Olympia Entertainment helps shape Detroit's future

By: Stephanie Taylor Christensen

Few cities have weathered economic highs and lows like Detroit has, and few companies have played as integral a role in its sports and entertainment offerings as Olympia Entertainment.
Tom Wilson, President and CEO, Olympiia Entertainment

Few cities have weathered economic highs and lows like Detroit has, and few companies have played as integral a role in its sports and entertainment offerings as Olympia Entertainment.

An Ilitch-owned company, Olympia Entertainment is one of the most diverse sports and entertainment companies in the industry. The company owns and operates Fox Theatre and the intimate City Theatre (inside Hockeytown Café). It also booked and operated Joe Louis Arena and books Comerica Park (home of the Detroit Tigers). Olympia Entertainment also handles business operations for the Detroit Red Wings. Its latest addition, Little Caesars Arena, will open this September in The District Detroit — a world-class sports and entertainment development that will span 50 blocks, include six theaters and five neighborhoods, and host four professional sports teams.

Tom Wilson, President and CEO, Olympia Entertainment

From ownership to entertainment

While Olympia Entertainment didn’t adopt its current name until 1996, the company’s history dates to 1982, when the late Michael Ilitch and his wife, Marian, purchased the Olympia Stadium Corp. — the same year they bought the Detroit Red Wings. Their new company, Olympia Arenas Inc., managed events at Joe Louis Arena (home of the Detroit Red Wings, and nicknamed “The Joe”), Cobo Arena and the Glens Falls Civic Center. In 1987, Olympia Arenas’ venues expanded to include the iconic Fox Theatre, which now serves as an entertainment venue and the headquarters of Olympia Entertainment and Little Caesars Pizza.

The significance of the Olympia name in Detroit goes back even further; in 1927, the Olympia Sports Arena was built to house the city’s National Hockey League team, the Detroit Cougars.

“The hockey team needed a home and the Olympia was built, but then there was also an entertainment portion that included circuses, ice shows and touring artists,” says Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia since 2010. “Entertainment has always been an important function of arenas.”

That symbiotic relationship dating to the 1920s and ’30s inspired the Ilitches to deepen their company’s role in the entertainment space, even as the changing economic climate of Detroit posed additional challenges.

“We started to see more and more people moving away from the city and into the suburbs,” Wilson says. “The Ilitches understood that people would come back downtown for entertainment. They had a pulse on the city. And when they purchased the Detroit Tigers, they became responsible for more than 200 nights of entertainment in Detroit a year.”

The magic of being a Red Wings player was no longer enough. (The Ilitches) had the foresight to recognize that we needed a better facility for our future players.”
– Tom Wilson, President and CEO, Olympia Entertainment

The Ilitches also had to adapt to the lifestyle preferences of their target audience, particularly when entertainment venues opened in Detroit’s suburbs in the mid-1980s.

“Mr. Ilitch recognized that business as before wouldn’t continue; the Palace [an entertainment venue in the suburbs] started taking 90 percent of the concerts,” says Wilson. “One of the reasons they renovated the Fox Theatre was that he understood you had to keep downtown unique. The Fox had been neglected for so many years and was so beaten up — but he made the commitment to come in and restore it, even though it was very expensive.”

About 80 percent of the Fox Theatre’s original surfaces were preserved in the renovation, and it got a second act when it reopened in 1988 in what was known as the Foxtown Entertainment District.

“It became a magical building right in the middle of a city that had had a mass exodus of its population,” Wilson says.

“In terms of civic and personal pride that the Ilitches had, it was a difference maker that kept the lights on in downtown for 200-plus nights a year. It came at a time when the people of Detroit really needed it.”

Creating the Detroit experience

Although Olympia Entertainment operates many of Detroit’s arts, sports and entertainment venues, it faces the continuous challenge of how to attract top performers and audiences for all of its events in Southeast Michigan. Obstacles include competing entertainment options, economic changes and shifts in how and where audiences spend their free time.

“It’s always a bit of a fist fight; you’re fighting against people’s habits,” Wilson says. “But we’ve convinced acts to come back downtown, and people have supported them like crazy. We have told artists all roads lead to the Joe Louis Arena, or the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park and, soon, the new Little Caesars Arena. We are the most convenient place to come, and we sell out almost everything.”

Tom Wilson, President and CEO, Olympia Entertainment

Wilson says downtown Detroit has undergone remarkable changes, especially in the last few years.

“It has a become a popular and fashionable place both for millennials and people in their 40s and 50s,” he says. “Five years ago, they wouldn’t have come at all. It’s a different experience coming down here. It’s more gritty, real and urban feeling — in the best sense.”

Thinking bigger

The new Little Caesars Arena is slated to open in September 2017, but initial planning began about 20 years ago, Wilson says.

“The Ilitches understood that not only do we need an arena for the city, we need it to recruit talent for the Detroit Red Wings,” he says. “It’s hard to compete when a player goes to a major city with these impressive structures and we don’t have the facilities that will make you a better player. The magic of being a Red Wings player was no longer enough. They had the foresight to recognize that we needed a better facility for our future players.”

With this in mind, the company began buying property behind The Fox and surrounding areas, working with architects to explore ideas for a new standalone arena. “It started as an arena that was about 17 stories tall,” Wilson says.

“People want to feel like they’re playing a little part in the resurrection of Detroit.”
– Tom Wilson, President and CEO, Olympia Entertainment

However, about five years ago, Wilson and his team revisited their vision.

“Chris Ilitch [president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings] said, ‘We aren’t thinking big enough,’” he says. “Why don’t we make a conscious effort to connect Midtown and downtown and make downtown 6 miles instead of 2 miles to give people places to live, and a destination.’”

The expanded vision demanded a bigger scope for the project – and a much more significant investment.

Tom Wilson, President and CEO, Olympia Entertainment

"We cost ourselves about two years in construction time so we could do the vision right, but it was really a game changer for the entire city,” says Wilson.

When complete, the area will become The District Detroit, 50 walkable city blocks that will create a vibrant urban setting connecting Midtown to downtown.

“We [the city of Detroit] were just coming out of a deep recession at that time,” Wilson says. “The decision to go bigger and develop took a lot of courage and a tremendous amount of faith to pull off.”

The Ilitch family has played an important role in the District development and new Little Caesars Arena, both of which are expected to have a significant impact in Detroit’s urban revitalization. Still, Wilson stresses that it has been a team effort.

“You cannot have a venture like this without partners and sponsors, along with people who are willing to own suites,” he says. “Sponsors and suite holders make significant investments in your facility for several years.”

Huntington Bank was among the first companies to lend its support to the revitalization effort.

“Huntington made a commitment to invest millions of dollars to help the city, right around the time we were about to break ground,” Wilson says. “At the time, people raised eyebrows — and questioned if we could really do it; it took a lot of foresight. We sat down with Huntington and, from the ground floor, found that we had the same visions. They were one of the first to come on board with a sponsorship. At the end of the day, the Huntington commitment will be an enormous piece of the success.”

The project has been so well-received among supporters of the Detroit community that all sponsor suites were sold in about 40 days — a process the company had expected to take several months to complete.

“People want to feel like they’re playing a little part in the resurrection of Detroit,” says Wilson, noting that the first public event is scheduled for Sept. 12, 2017. “We are on target to the day.”

For more information, visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.


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