Season 2, Episode 8 - Athletic director Rob Fournier, Detroit Pistons VP Arn Tellem on new hoops arena
WSU Director of Athletics Rob Fournier and Detroit Pistons Vice Chairman Arn Tellem discuss the new Wayne State University basketball arena, which opens Nov. 5.
WSU Director of Athletics Rob Fournier and Detroit Pistons Vice Chairman Arn Tellem sit with host Darrell Dawsey inside Wayne State University's new basketball arena — which opens Nov. 5 — to explain how the university and the NBA team collaborated to make the new facility a reality.
Rob Fournier is entering his 22nd year as WSU's director of athletics. Under his leadership, Wayne State University has enjoyed its top 18 NACDA finishes, with top three NACDA finishes occurring in 2009 (11th), 2014 (14th) and 2010 (21st). Meanwhile, the university has also had 50 Conference Coach of the Year recipients, and Wayne State teams have won 39 conference regular-season titles, 15 league tournament titles and 10 postseason regional, super regional or national titles. Fournier was named the 2008 NACDA Central Region Athletic Director of the Year.
In 2019, Fournier initiated and negotiated a contract with the Detroit Pistons for the new 3,000-seat, $28.3 million basketball arena on the Wayne State campus, which will also be the home to the Pistons' G-League squad, the Motor City Cruise. The new facility is slated to open Nov. 5.
Prior to joining Wayne State, Fournier served as the senior associate commissioner and general counsel for the Mid-American Conference.
Arn Tellem is vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment (PS&E), which includes the Detroit Pistons basketball franchise. He joined PS&E in August 2015 following a distinguished career as one of the top player agents in sports.
As a representative of ownership, Tellem has broad responsibility for business strategy, planning and development, and strengthening the connection between PS&E and the community. With respect to the Detroit Pistons, Tellem is responsible for league-related initiatives as one of the team's alternate governors on the NBA Board of Governors.
Tellem has represented more than 500 professional athletes in his career. He joined PS&E following nine years at Wasserman Media Group, where he served as vice chairman and oversaw the Team Sports Division. In 1989, he founded Los Angeles-based Tellem & Associates, which was acquired in 1999 by SFX Entertainment, the world's largest producer and marketer of live entertainment. Tellem served as CEO of SFX Sports until he joined Wasserman.
- Watch the promotional video for the new WSU basketball arena https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ru7e6L_OWYQ
- Follow WSU Athletics on Twitter https://twitter.com/waynestwarriors
- Follow WSU Athletics on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wsuwarriors
- Follow WSU Athletics on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/waynestateathletics/
- Follow the Detroit Pistons on Twitter https://twitter.com/DetroitPistons
- Follow the Pistons on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/detroitpistons
- Follow the Pistons on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/detroitpistons/
- Watch the WXYZ-TV report on the new arena https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-Hy5yK_Vi0
- Read Arn Tellem's Sports Illustrated interview about joining the Pistons https://www.si.com/nba/2015/06/05/arn-tellem-detroit-pistons-sports-agent-nba
Announcer: Welcome to "Today at Wayne," a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community. With news, announcements, information, intern events, discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission, "Today at Wayne" serves as the perfect form for our campus to begin a conversation or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.
Darrell Dawsey: On November 5th, Wayne State will open its new basketball arena, which will serve as home to both the WSU men's and women's hoops programs, as well as the Detroit Pistons' G League affiliate, the Motor City Cruise. The opening kicks off with the preseason battle between the Warriors and the Michigan Wolverines. Not only does the new arena add yet another jewel to our growing campus, but it also marks the first time ever that WSU hoops teams have had their own dedicated facility. Here to discuss are two very special guests, Rob Fournier, the WSU athletic director and Arn Tellem, Vice Chairman of the Detroit Pistons. Welcome Gentlemen.
Rob Fournier: Thank you.
Arn Tellem: Good to be here.
Darrell Dawsey: Great to have you. So let's start with you, Rob. We're here in the new arena. Just tell us why this is so significant to both the campus community and the Detroit community as a whole.
Rob Fournier: Well, for the athletic department, we've been waiting a 104 years for an arena. So we've never ever had a basketball standalone arena. We've used the Matthaei, which was built to host the Olympics, which never happened, and they never built the arena, then went along with it. So, we've kind of had a makeshift arrangement. So this opportunity to have our own arena just for basketball is something, I think, a century is a long kind of way. So we're a little anxious.
Darrell Dawsey: A little excited, okay. You got a big game coming up to open up the arena. Can you tell us just a little bit about the...?
