It’s a tough life, being a Lions fan.
But after decades of footballing futility – and too many years as “Mr. Irrelevant” – Lions are stepping into the limelight, ready or not. And for good measure, they bring the city with them.
The league made it official this Monday at its owners’ annual meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, with a two-part announcement regarding one of its oldest franchises.
First, the anticipated news that the Lions will be the focus of this year’s five-episode series of “Hard Knocks,” HBO’s popular full-access show that chronicles an NFL team during training camp. and the pre-season every summer. Then came the big reveal: The Lions were also chosen to host the 2024 NFL Draft, beating “competitive” bids from Green Bay and Washington for one of the league’s showpiece events.
So, in the span of about four hours, the Lions — and Detroit — suddenly became the talk of the league, and for good reason.
“We are very excited to show the city for a million reasons,” Lions owner Sheila Hamp said at a press conference after the NFL owners voted on the draft site. of 24. “It’s a city that is sometimes overlooked or decried for certain reasons. But we all know better, those of us who are there — all the wonderful things that happen there. So we are very happy to show the world what we are.
It’s an opportunity, no doubt. A chance to change perceptions of both a city trying to stage a comeback and a franchise trying to rebrand itself, in more ways than one.
Hamp is nearing the end of his second full year as primary owner of the Lions, while general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell enter the second year of their on-field rebuild. But for a team that just finished a 3-13-1 season — and the torture that came with seeing Matthew Stafford win a Super Bowl just 12 months after the Lions traded him to the Los Angeles Rams — any goal who can divert attention from the past and point it to the future should be welcome here.
“It’s a great day for us,” Hamp said Monday, justifiably beaming as she met the media accompanied by team president Rod Wood and NFL executive vice president Peter O’Reilly. for club activities and league events.
For years, everyone joked that the NFL Draft was the Lions’ Super Bowl. And you can expect to hear that punchline over and over again over the next two years, unless the team decides in the meantime to go out and double its 64-year playoff win total.
But here’s the reality: The NFL Draft East a huge, revenue-generating event that has grown exponentially since the league decided to remove it from New York’s Radio City Music Hall and turn it into a traveling circus, from Chicago to Philadelphia to Dallas and Nashville , where some 600,000 fans attended the three-day event in 2019.
Last year’s stop in Cleveland drew considerably smaller crowds thanks to cold, rainy weather, in addition to the pandemic. But after stops in Las Vegas and Kansas City this year and next, the plan for Detroit — provided Mother Nature cooperates — is to hold the draft outside in front of massive crowds, with the draft on stage at Campus. Martius and other organized events and concerts. throughout downtown, using Hart Plaza, the Fox Theater, Ford Field and possibly Little Caesars Arena. A fireworks display is also planned on the Detroit River.
“The draft is kind of the intersection between college football and pro football, so I think there will be a lot of people traveling because it’s going to be easy to get to Detroit,” Wood said. “Hopefully it will rival what you’ve seen in other cities – hundreds of thousands of people. But too early to put a number on that.
Meanwhile, the Lions’ number finally came for “Hard Knocks”, an intrusion the Lions were lucky to avoid for the better part of two decades. Teams with first-year head coaches or who have made the playoffs in either of the previous two seasons are exempt from participating in the show, whichever will bring a 30-person NFL Films crew and have access at trainings, meetings, etc. later this summer at Allen Park.
But it’s also a way for the Lions to show everyone what they are, from a young and energetic coaching staff to some of the unique personalities on the roster. (Memo to HBO: running back Jamaal Williams will need his own dedicated camera crew.)
“In all honesty, I’d rather not be eligible for it,” Wood admitted. “But since we are, we’ll embrace it. I think this will be a good way to build momentum for the season and hopefully give our fans a behind-the-scenes insight that is otherwise very difficult to provide. I know (from) other teams that have been through it, there’s always a reluctance, but it seems like they come out of it enjoying the process and feeling better.”
Wood went on to call it a “marketing opportunity” and “something we can take advantage of”, before adding, “Hopefully the buzz today inspires people to lend us a little more ‘Warning.”
Be careful what you wish for, of course. Sometimes the “Hard Knocks” cameras aren’t so kind, as Lions quarterback Jared Goff discovered during his rookie season with the Rams. (He still grieves over a “Hard Knocks” music video that showed he didn’t know which way the sun rises in the morning.)
Campbell is still a caricature for league fans, based on that biting introductory press conference at the kneecap the day he was hired in Detroit. But her outspoken nature and gregarious personality should play well on TV. The same goes for some of his assistants like Aaron Glenn, Duce Staley and Aubrey Pleasant.
Hardcore Lions fans already have a good idea. But it will take it to another level, on a different scale for the masses, just as hosting the draft might do for the city of Detroit and its downtown rebirth.
We all know Detroit’s professional sports teams have taken more than their fair share of physical beatings in recent years. But fast forward to spring 2024 for a minute. Little Caesars Arena will host the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional in late March. The Lions will host the NFL Draft a month later. In the meantime, there will be another Opening Day celebration for the Tigers and maybe even playoff games for the Pistons and Red Wings.
Add the Detroit Grand Prix, which returns from Belle Isle to a new downtown street circuit next June, the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club and the 2024 US Junior Amateur Golf Tournament at Oakland Hills Country Club, and suddenly Detroit is starting to feel like a sports destination again.
And it is not a hazard. The nonprofit Detroit Sports Commission, which has been around for more than two decades, decided nearly five years ago to form a local organizing committee to lead efforts to stage major sporting events. It’s a high-stakes bidding game that has grown fiercer as other states and cities set up public trust funds to help lure Final Fours and Super Bowls and the like.
But with downtown Detroit bustling, tourism growing, and more hotel space opening up, there’s momentum here. And while the NFL Draft is a huge splash, there are other fish in the pond. Detroit is late to hosting the NHL and NBA All-Star Games, with a new arena now nearly five years old. The host cities for the men’s and women’s Final Four from 2027 to 2031 will be announced later this fall. The USGA announced last week that it will host eight championships at Oakland Hills, including the 2031 US Women’s Open and the 2034 US Open.
So there’s a chance here that we’ll see a run like the one we had 15 to 20 years ago when the Detroit area hosted the Super Bowl, an MLB All-Star Game, a Final Four and Frozen Four NCAA Men’s Championships, Ryder Cup and PGA Championship games, plus a pair of NBA and Stanley Cup Finals and the World Series.
A chance also to see the Lions in a different light at the start of the season. That was, more than anything, the message delivered on Monday: don’t hit it until you’ve tried it.