His ‘Pizza! Pizza!’ served Detroit’s redevelopment
Mike Ilitch, who founded the Little Caesars pizza empire before buying the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers and won praise for keeping the professional sports teams in the city as others relocated to new suburban stadiums, died Feb. 10 at a Detroit hospital. He was 87.
Family spokesman Doug Kuiper confirmed the death, but no other details were provided.
Mr. Ilitch and his wife, Marian, launched Little Caesars — later known for its “Pizza! Pizza!” television commercials — in suburban Detroit in 1959. They expanded the business into one of the world’s largest carryout pizza chains. Little Caesars and its several spinoff companies now employ 23,000 people worldwide, with revenue last year of $3.4 billion.
Mr. Ilitch broke into sports ownership in 1982, when he paid a reported $8 million for the struggling Red Wings. Once a National Hockey League powerhouse, the team had become an NHL bottomdweller before it began to win again under Mr. Ilitch. The Red Wings took home the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.
Mr. Ilitch was inducted into the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, and into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame a year later.
In 1982, Mr. Ilitch also bought Olympia Entertainment, which manages sports and entertainment venues in the Detroit area. Five years later, he and his wife bought Detroit’s downtown Fox Theatre and started a $12 million restoration. It reopened in 1988 and became a popular venue for musicals, plays and other productions. The Little Caesars world headquarters also was moved downtown, helping spur a commercial revival in the struggling Motor City.
“Revitalizing the historic Fox Theatre and relocating his business headquarters to the city were bold moves, but ones that ultimately set downtown on a course for incredible investment and remarkable transformation,” said Rip Rapson, president and chief executive of the Kresge Foundation, based in Troy, Mich.
In 1992, Mr. Ilitch — who once played in the Detroit Tigers’ minor-league system — bought the baseball team for $85 million. He moved the team in 2000 from the storied-but-fading Tiger Stadium to Comerica Park, across from the Fox Theatre.
Unlike previous owners of Detroit sports franchises, Mr. Ilitch opened his checkbook to sign top players — finding solid success in hockey and mixed results in baseball.
The Tigers lost an American League record 119 games in 2003, but advanced to the World Series three years later, losing in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Near the end of a disappointing 2008 season, Mr. Ilitch said he was not concerned by the team’s $138 million payroll.
“I’m not afraid to go out and spend money,” he said. “It’s been very costly, but I’m not going to change my ways.”
The Tigers defeated the New York Yankees to win the American League pennant in 2012 but lost again in the World Series, this time to the San Francisco Giants in four games.
The team also made the playoffs in 2011 and 2014, but the Tigers never won the World Series under Mr. Ilitch, despite spending millions of dollars on contracts for such stars as Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez and Prince Fielder.
“I’ve never seen a man more dedicated to this community and to baseball than Mr. I,” Tigers Executive Vice President and General Manager Al Avila said in a statement. “What he has done for this franchise, and for Detroit, is immeasurable.”
Michael Ilitch was born July 20, 1929, in Detroit. His parents were Macedonian immigrants. He played baseball in high school and, after a four-year stint in the Marine Corps, spent three years in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system before a knee injury ended his playing career.
He found his niche in business, opening the first Little Caesars restaurant in a working-class Detroit suburb. A distribution company soon followed to supply ingredients and other products for the growing number of restaurants. Blue Line Foodservice grew into one of the country’s largest food service distribution companies.
Ilitch Holdings was established in 1999 to manage the family’s interests in food, sports and entertainment. Mr. Ilitch’s son, Christopher Ilitch, is the company’s chief executive. His wife is sole owner of MotorCity Casino Hotel, one of Detroit’s three casinos.
The Ilitch family’s investments in Detroit spearheaded a recent development flurry in the beleaguered city.
When approached in 2009 by organizers of the Motor City Bowl in Detroit, Mr. Ilitch agreed to sponsor the annual college football bowl game, which was renamed the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
“It’s a sporting event, and we need sporting events,” Ilitch said at the time. “It picks our community up to no end.”
Survivors include his wife, the former Marian Bayoff; seven children; 22 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, at left and in suit below, and head coach Scotty Bowman, center, are surrounded by players after the NHL team won the Stanley Cup in 2002. Mr. Ilitch, who also founded the Little Caesars pizza empire, led transformation efforts downtown, with his focus on keeping his franchises in the struggling city.