Rob Fournier: Well, we're going to play the school from Ann Arbor...
Darrell Dawsey: Okay.
Rob Fournier: ...just down the road here. So, I thank Mr. Tellem for his support on getting that. Division 1 schools don't come to play division 2 schools very often. So, but I think it's a great way to kind of set off the arena. I mean, it draws attention to it, and certainly, as I was mentioned a little bit earlier, we sold out our student tickets in 20 minutes. We sold out the whole arena in 62 minutes.
Darrell Dawsey: Wow.
Rob Fournier: So, a lot of excitement about that and I think...
Darrell Dawsey: It's all around the city, this excitement?
Rob Fournier: Yeah. Plus, it's great for the university. And we've always thought that with the partnership with the Pistons, it would be great for us. I think this is the opening door for us to start that relationship.
Darrell Dawsey: Any insights on any VIPs who might be showing up on November?
Rob Fournier: In addition to Arn?
Darrell Dawsey: In addition to Arn.
Rob Fournier: I don't know. I know that our Vice President of Government Affairs took out a bunch of tickets, and I know the President, and certainly the WSU board is going to be here.
Darrell Dawsey: All right.
Arn Tellem: I think the Mayor's going to be here, who's a big fan of both universities.
Rob Fournier: And my wife is going to be here. So I got her way up there.
Darrell Dawsey: The luminary of luminary.
Rob Fournier: Yeah. That's right.
Darrell Dawsey: Absolutely. Well Arn, just tell us a little bit about why this arena is important to our community as well as to the Pistons organization.
Arn Tellem: Well, I'll start with the Pistons quick which leads into the community. But I can to Detroit six years ago, actually around this month, just after Labor Day of 2015, and really the first decision that was hanging over heads was "Should we move downtown or stay in Auburn Hills?" And as we did the analysis of that if the team really belonged in Detroit. And there was a new arena, a great new arena being built. But from my seat, I really felt that there were two other components that had to happen to make the move successful. It wasn't just about moving our basketball down team downtown, that was the first part. But the second and third part were to have our entire organization based downtown, if we're going to be playing downtown, to be all in, on Detroit. So we had to find a partner to build a headquarters with and a practice facility.
And that ultimately became Henry Ford Health System. And our minor league team, our G League team at that time, was playing in Grand Rapids, which is nice. But really, to me to be a progressive of organization, we had to have that close by. So our players could practice with the NBA team, get the benefits of NBA coaching, and then be able to go play at an arena nearby. And for me, as we analyzed all the possibilities, I realized we couldn't do this on our own, we needed good partners. And we found a good partner with Olympia for the arena. We found a great partner in Henry Ford Health System for our partnership to build our headquarters, build a sports medicine institute, develop a campus. And really, as we were looking around at all the possibilities to find the right partner for our G League team, it became apparent that Wayne State, which is another anchor institution, is the leading public university in Detroit, would be the perfect partner for us.
Because I think we both had sort of the common goals. One, they needed a new arena for their, for their men and women's basketball team. We needed an arena, close to our practice facility which is down this just, almost walk here in nice weather. And, and we had, and we wanted to do something for the community. And Wayne State also embodies what our ethos is, of coming to Detroit, which was to do good things and partner with key institutions in the city where we could make a difference. And so we're by helping Wayne State do better by helping organization do better.
I think for us in the community, what it means to Detroit is, I hope that we can use it for clinics, engage with the community. Our so much of the G League experience is to really connect with Detroiters and young people, future fans, people who can't afford to go maybe to a basketball game, but they can see our young players, see Wayne State play in an intimate experience, and be connected to our players, and have a hands-on personal experience with our team. These were all some of the benefits and it enables us to really, hopefully, do more programming with our philanthropic partners in civic organizations in Detroit, to reach a broader audience and connect with the community. So I think it serves Wayne State's purpose, our purpose. It's a perfect marriage and we're proud to be a partner of Wayne State.
Darrell Dawsey: Absolutely. Rob, can you give us some sense of how difficult or how easy this was to get done? What were some of the obstacles that you had to get over?
Rob Fournier: I'm going to look at...
Arn Tellem: Lawyers.
And I'm a lawyer.
Rob Fournier: I can look back now over my shoulder and see this and say it was easy, but I've lived this thing for four years, every single day. And the Pistons been great to work with, but anytime you're putting together something like this, it's not just turning the page. There're a lot of pieces that be done. And I could still remember when I just picked up the phone and called the Pistons one day, it was just a cold call. And I said, "Hey, I got an idea. Would this be something?" And then wasn't long after that, Arn's chief of staff called me back and said, "You know, we might be interested in that." They came down and met at my office and which in itself was, we had to get it cleaned up for that occasion because there were some important folks coming in there. And then I had some old baseball pictures up in the wall and...
