Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

25 Jan 2006

In Praise of Detroit

Michael Rosenberg makes some points in favor of the host of this year's Super Bowl. But the one I want to address is this:

"The most popular team in Detroit, by a show of hands, is the Lions. Yes, the Lions. They have the worst record in the NFL over the last five years, but interest has not dropped one percent. Detroiters hate the owner (William Clay Ford, who has picked up one playoff win since the end of the Eisenhower administration) and the team president (Matt Millen) and they swear they will stop watching, but they never do. If the Lions ever get good — we're talking serious, 14-2 good — they will generate enough heat to melt all the snow, and then we won't need to set police cars on fire at all."

That is undeniably true. When I hear people talk about how popular the Red Wings and Pistons are in Detroit, I think those people are missing the point. Every successful sports team is popular. But the Lions have accomplished the rare feat of being both popular and terrible.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 25 Jan 2006

23 comments, Last at 26 Jan 2006, 12:11pm by Tom Kelso


by Russell Levine :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 12:04pm

It's impressive that the Lions continue to draw despite being terrible, but how much of that is related to people who put down multi year commitments to get season tickets at the new stadium?

IMO, Detroit is a Red Wings town first. I recall being there in the middle of summer a few years ago and about every fourth car had a Red Wings window flag flying -- in August.

by Harry (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 12:07pm

But the Red Wings really are popular. For my money Detroit is the greatest hockey city south of Canada, followed by Philly. Yes the Red Wings win but so do the Jersey Devils, Carolina and Tampa. I have never seen a city with so many cars flying hockey flags as in the Detroit area during the NHL playoffs. And the atmosphere in the arena is almost as good as Montreal or Toronto. It's not just bandwagon jumping.

by ToxikFetus (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 12:09pm

Re: 1

Your sentiments ring true about Buffalo as well. Attending school in western New York, my local friends were much more jazzed up about the Sabres than the Bills. Maybe its a Great Lakes/Midwest thing or just hockey fanatacism osmosis from America Jr.

by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 12:22pm

Detroit is definitely a Red Wings town now. Unfortunately, I didn't know enough about the area before we left, so I can't say from first-hand experience what it was like when all the teams sucked.

Yes, hockey fanaticism definitely bleeds over from Canada, at least for my generation and those prior. I remember getting a Windsor station and watching a rare non-Wings hockey game back in the day. Then we moved to Bloomington and couldn't even get NHL standings in the newspaper ...

I guess I need a copy of my sports reference books at work too. I can see online that Pistons attendance was terrible until '85 or so when the team started to win. Attendance for Lions games didn't waver nearly that much. Red Wings attendance was pretty solid as early as the late '80s; of course, by then Yzerman had arrived and the team had started to turn things around.

Yes, the amount of support for the Lions, despite Mr. Ford's best efforts to quash it, is amazing given their history. See, it really isn't my fault. It was out of my hands. :)

Oh, and if the Lions ever do go 14-2, I think my head will explode.

by Soulless Merchant of Fear (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 12:26pm

I spent my teens in Michigan, and I don't remember many Lions fans. U-M Wolverines fans by the boatload, but not Lions. The local teams were popular in direct proportion to their success, it seemed.

Remember the stories of people leaving Lions tickets under their windshield wipers and parking in a lot, then coming back and finding more Lions tickets on their car when they got back?

The only Lions fan I can think of for certain is George Plimpton. (Which is no small thing. Viva El Plimpton!)

by MCS (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 12:31pm

In the late 80's, Ilitch was giving away cars between periods in order to put bodies in the seats for Wings games.

In the mid-90's, the Wings had become a playoff force and yes, every other car had a Wings flag on it. Not so much this season.

3 years ago, I moved from the Macomb County to Oakland County and the Wings are much more popular on the east side. Here in Oakland county, the team is the Pistons. Of course, the dominant team in every conversation (even on sports radio) is the Lions. People around here just love to gripe about them.

by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 12:51pm

I wonder if Detroit would have problems if the Lions stopped sucking. I mean, don't they have tons of cliches and jokes that suddenly wouldn't work anymore?

by CA (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 1:11pm

Re: 2

I can't speak much to Detroit since the only part of that area I've ever been to is the airport, but having experienced both, I can assure you that Philadelphia has nothing on St. Paul as an NHL town. And if you count interest in amateur hockey at all levels and look at the Twin Cities area in general, it's not even close.

by C (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 1:31pm

Philly has nothing on St. Paul as a hockey town? You realize that the "Dallas Stars" used to be the "North Stars" and left the Twin Cities because of a lack of fan/community support? And that it lacked a professional team for years before the Wild returned? Philadelphia has been selling out Flyers games for over two decades and its the hardest ticket in town.

by buddha (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 1:50pm

I was born and raised in Detroit. I remember the days of the "Dead Wings" and Illitch having to give away cars to get people to show up. That's never happened to the Lions.

Detroit, like most cities, is a football town. The NFL is wildly popular right now.

But in it's heart, it's a baseball town.

1. Lions
2. Tigers
3. Pistons
4. Red Wings

I know that sounds weird to people who have only known Detroit as "hockeytown" and have only known the Tigers to suck (12 straight losing seasons). But hockey is still a niche sport outside of Canada, even in Detroit. It has its fans, but it can't match the big three. Not even in Detroit.

If anything, you might say the Pistons and Red Wings are tied for 3rd, but the Wings are definitely not as popular as the Tigers or Lions.

