A look back at biggest sporting events hosted in Detroit over the past two decades

Detroit News
Nolan Bianchi |  Special to The Detroit News

The 2000s were a great time to be a sports fan in the city of Detroit.

The Pistons made a run to six straight Eastern Conference championship games from 2003-08 and won it all in 2004. The Red Wings added Stanley Cups in 2002 and 2008, plus another finals appearance in 2009. The Tigers made a remarkable return to the game’s biggest stage in 2006 when Magglio Ordoñez homered off Huston Street to sweep the Oakland A’s and make their first World Series since 1984.

The Lions, well, we’ll leave them out of this for now.

Aside from the success of the pro teams, there was also a lot happening in the city. National events piled into Detroit, one after another — a trend that wouldn’t continue all that much into the 2010s.

But with Detroit landing the 2024 NFL Draft on Monday, it looks like that’s about to change. So in the meantime, let’s remember the biggest events hosted in Detroit since the turn of the century.

2003 — BasketBowl

In 2003, the NCAA dared to do something crazy. The Breslin Center court was transported from East Lansing to Ford Field, which had opened the previous year. Kentucky and Michigan State met at the center of the football stadium, a 79-74 win for the Wildcats in front of 78,129 people.

While it might not be an event that immediately jumps to the forefront of people’s minds in terms of significant events held in Detroit — after all, it was a regular-season game — it has several claims to fame that make BasketBowl an undeniable influence for years to come.

The attendance set a new world record for highest attendance at a basketball game, and remains the largest crowd ever at a college basketball game. Starting in 2009, the NCAA would expand its minimum capacity requirement for the men’s Division 1 Final Four site to 70,000, and for its efforts, Detroit was awarded the very first of its kind. We’ll get to that a bit later.

2004 — Ryder Cup

In 2004, Oakland Hills Country Club landed Michigan’s most prestigious golf event to date when it welcomed the U.S. and European teams for the Ryder Cup. The stars were aplenty: Tiger Woods, Pádraig Harrington, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Jim Furyk, and so on and so forth.

Unfortunately for the home crowd, the Americans didn’t give them much to cheer about: The Europeans mopped the floor with the U.S. team in a 18 1/2 to 9 1/2 win, which remains tied for the largest margin of victory under the competition’s current format.

2005 — MLB All-Star Game

In lieu of not having a winning product to watch for nearly two decades, Detroit’s baseball scene was the belle of the ball in the 2005 midsummer classic. The baseball world descended on Comerica Park and got the chance to check out a world-class stadium that they presumably had never seen on national television, let alone with a sold-out crowd (we kid, we kid).

The marquee event was the Home Run Derby, where Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez put on a show for the hometown crowd in marching to the event’s final round. Alas, the power of Bobby Abreu was too much to handle, and Pudge finished as the runner-up, but for a few hours, he brought the stadium to its feet and filled it with hometown pride.

2006 — Super Bowl XL

Pittsburgh. Seattle. The Rolling Stones. HD television! What more could you want?

Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl hosted by the city of Detroit, although the state of Michigan already had one under its belt when the Pontiac Silverdome played host to Super Bowl XVI.

A number of suspect calls against the Seahawks paved the way for Steelers running back Jerome Bettis to win a ring in his hometown to close a 13-year NFL career, leading many to dub Super Bowl XL one of the most controversially officiated games in Super Bowl history.

2007 — WrestleMania 23

Ford Field had quite a run of memorable events after opening its doors, and WrestleMania 23 was no different. The event featured a crowd of 80,103 people, which to this day stands as Ford Field’s attendance record.

In show that featured two main events, John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker vs. Batista, the “Battle of the Billionaires” match is a moment that’s stood the test of time. It ended with future United States president Donald Trump and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin teaming up to shave WWE chairman Vince McMahon’s head in the ring.

2008 — PGA Championship

Oakland Hills’ South Course hosted its ninth major championship in 2008 when Harrington marched to his second consecutive major by defeating runner-ups Ben Curtis and Sergio Garcia by a total of two strokes.

While it was surely disappointing for the fans that Woods couldn’t defend his back-to-back titles in the event, Harrington made sure to give them a show: After shooting 71-74 through the first two days, Harrington staged a masterful comeback by shooting 66 on days three and four to win the whole dang thing.

2009 — Final Four

As previously mentioned, the 2009 Final Four at Ford Field was the first under the NCAA’s new requirements of 70,000 minimum capacity at the Division 1 basketball championship. Michigan State advanced to the title game after beating Connecticut, and North Carolina defeated Villanova in its national semifinal matchup.

Oddly enough, the Michigan State-North Carolina showdown in the championship game was actually a rematch of BasketBowl II, which took place at Ford Field just a few months earlier as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

One can imagine that the Spartans are thankful they haven’t had to play in Ford Field since. Michigan State lost both matches to the Tyler Hansbrough-led Tar Heels by a combined 52 points after falling in the title game, 89-72.

2010 — Frozen Four

Some venues have all the luck.

A marquee NCAA event returned to Detroit the year following a successful Final Four, as a hockey rink was thrown onto the Ford Field turf to end a 20-year hiatus of Detroit hosting the Frozen Four. To this day, it’s the only Frozen Four to be hosted at a football stadium, resulting in the largest crowd (37,592) in a Frozen Four to date.

Michigan lost its chance to play close to home after losing in the tournament quarterfinals, and the three-game event featured nothing but blowouts. The winning teams outscored their opponents by a combined 20-2. A highly anticipated championship game between Boston College and Wisconsin — a rematch of the 2006 final — looked to be primed for a classic, and it was anything but. Boston College won the game, 5-0.

2014 — Winter Classic

While the event itself took place at Michigan Stadium, over 40 miles from the city of Detroit, we’re going to include it here for a couple reasons. Back in 2014, the NHL had yet to fully jump the shark on its outdoor stadium series, and Hockeytown had yet to play host. The game also came with a number of spin-off events that actually took place in Detroit at Comerica Park during the lead-up, including the 2013 Great Lakes Invitational, a pair of OHL games, an AHL game, and the Red Wings-Toronto Maple Leafs Alumni Showdown.

As for the event itself, the Red Wings and Maple Leafs delivered The Leafs won, 3-2, in a shootout and set an NHL attendance record in the process with 105,491 fans, although that number is disputed because the snow and bitter cold temperatures prevented many fans from arriving until the second period, at which point the venue had stopped scanning tickets.

Other NCAA events

… Little Caesars Arena earned the chance to host first- and second-round games in 2018, and was announced as host at regionals in 2024. The Palace of Auburn Hills, which closed in 2017, hosted first- and second-round games in 1997, 2006 and 2013, and regionals in 2000. Ford Field also played host to an NCAA men’s basketball regional in 2008.

… LCA was also the site of the 2020 Frozen Four — which was cancelled due to Covid. The NCAA did not reschedule Detroit’s hosting opportunity and has already announced host cities through 2026. It was, however, able to host the Division 1 wrestling championships this year from March 17-19.

… The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl took place at both the Pontiac Silverdome and Ford Field from 1997-2013. It has since been succeeded by the Quick Lane Bowl, sponsored by Ford Motor Company, ever year since 2014 except 2020.

… UFC pay-per-views visited the metro Detroit area on three occasions: UFC 9 in 1997 (Cobo Arena), UFC 123 in 2010 (The Palace of Auburn Hills) and UFC 218 in 2017 (Little Caesars Arena).

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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