Arn Tellem: Connie Mack Stadium.
Rob Fournier: Yeah.
Arn Tellem: It had to be a Connie Mike Stadium.
Darrell Dawsey: Yeah.
Rob Fournier: Shide Park.
Arn Tellem: Yeah.
Rob Fournier: It said "Shide Park" in there. So we got to talking about that and then the first idea was maybe we could retrofit the Matthaei. I was like, "Okay, don't think that's going to work." We don't even have air conditioning in the place. And then we talked about adding on to it, which was the original plan for the Matthaei, that's where the arena was supposed to be. But I said, "We're going to be putting in a weight room there in about another year." And we walked outside the door and I said, "Do you see all that land over there. I got a deal for you." And that was it.
Darrell Dawsey: You said it was just sort of a cold call, what inspired the idea? What made you think, "Hey! Pistons." I mean, obviously basketball, was there anything else that was sort of driving that decision?
Rob Fournier: Well, to be honest with you, I've done a lot of cold calls in my life.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay.
Rob Fournier: And when I was the acting commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, I did a similar deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Darrell Dawsey: Oh, okay.
Rob Fournier: So we were looking for a place to put on our basketball tournament. We'd been playing in Toledo, which wasn't really as prominent a location as what the member schools thought we should be. So I had reached out, made a cold call and connected with the Cavs, that one led to a relationship. We've now hosted the Mid-American Conference tournament there every year, since 1999. It's like the fifth largest attended tournament, and it led to some great opportunities for them with post-season basketball. But really, anytime you're throwing out an idea, there has to be something on the other end. I mean, that's the way partnerships work. So I thought as Arn had just described that, having that connection close by with the city would be a positive for them. I was familiar with the setup in Grand Rapids. I just thought this might work better.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay. Arn, obviously you agreed, nothing wrong with Grand Rapids per se, but you liked the idea of having the organization in a centralized location. In addition to this particular venture, this collaboration with Wayne State, have there been other community engagement projects or collaborative projects with the university that you might be able to talk to us about?
Arn Tellem: I think, well, this is the first and the pivotal one, but my hope is, it will lead to future projects. I've run an idea, well I've jumped the gun here, but I've run an idea by President Wilson of another one recently, but...
Darrell Dawsey: Let's break some news.
Arn Tellem: No that's unrelated to sports, but as we explore ideas, but one of the things that we thought about at the time that we want to do was, hopefully beyond having Wayne State students, obviously supporting their college team and hopefully coming out to our games to see our young players, and developing future fans for the Pistons and making that connection.
There's two other things that we immediately saw. One was internships for Wayne State students with the Pistons organization, giving them an opportunity. So many students want to work in sports, whether it's marketing, finance, the business side, there're more jobs in sports than playing in sports. So it's to provide opportunities for Wayne State students as interns and hopefully, which leads to full-time employment after school. So that was one idea that we discussed and are going to start implementing. And two, the second idea was maybe because of the law school, the business school, maybe even undergrad for us to maybe teach some classes and engage with students. And as far as sports business and there're so many legal issues in sports, which is always interesting to law students, but I think there're ways that we can be connected as far as also providing interesting courses for the students here.
Darrell Dawsey: Now, you're one of the better known sports agents or former sports agent, I guess in your case, I think it might be a feather in our cap to be able to have somebody like you helping to teach our kids how to navigate.
Arn Tellem: No, I did at USC when I was living and working in LA and I enjoyed it. And I think it was fun for the students, was fun for me. It was a good way to stay abreast on the legal issues of sports. So, my hope is we'll be able to do that going forward.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay. Sounds good. Now, Rob, we got this friendly against University of Michigan, coming up on November 5th. We encourage everybody to come out and check it out, but I'm just kind of wondering, is there anything we can expect in that game? You got any thoughts about what we might see as fans?
Rob Fournier: Well, I'm going to be rooting for the team in green and gold.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay.
Rob Fournier: So I want to get that on the record right now. I think for people when they come out, there's some excitement about seeing a new arena, which obviously you can tell Darrell today, as you said earlier, it smells new, that's nice. But I think we've added a number of accoutrements. So when you come in the plaza, I think is a very special addition to the arena. So it creates a very inviting atmosphere for the fans. So you kind of get the sense as you're coming in. "Oh, I'm coming into a basketball facility." The Motor City Cruise as our partners, so you see them prominently displayed as part of that. But then what I did was, I kind of set the plaza of that, I call it the four corners, borrowing metaphor from basketball.
