With the NFL lockout still in full-force, we continue our look at some alternatives of the past that could have been a useful distraction while the NFL owners and players settle their dispute. We began with the Michigan Panthers of the USFL and continue with the Arena League’s Detroit Drive.
The Arena Football League began as a four team league and played their inaugural season in 1987. Arena football came to Detroit one year later when the Mike Ilitch owned Detroit Drive began play as an expansion team. 16,752 fans attended the Drive’s first-ever game at Joe Louis Arena. They lost a 57-51 game to the Pittsburgh Gladiators but the fans in attendance obviously enjoyed the show as the Drive went on to average over 14,400 fans per game during their existence.
The Drive got off to a 2-3 start to their inaugural season but closed the season with a nine game winning streak that included a 24-13 victory over the Chicago Bruisers in the 1988 ArenaBowl. The first season could certainly have been labeled “special”, although the Drive would make sure that that kind of success became normal.
The Detroit Drive became an ArenaBowl fixture by playing in six straight championship games, including three straight victories to caps their first three years of existence. Their bid for four consecutive titles came up short as over 20,000 fans saw the Tampa Bay Storm knock off the Drive at Joe Louis Arena. The Drive returned to the ArenaBowl in 1992 to reclaim their crown by defeating the Orlando Predators but could not defend it a year later when they once again lost to the Storm in front of their home fans in the 1993 ArenaBowl. That would be the last game the Detroit Drive ever played. After buying the Detroit Tigers, Mike Ilitch sold the Detroit Drive to take away an attendance competitor for his newly purchased baseball team. The Drive moved to Massachusetts and were renamed the Marauders but folded after just one season.
It is hard to argue against the Detroit Drive as the AFL’s best franchise in the league’s early years. The team was of championship quality, drew impressive crowds compared to the rest of the league and was an all-around healthy business. The Drive enjoyed success on the field while the AFL was a small six-team league and that continued even as the size of the league grew. One is left wondering what could have been had the franchises stability could have been maintained.
The Arena Football League fell on rough times a few years back to the point where the entire 2009 season was suspended. Play has since resumed, NFL Network currently airs a game of the week, but it is largely invisible in cities where they do not have teams. Perhaps other cities have turned their focus from the NFL lockout to the ongoing AFL season but we don’t have that option in Detroit.
Feel free to comment with your own Detroit Drive memory or give your opinion on how much attention would have been diverted to arena football if a team existed in Detroit.
Enjoy some highlights from the 1991 Arena Football League season: