The resignation yesterday by Tom Wilson, the longtime President and CEO of the Pistons and Palace Sports and Entertainment may have been a shock to many, but with the Davidson entertainment empire apparently up for grabs, the move is not surprising.
And with Wilson’s departure, the value of that empire just went down. Why?
Because even though it was Bill Davidson’s money, Tom Wilson was THE architect behind the growth and success of the Pistons and the Palace. What Wilson created was the envy of the NBA, as other franchises looked to the Pistons not only for front office talent but also for his innovative ideas.
Wilson’s remarkable rise to the top directly parallels the success of a basketball franchise that morphed into a multi- million dollar entertainment empire.
Thirty three years ago 27 year old Tom Wilson, a former struggling Hollywood actor, (and Cass Tech and Wayne State grad) was hired by the perennial struggling Detroit Pistons to sell tickets. Within a year managing partner Bill Davidson, who bought the franchise in 1974 for $8 million dollars, surprisingly tapped Wilson to lead the Pistons from Cobo Arena into the mammoth Pontiac Silverdome along with 800 season ticket holders.
With Barnum and Bailey chutzpah, and help from a small guard named Isiah Thomas, under Wilson’s direction the Pistons developed a solid fan base and eventually an innovative arena that that not only produced the wildly successful growth of Palace Sports and Entertainment, but also revolutionized the arena business and sports marketing nationally.
Saddled with a lousy team and playing in a football stadium in front of 4,000 fans, Wilson helped create promotions like “Bob Uecker Night” at the Silverdome where for a dollar a fan could sit in the far reaches of the massive Silverdome. Suddenly fans started pouring in.
“In the early eighties the NBA was taking off and we were saying, ‘come see us play Larry Bird and Magic Johnson,” Wilson told me for my profile on him in D Business Magazine three years ago. “But as we got better it was, ‘come see us beat Bird and Magic.’ We knew then we were on our way.”
As the Pistons became contenders, Davidson, with major input from Wilson, decided to build an innovative and privately financed arena in Auburn Hills.
The key component for success was the revolutionary design of “bunker suites” located just 25 rows from the floor, an idea Wilson first drew on a napkin for the Palace’s architect Rossetti Associates.
In their new award winning venue, the organization captured two world championships in the first two years of operation and the regions’ concert business, which soon expanded outside with the 1994 purchase of the Pine Knob amphitheatre.(DTE Energy Music Theatre)
Tom Wilson simply had the Midas touch and his accessibility to the media was unparalleled in professional sports as was his dedication to customer service.( For just one example, after every home game, win or lose, Wilson would meet with selected season ticket holders to talk about the game and ask them about their experience.
I only wish the man could have been cloned for our other Detroit teams.
Tom Wilson’s departure from the Pistons is a tremendous loss but you can’t blame him for his decision. He should be able to write his own ticket anywhere, and with his experience, enthusiasm, and tenacity, he will prove invaluable for another lucky businessman.
We should all thank Tom Wilson for all that he has accomplished in Detroit.