Detroit sports teams face trouble without Big Three bailout   

Updated: November 24, 2008, 4:34 PM ET

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If only Jay Leno were a congressman.

"I can't believe they give these sleazeball financial guys a bailout and not [companies] who actually make a product," Leno said when asked by reporters his thoughts on whether the government should bail out the Big Three automakers -- General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. "It's amazing to me."

Me too. Now normally I'm against corporate welfare because wealthy executives deserve to suffer for their bad business decisions. But in this case, I'm siding with Leno because Detroit sports fans and Detroit's reputation as a major sports city could be in jeopardy if Congress doesn't bail out the auto companies.

With so many people having lost their jobs because of the Big Three's mismanagement and financial problems, I know it doesn't seem like an appropriate time to worry about sports. But no matter what Rich Rodriguez may think, sports still matter during crises.

The Big Three already have begun to scale back their corporate support in Detroit and if they don't receive government help, severe financial cuts seem imminent. If just GM alone buckled, it would reportedly cost taxpayers $200 billion and the automaker would have to slash employment by 50 percent.

Chrysler, GM and Ford have strong sponsorship ties to most of the major sporting events in Detroit and they all maintain pricey corporate suites at the four major sporting facilities (it's important to note that Phoenix is the only other four-sport city where the teams play in four different venues). At some point sports would seem like an unwise investment.

The automakers already seem headed in that direction. Chrysler pulled its sponsorship from the Motor City Bowl, which, for the moment, is still being supported by Ford and GM. After 17 years as title sponsor, Ford ended its relationship with golf's Senior Players Championship. GM also announced Monday it is ending its endorsement relationship with Tiger Woods after nine years.

"Major sponsors are pulling their reins in a little bit," said Rodney Fort, a sports management professor at the University of Michigan. "If I were doing the Motor City Bowl, I'd be worried."

The Motor City Bowl, which is held at Ford Field, has pumped $14 million per year into Detroit's economy since it started in 1997.

Bowl organizers replaced Chrysler as a sponsor, but given that Ford and GM are on year-to-year contracts, they might follow Chrysler's lead if things get too difficult.

"This is one of the toughest times in history," said Motor City Bowl executive director Ken Hoffman. "It's definitely affected us and many other areas. [Chrysler's money] isn't a lot of money, but it is when you're closing plants and laying off employees. It's hard [for them] to justify."

Michigan's economy is far worse than what most Americans are facing because of the Big Three's struggles. Thousands of autoworkers are out of work. The state ranks in the top 10 in foreclosures and Detroit's unemployment rate is at its highest level in 16 years.

Many financial experts expect the Big Three to crash completely without a bailout and it wouldn't be long before the automakers' financial problems started to rub off on Detroit's four major sports.

If you think any of the Big Three would be reluctant to end their relationship with a major sport, Ford and Dodge didn't hesitate to yank their financial support from the NASCAR truck series.

Besides, in Detroit, the major sports teams already are at the mercy of the economy. The Lions will be blacked out for the third straight home game on Sunday. Detroit's 0-10 record doesn't help, but given the economic climate, it seems unlikely that any of the Lions' three remaining home games will be viewed locally.

The Red Wings were once the most difficult and expensive ticket to get, but the team lowered its ticket prices after winning the Stanley Cup. The Tigers raised their ticket prices for next season to offset their $134 million payroll. Even with the ticket hike, the Tigers' ticket prices rank third of the major Detroit sports teams. However, the timing couldn't have been worse. The Tigers were a hot pick to go to the World Series in 2008, but finished last in their division. They were third in attendance in the American League, but with lowered expectations in 2009, who could blame the fans for not eagerly returning to the ballpark?

Some people argue the automakers deserve this fate. But the city and its sports fans don't deserve to be dragged down with them.

Detroit hosted Super Bowl XL in 2006, the NCAA regionals last season and the 2009 Final Four will be played at Ford Field. That would be the same Ford family that built automobiles for 105 years.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com


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