August 25, 2009 / 12:15 AM / in 8 years

Detroit in battle for shrinking sports dollar

<p>Fans in the gallery hold up signs and cheer for Tiger Woods at the 17th green during the Buick Open PGA golf tournament at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc, Michigan August 2, 2009.Rebecca Cook</p>

DETROIT (Reuters) - Like thousands of Michigan auto workers who have watched their jobs disappear and houses fall into foreclosure, the Buick Open was left looking for a new home earlier this month, another victim of the economic downturn.

A popular fixture on the PGA Tour calendar for more than 50 years, the Buick Open received its eviction notice after the struggling Detroit automaker confirmed it could no longer afford to continue as title sponsor.

The PGA Tour quickly found a new home for the tournament in the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, but the hole it left in recession-ravaged Michigan will not be so easily filled.

The Buick's demise adds to a summer of grim headlines for Michigan sports fans.

They also learned this month that the Indy Racing League and the Detroit Grand Prix will not be back in 2010, leaving the downtown Belle Isle circuit to joggers and cyclists.

Detroit's big four professional teams -- Lions (NFL), Tigers (MLB), Pistons (NBA) and Red Wings (NHL) -- are not looking for new addresses but are digging in for what is shaping up as a bruising battle for the shrinking sports entertainment dollar.

With the busy fall sports season about to begin the fight for fans is quickly escalating in the Motor City as teams flood the market with bargain basement deals.

SEASON PACKAGE

After going all last season without a victory, the 0-16 Lions are trying to win back fans by offering season ticket packages for as low as $230 for 10 games.

Stanley Cup finalists the last two seasons, the Red Wings were once the hottest sporting ticket in Detroit but it can now be had for as little as $9.

The rebuilding Pistons, who saw their streak of 259 consecutive home sell-outs end last season, will have to find novel ways to fill those empty seats.

However, the Central division-leading Tigers have managed to maintain respectable attendances, averaging close to 30,000 a game with the help of some creative ticket pricing.

"We've done well here mainly because of the performance of the baseball team and we've thrown out all kinds of ticket deals, there is even a section of $5 tickets," Jimmy Devellano, senior vice-president of both the Tigers and Red Wings, told Reuters.

"It's tough, this is a city with four major sports and we are all competing for the same dollar. There is only so much to go around. It's like a ghost town. You see it, you feel it all over."

LEFT NUMB

Even in a state left numb by soaring unemployment the loss of the Buick Open stung as much as another round of job cuts, leaving Michigan without a major golf event and further denting its reputation as a top sporting destination.

Tiger Woods bid a fond farewell to one of his favorite lay-outs after a third Buick victory early this month.

He praised the crowd, telling reporters: "With the economy, how it is going on in this region, for them to come and still support the event is very special to all us players."

In nearby Flint, where unemployment is among the nation's highest at 17.4 percent, recession-hardened residents volunteering at the Warwick Hills venue shed a few tears as they said goodbye to a summer tradition.

"It's just part of their DNA up here, generations have come to the Buick Open," Robb Grainger, Buick tournament director, told Reuters. "There are such great golf fans in this state and this is the last show in town.

"There's no major, there's no Champions Tour, there is no LPGA, we are the last bastion professional golf in the state of Michigan.

"It's unfortunate, it does so much good for the area, not only the local economic impact but what we do charity-wise.

"A 100,000 plus people come every year, we have 300 volunteers. There are a lot of people who look forward to it."

LEAN TIMES

Centered in an area reeling from the collapse of the auto industry, the Buick's departure will take more than an emotional toll on local businesses that depended on the tournament to help see them through increasingly lean times.

According to the Flint Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Buick Open pumped $10-$12 million into the local economy annually while millions more over the years have been donated to local county charities.

"When I was in high school I came here and later on I brought my son out, it's an emotional thing plus it impacts the economy," said Mike Martin, a retired auto worker and Buick volunteer for 26 years.

"It's just like the trickle down effect with the GM workers, when you lose a job it affects six other people.

"That one week here affects all the small businesses in the area. What they make in that one week might make the difference and keep them afloat.

" America is a great place to live, people make do and move on with their lives.

"This here is just sad to see but it's a fact of life."

Editing by Dave Thompson

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