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Friday, March 1, 2024

Roar Restored: Lions’ Resurgence Carries Major Implications Across Detroit, NFL

  • The revival of a “long-moribund franchise” has captured the attention of city and league officials.
  • A playoff run after decades of mediocrity has sparked heavy ticket demand and reawakened one of the NFL's oldest markets.
Detroit Lions fans celebrate after the Lions beat the L.A. Rams, 24-23, in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024.

To get a sense of what the Detroit Lions’ resurgence means to the NFL, one need only look at commissioner Roger Goodell’s recent schedule. 

Goodell traveled to Ford Field on Wednesday for the annual partnership meeting of economic development organization Visit Detroit, in part to promote the city’s hosting of the 2024 NFL Draft, and he’ll head right back to the stadium Sunday for the Lions’ divisional playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He watched the team’s wild-card win over the Los Angeles Rams last weekend on TV and was immediately moved by the energy of Lions fans.

No wonder. The Lions broke the sound-level record of the 22-year-old Ford Field four times during the Rams game, topping out at 133.6 decibels, roughly equal to a jackhammer or jet engine. 

“The enthusiasm, the energy of that crowd comes through the television set,” Goodell said at the Visit Detroit event. “So as I’m sitting there, I could feel the passion, I could feel the excitement, I could feel the pride of everybody in that stadium, and it was just off the charts.”

Everybody loves a comeback, and this season the Lions have delivered one for the ages. Before the victory over the Rams, the Lions went 30 years without a playoff victory or even a home playoff game. That often-ugly, three-decade run saw the team go through 11 different head coaches and six general managers before landing on current leaders Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes, as well as an 0-16 campaign in 2008 that remains just one of four winless seasons in the NFL’s entire Super Bowl era. 

This season’s Lions reversed all that, winning their first division title since 1993, defeating the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on opening night before a massive national audience, selling out the entire home schedule for the first time in Ford Field history, and becoming one of the league’s attendance leaders. The team is a 6.5-point favorite against Tampa Bay and now has a 10% implied probability of winning the Super Bowl, based on current betting odds, twice that of a month ago.

“This is a really big deal, for the league and the city,” Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp Ltd. and a longtime sports industry consultant, tells Front Office Sports. “The team before was relevant pretty much only on Thanksgiving. But the revitalization of this long-moribund franchise, the fans there loving it the way that they are, and having this market reactivated is helpful on so many levels. Detroit isn’t the city it once was, but it’s still an important market, and it’s still the center of the automotive universe.”

Tickets, Tickets, Who Needs Tickets?

One of the most obvious markers of the Lions’ growth both on and off the field is the team’s ticket sales. Average resale prices for Sunday’s playoff game against the Buccaneers are nearing $1,200 each, according to ticket marketplace TickPick, more than double the price of any of the other three divisional games and the most expensive NFL divisional-round game it has tracked. Even low-end get-in prices on most marketplaces for Lions-Buccaneers are hovering around $500.

The current frenzy follows the sellout season that saw the team create its first season-ticket waiting list since moving into Ford Field. No matter when this season’s playoff run ends, the ticket escalation will continue into next year, as the Lions have already rolled out an average 30% price increase for the 2024 season. Such an aggressive hike, following six years of essentially flat ticket prices, will present an immediate test for a Detroit market still attempting a large-scale economic recovery.

In addition to the heightened demand spurred on by winning, the Lions have a reduced supply since the 65,000-seat Ford Field features one of the NFL’s smallest capacities. 

“The recipe recently to get success on the business side [in the NFL] is one of three things,” said Lions president and CEO Rod Wood at a recent Detroit business forum held by Crain Communications. “One, move to a better city, like the Rams did or the [Las Vegas] Raiders did. Two, build a new stadium, like Minnesota and Atlanta. Or win football games, and we’re not doing the first two.”

The upcoming draft in April in downtown Detroit, meanwhile, is projected to attract about 300,000 fans, with attendance likely boosted by the city’s proximity to other NFL markets such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Lions officials and local city leaders see the draft, and the tens of millions who will watch it on TV, as a meaningful opportunity to change Detroit’s long-suffering national reputation.

“[The Lions] believed that the community should be on this stage, and they pursued it very aggressively,” Goodell said. “They brought the business community together along with the public sector, and leadership here has been extraordinary.”

Leadership Matters

NFL team ownership, particularly relating to family succession, has often been a messy affair, as the Houston Texans’ current feud illustrates. But the Lions have deftly avoided such entanglements, instead serving as a model for franchise transition even while the on-field losses accumulated.

William Clay Ford Sr. first entered as a Lions minority owner in 1961 and became the controlling owner on Nov. 22, 1963—also the day U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated—holding the team until his death in 2014. His wife, Martha Firestone Ford, then stepped in as the team’s principal owner. Son William Clay Ford Jr. was also heavily involved in team operations for many years, but as he retreated to focus more on the family’s eponymous car business, his sister Sheila Ford Hamp took the reins and now serves as the Lions’ principal owner and chair, with the 98-year-old Martha Ford in an emeritus role. The other two children of Ford Sr. and Martha Ford—Elizabeth Kontulis and Martha Morse—are also Lions vice chairs.

“It’s been a seamless transition from one generation to the next, and has given the franchise a lot of stability, even through the tough times,” Ganis says.

Hamp was principally involved in the 2021 hiring of Holmes and Campbell, the GM-head coach duo who have revitalized the Lions on the field, establishing the plan to improve business by winning more games. She then stood by the pair, even as their first season ended with a 3-13-1 record and the 2022 campaign started 1-5. The often intense Campbell has also become something of an NFL folk hero through his now-viral introductory press conference comments about “biting the kneecaps off” of opponents, a starring role in the Lions’ 2022 appearance on Hard Knocks, and his extreme daily caffeine intake

“I’m so proud of our whole team,” Martha Ford said in a recent impromptu locker room visit with the team after the Lions clinched the NFC North division title. “I mean, it wasn’t for how many years—50? 60 years? And I never have been more proud than this season.”

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