And I call it the four quarters of Detroit. And so at the four corners, our basketballs, but they represent some significant pieces of Detroit's history. So one is the automobile industry, obviously Detroit is built because of the automobile. One is social justice, so there's a monument talking about some of the social justice milestones in the history of Detroit. One is Motown music, and one is the Arsenal of Democracy.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay.
Rob Fournier: A line that I've always said is, Detroit made the automobile that changed the world and the Arsenal of Democracy that saved it. And so I think those represent to me, Detroit. So as you come in, you'll kind of get this history of Detroit, which is set around this basketball court. But then as you come in, you'll have these two dimensional figures and one Motor City Cruise basketball player, one Wayne State basketball player and one female Wayne State basketball player.
So you'll get immersed in this whole sense of basketball as you come in. And then a video board that's kind of showing the history of basketball, and some of the points of interest in Detroit. So you see all that as you come in and then as you can tell by sitting here now it's a sunken bowl. And I think that creates another dimension for fans. So it's just one more piece to it. And early on, when we were talking about the arena, I had joked with Arn that we need to have it look kind of like the Palestra in Philadelphia.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay.
Rob Fournier: And so that was kind of the inspiration to the whole big window that you see, and as you walk in, the sunken bowl piece.
Darrell Dawsey: Great, fantastic. Now how excited are our players actually to play here? I mean, we've had some strong teams in the past recently, our men's team, I believe won the league last year. Our women's team was strong. Do you think that this is going to help them? This kind of excitement, does this really translate into wins on the court or is it just a great feeling for everybody?
Rob Fournier: I think the President has told me we should win the championship for the next 10 years and then maybe take a break after that.
Darrell Dawsey: That sounds like a heavy mandate.
Rob Fournier: If you had seen the Matthaei, the transition from here to there, defies description. We, our men's basketball team for the last, since 1967, have a locker room that has been a towel room. So what was originally made a place that passed out linens became our locker room. No showers, no air conditioning. I mean, it was a stretch and our women's locker room, remember when they built the Matthaei, there was no women's sports. So that was a makeshift organization set up. So coming over here, it's a colossal change. And we did a video when they first saw it because we made it particular that we weren't going to show it off until it was all done, and had a chance to look at it for the first time. I mean, their reaction was priceless, I mean, just unbelievable.
Darrell Dawsey: I'm just kind of curious and this is both of you guys, I mean, you've been intimately involved in this from the very beginning, four long years of putting this together. When did you really know that this was going to happen? I mean, I know there were cold calls, preliminary conversations, niceties. When did you really know that this was going to be happening?
Arn Tellem: From us, we looked at a lot of different possibilities, and I think we had some ideas before Rob called us, of us doing it on our own, or maybe doing the development on our own. And as we went through the discussions, it came back to this possibility because the idea of a partnership to me made us stronger, rather than doing it on our own, and it made us better. And I think the key for our success as an organization is the relationships we build in this city. And, once we decided on Henry Ford, it just became obvious as we were looking at the different, we had narrowed it down to a couple other possibilities. And then when this, sort of, to develop this idea became the most compelling.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay.
Arn Tellem: Because of the idea of doing it with Wayne State, there's a lot of Philadelphia references here, but my parents went to Temple University.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay.
Arn Tellem: -which is similar to Wayne State, which is the public urban institution in Philadelphia. My parents had tremendous pride in Temple, what it meant. I grew up hearing those stories, and knowing what it meant to the people of Philadelphia, and there're generations of professionals that have served Philadelphia that have come from Temple, and the similar story from Wayne State. So just having that background coming here, wanting to be in Detroit, to me, was just a natural for us. This is, as I said, a leading institution, it's a university with a great history. It's going to play an important part in Detroit's future. For us to partner, to me, there's no better partner for us when it comes to serving the youth and our future, than Wayne State University. And so we're proud to be in this partnership, and excited about what we can do together in the future.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay. All right.
Well, we're really excited about the Pistons here in Detroit as fans, I mean, some ways it's the new beginning, got great nucleus of strong young players. Can you tell us why we should be excited about the Cruise? Are there players that we should be looking out for? Are there things about the team?
