Ilitch exec teases ‘significant’ upgrades for Comerica Park by Opening Day 2024

Detroit News

Detroit — If you pay close enough attention while attending a Detroit Tigers game these days, Comerica Park, which opened in 2000, is starting to show its age a bit.

But noticeable and significant upgrades are coming soon to the ballpark, Ryan Gustafson, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Ilitch Sports & Entertainment, recently told The Detroit News.

“Absolutely. It’s a huge priority for Chris Ilitch, and he’s communicated that to all of us about investing in the ballpark, investing in the ballpark experience,” Gustafson told The News earlier this month, while attending a wrap-up party for the Tigers’ first season of its Play Ball Detroit initiative. “We’re finalizing some plans for next year. We don’t have anything to share today, but it’s gonna be really exciting for fans when you show up for Opening Day.

“There’s gonna be some really significant changes that are gonna really impact the fan experience in a positive way.”

Gustafson, who took over in his new role in March, declined to provide specifics, but said the Ilitch organization expects to unveil details in an announcement in the “coming weeks.”

The Tigers saw one major upgrade to the ballpark last offseason, with the installation of state-of-the-art LED lights. Listening to player feedback, the fences in center field also were moved in, and some of the outfield walls were lowered; the Tigers also renovated the home clubhouse.

Renovations and upgrades are going to continue to focus on both the fans and the players. Chris Ilitch, CEO of the Tigers, said in 2018 that “next-level” upgrades were coming to Comerica Park, also without providing specifics, though progress has been slow on that front. The pandemic is partly to blame.

Gustafson joined the Ilitch organization in 2022, with a resume that included time with the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer. He was promoted by Ilitch in March, after Chris McGowan decided to leave the company. While Scott Harris runs the baseball operations for the Tigers and Steve Yzerman the hockey operations for the Red Wings, Gustafson leads the shared business operations for both franchises.

And business is starting to get pretty good, he said.

“You see it with both teams,” Gustafson said. “On the Red Wings side, people are incredibly excited about this year, they see our team continually improving and they just believe in Steve’s plan. You see it in our sales numbers.

“The Tigers said, I think people are really buying into Scott’s plan and they see like us getting 1% better every day, which is Scott’s vision, which is continual improvement. We have a lot of guys coming up through the system that are going to be with us now and in the future, and I think fans are really excited about that.”

Both the Red Wings and Tigers are considered up-and-coming franchises, with the Red Wings perhaps ready to compete for a playoff spot this coming season, and the Tigers perhaps in the next season or two.

The Tigers are 70-79 after sweeping the Angels in Anaheim, marking just the second time they’ve reached at least 70 wins since 2016, and they’ve seen progress from some of their top young players, such as Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and Kerry Carpenter, and flashes from Parker Meadows.

Gustafson is excited about the opportunity to market players like that.

“Those guys have such great and fun personalities,” Gustafson said. “So, we’re really focused on continuing to market and create the sort of fan experience of these young guys that are energetic, passionate, great players and great people, as well. And so as we continue to have this crop of young talent coming through the system, it’s gonna be something we’re focusing on, just engaging our fans and creating some excitement at the ballpark.”

The emergence of the young players comes as Miguel Cabrera nears the end of his farewell tour after a Hall-of-Fame career. Tickets for the last homestand of the season are selling fast, with Sunday nearly sold out.

While Harris and Yzerman report directly to Ilitch, Gustafson was involved in the interview process that brought Harris to the Tigers from the San Francisco Giants. Harris was named team president after Al Avila was fired as general manager. Gustafson was asked what stood out about Harris in the interview process.

“It was all about his vision, his vision for how you build a championship-level team and culture, a winning culture, was unmatched throughout the process,” Gustafson said. “You can just see it every day, this place is changing; it’s getting better. … We have a long way to go, but we’re excited about what the future holds. I know Scott’s excited about what the future looks like, and I’m just making sure our fans have a great time at the ballpark.”

Speaking of the fans, more than anything, they’ve stood out during Gustafson’s time in Detroit. He’s been impressed by their passion, despite the city’s long playoff drought.

The Tigers haven’t made the playoffs since 2013, the Lions and Red Wings since 2016, and the Pistons since 2019.

“They live and die Tigers and Red Wings, as well as the other sports teams,” he said. “Everywhere I walk, I see an Olde English D tattooed on somebody and people are wearing the Winged Wheel and the Olde English D throughout the entire city.

“When these teams continue to improve and are eventually, you know, championship-level, it’s going to be so exciting to see the city embrace it and just like get behind it.

“Because it’s unlike any place I’ve been. It’s just ingrained in their identity as fans.”

Gustason spoke to The News at a Play Ball Detroit event at William Clay Ford Field, which is the field where Tigers great Willie Horton grew up playing. This was the inaugural year of the initiative, with the Tigers Foundation and Nike donating more than $250,000 that was used for uniforms, equipment, field maintenance, clinics, tournament travel and more. Nearly 3,000 kids in Detroit participated in the baseball and softball program.

Twitter/X: @tonypaul1984

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