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Published: Saturday, 10/9/2010

How big an empire?

MIKE Ilitch, the homegrown Detroit billionaire who founded the Little Caesar's chain of fast-food pizza franchises, is apparently about to buy the Pistons professional basketball team. That prospect sent Detroiters — including Mayor Dave Bing, a one-time Pistons star — into ecstasy.

Speculation has it that if the sale goes through, the Pistons may return to downtown Detroit from a distant suburb. But there should be some discussion of whether allowing one man to establish what would be a near-monopoly of the city's entertainment industry is a good idea.

The deal would give Mr. Ilitch something no one has: ownership of three major-league sports teams — baseball's Tigers, hockey's Red Wings, and the Pistons. He also owns Detroit's Motor City Casino, Olympia Entertainment, and the Fox Theatre.

People who normally would worry about someone having that much clout say Mr. Ilitch has done so much for Detroit that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. The pizza magnate has been a major force in the revitalization of Detroit's downtown.

But Mr. Ilitch is 81 years old, and there is rivalry among his children. What happens after the patriarch leaves the scene? The deal also may cost Detroiters more than they bargained for. Mr. Ilitch acknowledges he does deals like this to make money.

Fifteen years ago, he decided he had to have a new stadium for the Tigers. He hinted he might move the team unless taxpayers agreed to contribute to its costs. Worried voters did so.

Today, there is talk that the purchase of the Pistons will lead to discussion of a vast new hockey/basketball complex near downtown Detroit. Presumably, impoverished local taxpayers would be asked to help fund that facility too.

There's also the possibility that if Detroit proves insufficiently cooperative, instead of moving the Pistons back to Detroit, Mr. Ilitch could choose to move the Detroit Red Wings to join them in north Oakland County. That would be an economic blow to the city and its fragile morale.

For years, governments have supported antitrust legislation, primarily because monopolies stifle creativity and aren't good for the consumer. Competition, whether for cars or entertainment dollars, tends to increase quality and decrease cost.

There may be compelling reasons to make an exception for Mike Ilitch and the Pistons. But at the very least, Detroiters should think this through.



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