers.

"All the brow-beating that we've been getting -- it hurts," said Joe Renkiewicz, who manages a hat shop near Ford Field, where the games will be played.

And that's where sports enter the picture.

When the people of Detroit brag about their teams, they don't just talk about winning.

The Red Wings in hockey, Tigers in baseball, Pistons in basketball and Lions in football have long traditions. Cherished stars -- Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman, Bill Laimbeer and Joe Dumars -- personify the city's blue-collar image.

So it is no surprise that locals still credit the Tigers' victory in the 1968 World Series for healing wounds from the riots and point out that their ardent support of the Red Wings earned them another, more favorable nickname, "Hockeytown."

"When you go to sports bars, you see people smiling and laughing and talking," said Lyn Lewis, a retired professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Detroit Mercy who has observed the city for more than three decades. "It's a freedom the likes of which I haven't seen in any other setting in Detroit."

At the Hockeytown Café, across the street from the baseball field, the general manager said business is up despite a down economy.

"It's not far from their minds, that they don't have a job or might not have one next week," Steve Davidson said. "But this is a way for people to forget their troubles for a while."

The question this weekend: Can sports also brighten the city's economic outlook?

Ticket sales have been sluggish at an average cost of $447 on StubHub.com, which helps fans resell their seats. That's significantly below the going rate for previous seasons, StubHub spokesman Sean Pate said, blaming the economy, the size of the 72,000-seat Ford Field and something else.

"Detroit is not a tourist destination," Pate said.

There has been skepticism about whether the Final Four can add $30 million to $50 million to local coffers, as predicted. Estimates can be tricky because some revenue flows to outside ticket brokers and merchandisers, and a special event can divert discretionary income from local businesses.

At a Ford dealership near the river, the finance manager says a basketball game won't move cars off the lot.

But with hotel occupancy rates down 17.1% from a year ago -- tied for the biggest drop among the nation's top 25 markets, according to Smith Travel Research -- downtown hotels were reporting strong business and tourism officials spoke of surpassing an expected 100,000 visitors.

"People think that because the auto industry is crumbling, our city is going down," said Renee Monforton, a spokeswoman for the convention and visitors bureau. "That's not true."

The Detroit area has some recent experience when it comes to hosting major sporting events. The Super Bowl came here in 2006 and, before that, baseball's All-Star game and golf's Ryder Cup.

This time around, crews are collecting trash and fixing traffic lights along streets pockmarked with boarded-up storefronts. Several abandoned buildings were razed near Ford Field, replaced with parking lots.

Perhaps no one has a better feel for what the Final Four means to the city than Michigan State players who hail from the area. Guard Kalin Lucas, who grew up with his grandmother about two minutes from the stadium, said he has received "about 1,000" requests for tickets.

"Family, friends, some people who I haven't talked to in years," he said.

Durrell Summers, another Spartans guard, has seen a change around his home state.

"Now that we're here, I think there are smiles all around Michigan, not only Detroit," he said. "We're going to do the best we can to win, to keep it going, keep the sun shining."

Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo has been making that point all week. After the Spartans upset Louisville to earn a Final Four berth, he said, "Let's face it, every state has been hit this year. It's been a tough time. But ours has been hit maybe as hard as anybody's. . . . I'm just hoping we're something to embrace, to be involved with."

That the Spartans are not favored in a field that includes North Carolina, Connecticut and Villanova only makes them more appealing. An underdog team for an underdog city.

Officials expect a larger-than-usual Michigan State contingent to make the 90-mile trip from East Lansing without tickets, wanting to be in Detroit simply for the atmosphere. The school's athletic director, Mark Hollis, told reporters it was the "Spartan Stimulus Plan."

Frank, the auto engineer and a Michigan State alumnus from the Magic Johnson era, put off a vacation so he and his family could drive in from the suburbs.

"I'd love to go to the game, but with the economics I'm facing here at GM, I can't afford the tickets," he said. "We'll go to a tailgate, then find a bar and watch on television."

Which helps to explain what Gwisdalla and his co-workers were doing outside that office building this week. Management wanted new lights across the façade.

"They want to make it look nice," he said.

Green and white. The colors of Michigan State.

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