Arn Tellem: Oh, no, very much so. I think the Cruise is a very important part of the Pistons. We're going to have some very exciting young players that we're very high on, that we think are going to be future, significant players for the Pistons. So Luka Garza, our second round pick, who was the collegiate player of the year, has already become a fan favorite in Detroit. They think he's the next Bill Laimbeer. Isaiah Livers from Michigan, grew up in Michigan, the high school player of the year in Michigan, star at Michigan, terrific guy. I mean, both those guys are not great players and great prospects, but they're just great individuals. And I think the fans will really love them. Saben Lee, who was on our team last year is going to probably spend a fair amount of time down here playing.
And he's an exciting young point guard prospect. We're going to fill with some interesting players. So I think it's going to be a fun team that can connect with our fans. So the G League has become a very important aspect for the NBA. I think almost half of the players, that are in the NBA now, have spent time in the G League. So as we build with a young team and really for us, the only way to build a team when you're like in a city like Detroit is through the draft and with young players. And Troy, our general manager, calls at restoring and that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to restore this franchise to the greatness that it had with the bad boys and the going-to-work team, in the early 2000s.
And it starts building with young players, and the young players are going to be playing and working, and developing with the Cruise. So I think the fans are going to see an intimate setting. This is a spectacular, we've sent the drawings to the NBA, the NBA has come out and seen this gym, not yet finished, but close to finish. And they think this is going to be the best arena for G League teams.
Darrell Dawsey: Is that right?
Arn Tellem: So we're hoping, we have one other exciting game that's coming here besides the regular G League schedule, the G League Ignite, which is the premier players that come out of high school, a place for the NBA owned G League team is going to make five road trips, play five games on the road. And one of those five games will be here in February.
Darrell Dawsey: Wonderful.
Arn Tellem: And there is a young star on the team, who I think played high school, grew up in Southfield, Jaden Hardy, who's on that team, who's expected to be a very high draft pick. So we're excited to have him come. And the G League Ignite team come back to play us, may not be as big as the Michigan game, but I think it'll be a very good draw, be an exciting game to have here.
Darrell Dawsey: I will be excited to see them all, no question. Now I know you guys are busy, so I'm not going to hold you for too much longer, but I'm just wondering if there's anything else you'd like to add in this interview. Anything maybe I forgot to ask or something that you might want to emphasize, Rob?
Rob Fournier: Well, to me, I'm glad when you asked Arn the question, that the deal is done. I came here, not sure if it was done yet. So I was a little bit on pins and needles there. So I'm going to take that as a yes.
Arn Tellem: Yeah.
Rob Fournier: Yeah. Okay.
Arn Tellem: We'll do a handshake here, we're done.
Rob Fournier: It's just been a great partnership with the Pistons, at least from a personal standpoint, the people that I've worked with, come in contact with, very professional, very courteous, haven't treated it like, sometimes people are like, "Oh, you know, you're division 2," but that hasn't been the approach. And it starts with the top, with Arn, but I've enjoyed the relationships. I've enjoyed the people I met. I feel a responsibility at this point, to make this not only good for Wayne State, but to make it good for the Motor City Cruise. And I'm going to work my a** off to make sure that happens.
Darrell Dawsey: You always do.
Arn Tellem: No, on our behalf, I mean, we love the partnership. Rob's been great to work with. It's about the people, like Rob said, for us also, and so starting with Rob and obviously President Wilson. Obviously whenever you do a deal, it's a process, that you got to go through and on both sides as you protect yourselves, but really the spirit of partnership and working together is what carries and makes these deals successful. And we both are committed to making this a success. And on behalf of Tom Gores, who was excited about this, when I first brought the idea to him and has been totally supportive. I can't thank him enough for his support in empowering me to go ahead and do this. But Josh Bartelstein, who worked tirelessly on this deal with me and Richard Haddad, our general counsel. We're excited about this and committed to this, and you have our word that we're going to make this a success for not only for us, but for Wayne State as well. And now the pressure's on Wayne State to become a division 1 basketball team.
Darrell Dawsey: All right.
Arn Tellem: Just like Temple University.
Darrell Dawsey: You want to break any more news here?
Rob Fournier: I think that's enough. We can do it. We can do a follow up podcast here.
Darrell Dawsey: Fantastic. Well, listen, on behalf of the city and our community, I want say thank you guys for working so hard to get this done. And obviously on behalf of the "Today at Wayne" podcast, I want to thank you for taking the time to join us today.
Rob Fournier: Thank you, Darrell.
Arn Tellem: Thank you, Darrell.
Darrell Dawsey: Thank you so much.
Arn Tellem: Pleasure.
Darrell Dawsey: Thank you so much.
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