Detroit Lions Ownership: Be Careful What You Wish
By Jeff Risdon
Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
In light of yet another lost season for the Detroit Lions, many fans are directing their roars at ownership. Fan enmity towards Martha Firestone Ford, the principal owner since her husband William Clay Ford Sr. passed away in March of 2014, is at a fever pitch.
Heck, there’s even an intrepid fan trying to raise a billion dollars to buy the team himself.
While it’s difficult to swallow the 50-plus years of losing, changing ownership is not the panacea the long-suffering fans truly crave. In fact, any hypothetical sale stands a fair chance of making this franchise even worse.
Take my hometown of Cleveland, a sports city that knows long-term suffering. The Indians have changed owners six times since 1972. Only one of those moves, when the Jacobs brothers bought the team on the extreme cheap and built a fantastic new stadium to save the franchise from what seemed likely relocation, has done anything to make the franchise even close to winning the first World Series title since 1948.
That Indians purchase and subsequent stadium district venture with the Gund Brothers, who bought the Cavaliers and also needed a new arena to stave off relocation, forced truly beloved (before 1991) Browns owner Art Modell to have to move the most iconic, most successful Cleveland franchise to Baltimore. The Gunds acquired the Cavaliers when the NBA forced legendarily atrocious owner Ted Stepien to sell the team. Stepien was so terrible the NBA actually awarded the franchise extra first-round picks for several years to try and sport a competitive team.
Of course the Browns came back with billionaire Al Lerner as the primary owner. When he passed away in 2002, three years after his resurrected team took the field, his son Randy took over. His tenure is best described as tumultuous; Randy Lerner hired and fired GMs, front office personnel and head coaches at a blistering pace. Browns fans were ecstatic when Jimmy Haslam bought the team, promising to change the losing culture.
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Haslam has fired two GMs, a CEO and two head coaches in just over four years of ownership. He’s faced off-field scrutiny for his truck stop businesses, and the team remains a perennial non-contender.
The same is true in Miami, where Dolphins fans warmly welcomed Stephen Ross as a new owner in 2008. A Detroit native and significant presence in the University of Michigan athletic booster world, Ross has quickly become a reviled laughingstock for his (mis)handling of his Dolphins. Despite being worth close to $5 billion, Ross has adamantly refused to spend (h/t ESPN) any of his own money on a new stadium. He’s demanded public funds. Like Haslam, he’s burned through coaches and management. That does not include a very public, very embarrassing courtship of then 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
New ownership does not equate positive change. Need further proof? Ask Washington fans about Dan Snyder, or Sacramento Kings fans about Vivek Ranadive. Or 49ers fans about Jed York, another mercenary owner who used public funds to build a stadium as close to San Francisco as Detroit is to Toledo. His meddling drove Harbaugh, the best thing the organization has had since Steve Young, to run away as fast as he could. They’re one of the few teams in the same concentric circle of hellish football as the Lions right now.
Now look at what the Fords have done. They moved the team from the Silverdome back to downtown, funding 49% of the costs themselves. Despite being the only NFL team to actually lose money, the Ford family has continued to shell out major, above-market contracts to lock up Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. Money has never been an issue in free agency; that’s bad salary cap management by Team President Tom Lewand and General Manager Martin Mayhew, as well as legacy costs of the old salary structure for rookie contracts. Ford Field remains a great venue to see a game. The concessions are reasonable by NFL standards (I paid $12 for a beer in Houston and Dallas, $10 in Chicago, $9 in Detroit), and the sight lines are outstanding.
Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Team facilities in Allen Park are superior to those I’ve seen in varying degrees for the Texans, Browns, Bears and Bengals. The Fords are not cheapskates. They are trying to build a winner, believe it or not…
The most valid criticism of Mrs. Ford, now 90, and her kin is their loyalty to unsuccessful football people. That’s more than fair. The most notorious example is Matt Millen, but it extends much further back to the likes of Chuck Schmidt and Russ Thomas. Mayhew has regrettably run his uneven course, and it’s long past time to exterminate Lewand from the payroll. If those men remain employed into the next NFL calendar, then the critics have a sharper point.
Yet look at the successful organizations around the NFL, and what do they have in common? Stability. The Patriots have a meddling owner but he’s smart enough to let the best coach of the Super Bowl era, Bill Belichick, do whatever he wants to win. The New York Giants have won two Super Bowls with Jerry Reese at GM and Tom Coughlin at head coach even though both have had some truly bad years surrounding those titles. Cincinnati has risen from the depths to be a consistent playoff participant thanks to Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin and Head Coach Marvin Lewis, both of whom have been in place for more than a decade–a tenure which included some lean years. Green Bay is perhaps the best example, a completely self-made team thanks to longtime GM Ted Thompson and Head Coach Mike McCarthy, both of whom were groomed and promoted from within.
A new owner might be quicker to pull the trigger on underperforming staff, that’s true. But is that really a positive?
Are you prepared for the possibility that the new owner might be a public embarrassment like Ross, Snyder or Colts owner Jim Irsay? Will you be accepting of a hefty hike in ticket prices and other costs of attending a game to boost a sad (by NFL standards) bottom line? How do you feel about having four GMs and seven head coaches in 12 years, with divergent systems and strategies forever stymying progress? All of those are far more probable with a hypothetical new owner than with the Ford family. And then you’ll long for the salad days of Ford ownership.