I guess you have to actually be from Detroit to understand.

by VarlosZ (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 1:53pm

Off topic, but am I the only one who can't wait for Bill Simmons to get to Detroit and start bashing the city? Isn't that now officially part of the Super Bowl hype routine?

by jebmak (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 1:59pm

My father was a HUGE Lions fan for 34 years, ever since he was a teenager. Then, a few years back, he did a complete 180 (or 360 as Karl Malone would say).
He was fed up with the constant stupidity that was, and is, the Lions' organization and ownership. He was like Saul on the road to Damascus. Now, he has the NFL package on Direct TV and watches every Lions game to root against them. He says that he can finally relax and celebrate every year when the Lions are officially eliminated from the playoffs.
Maybe you think he is wrong to do so, but 34 years of following a team that is stupid from the top down is a long long time.
So, I would say that the Lions are still popular with him (a survey would note that he watches 16 out of 16 games), just not in the traitional way. Perhaps there are many others out there like him to drive up the numbers.
Oh, and his football life has been much happier ever since.

by NF (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 3:00pm


Simmons has said the plan from the start has been he's staying home for this Super Bowl.

Probably the combination of a daughter and all the book tours he's been doing.

by Paulo Sanchotene, Brazil (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 3:33pm

#12 I'm 110% sure, maybe more, that your father just need a playoff season - not to just wear light blue and white again - but, maybe, cry over the TV. I saw a lot of it when suddenly our crosscity soccer-team rivals decided to win again in the early 2k's...

by DMP (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 3:33pm

I'm in 100% agreement with Rosenberg on this one. The thing is that people visiting for a few days for a first time don't get to see many of those things. What they readily see on a drive down Woodward are a lot of grey abandoned buildings, lots, broken down/burned down houses (note: I last made that drive when back in town in August, so I would be really impressed if the view changed since then). The poeple I know who live in Detroit proper absolutely love it, mention all the hidden gems he talks about (and gems they are), and absolutely wear it as a badge of honor that they live in the city. I just think the average SB visitor is looking for shallow glitz and pretty views (palm trees preferrable) and won't have time or disposition to look for soul (and if I were going to a SB, that's what I'd be looking for too). Therefore Detroit - like Houston, Jacksonville, or any other non-Miami, Orlando, San Diego, San Fran, LA, Vegas - is not a good SB city.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 3:49pm

#9, what the Twin Cities has, in regards to supporting sports teams, and the main reason the North Stars left, is a sensible opposition to taxpayer subsidized facilities. The politicians in St. Paul later were able to squeeze through the state legislature subsidies for a new arena, which brought back the NHL, but there is practically zero chance that any direct referendum submitted to the voters would approve of subsidized facilities for a professional franchise, in contrast to such referendums passing in many other cities/counties/states.

Whether this has any relationship to Minnesota's traditionally high voter turnout, I have no idea. Of course, this may eventually lead to the Twins and Vikings leaving, which I would hate to see. I have to admit, however, that seeing a guy worth 25 billion, like Paul Allen, celebrating in a stadium which was built for the benefit of his for-profit entertainment business at taxpayer expense, gives me the inclination to simply believe that if teams want to leave, absent a 500 million dollar subsidy, then they should leave. If that makes me a lousy or indifferent fan, so be it.

Interest in hockey at all levels, however, is incredibly high in Minnesota, and St. Paul in particular.

by Paulo Sanchotene, Brazil (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 5:05pm

BTW, I forgot to say that my soccer-team fans, when we've started to lose, we've cried a sort of "FI-re Mil-LAN" against our president too...

by jebmak (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 5:44pm

Re# 14

You wouldn't say that if you knew my father. He would see switching back just because they started winning, as a betrayal of his ideals.
The only way he could possibly become a fan again is if Ford sold the team (and I'm not sure about that).
If they started winning, he would absolutely hate it, possibly more than he hated them losing before he became an anti-fan.

by Paulo Sanchotene, Brazil (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 6:25pm

#18. A purist! That's rare... There is a very funny text written by a local writer, Luís Fernando Veríssimo, about two friends, supporters of the same team. One of them remembers your father, the other is a die-hard-no-matter-what-happened-I-will-love-this-team-forever kind of fan. I could translate and send it to you if you like the idea. My e-mailbox is sancho_brasil@hotmail.com.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 6:54pm

jebmak, I hear you on the owner thing. I didn't stop being a fan of the Pats and Red Sox, but had resigned myself to no championships until ownership changed. And I can't tell you how glad I was that the previous owners of the Pats and Sox had to watch the new owners win championships not long after taking over.

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 2:03am

Re: 9

Yes, a team leaving is always a sign that the community doesn't support it. For example, it was really hard to find any Colts fans in the Baltimore area before 1983, and you could've looked around Cleveland for months without finding a single Browns fan in the early 90's. Yep, a team leaving is always, always a sign that the area just doesn't support that sport, and never has anything to do with another city making insane bribes to steal the team. Nope, it's always because of lack of fan support.

by C (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 11:12am

The Browns and Colts both left due to not getting new stadium deals so, yes, that's a lack of community support.

by Tom Kelso (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 12:11pm

Irsay pulled his midnight run after leaving a meeting with the mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland to nail down the financing for a new stadium. With the two most powerful Democratic politicians in a Democratic state backing him, there would have no problem getting the stadium he wanted.

He was just double-dealing with Indy, because he was a toad. That's what scum does.