Another Detroit Lions season is upon us and the mood of the fans is the darkest I can ever remember. There is just no way to sugarcoat what happened last year as the Lions finished a dismal 0-16 and became the laughingstocks of the professional — and amateur — sports worlds.
If the Lions were a recent expansion team, the talk would be about the franchise packing up and calling it quits. Fortunately, the Lions remain one of the most storied NFL franchises despite themselves. From the 1930s, Detroit has had a love affair with the team that was known for its gritty and hard-hitting play. There remains an underlying hope amongst the fans that someday, somehow, the Lions will be restored to their past glory.
Talk to any Lions fan over the age of 60 and they will share magical memories of the days when the team played their home games at Briggs Stadium at the corner of Michigan & Trumbull. Their eyes will light up as they tell stories about Bobby Layne, Tobin Rote, Yale Lary and Doak Walker. It’s the magic of those memories — passed from one generation to the next — that keeps the dream of a Lions’ revival alive. The possibility of the Lions being great seems real because they once were great.
The Detroit Lions of the 1950s and 60s is the product we all long to buy. Those were the glory days of the team when they shared a stadium with the Detroit Tigers. It was outdoor, muddy, cold and snowy, gridiron football — and the fans loved it. It’s been 35 years since the Lions played an outdoor home game.
1974 was the last year they played at Tiger Stadium before heading north to the Pontiac Silverdome. Since then, Lions games have been played in highly controlled environments complete with heating and air conditioning. The hometown, non-commercial nature of the game day events is long gone. From a historical perspective, Lions’ home games are just a shell of what they used to be. Yet somehow, the memories endour.
Now the Lions are back in Detroit in one of the best indoor stadiums in sports. But the product on the field is nothing short of an embarrassment. No first-pick draftee, no new head coach, no state of the art stadium, can turn this thing around in time to stave off the mass exodus of fans that is already underway.
A change in ownership would be a tremendous psychological boost to the Lions faithful. But the Ford family shows no signs of interest in parting ways with the team. Their ownership has degenerated to what life is like in a place like Cuba — where the population’s hopes and dreams depend on the life — and death — of a dictator.
I, for one, think the situation with the Lions is more serious than the team’s ownership realizes. Those 60-year old fans aren’t going to be around forever — and the past few generations of Detroit sports fans have never really developed a passion for the team. Assuming no new great memories are generated within the next few years, the Lions face a grave threat of losing the very fans who have kept the dream alive — on nothing more than false hopes and empty promises — for the past three decades.
Then what happens?