It’s a hard-knock life, being a Lions fan.
But after decades of football futility — and too many years as the NFL’s de facto “Mr. Irrelevant” — the Lions are stepping into the limelight, ready or not. And for good measure, they’re bringing the city with them.
The league made that official Monday at its annual owners’ meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., with a double-barrel announcement regarding one of its oldest franchises.
First came the anticipated news that the Lions will be the focus of this year’s five-episode series of “Hard Knocks,” HBO’s popular all-access show that chronicles an NFL team through training camp and the preseason each summer. Then came the big reveal: The Lions also were chosen to host the 2024 NFL Draft, beating out “competitive” bids from Green Bay and Washington for one of the league’s marquee events.
So, in a span of about four hours, the Lions — and Detroit — suddenly became the talk of the league, and for good reasons at that.
“We’re very excited about showing off the city for millions of reasons,” Lions owner Sheila Hamp said at a press conference following the NFL owners’ vote on the ’24 draft site. “It’s been a city that is sometimes overlooked or disparaged for certain reasons. But we all know better, those of us that are there — all the wonderful things that are happening there. So we’re very excited to show the world what we’re all about.”
It is an opportunity, no doubt. A chance to change perceptions both about 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 her second full year as the Lions’ principal owner, while general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell enter Year 2 of their on-field rebuild. But for a team coming off a 3-13-1 season — and the torture that came from watching Matthew Stafford win a Super Bowl just 12 months after the Lions traded him to the Los Angeles Rams — any lens that can take the focus off the past and point it to the future should be welcomed here.
“This is a great day for us,” Hamp said Monday, understandably beaming as she met with the media flanked by team president Rod Wood and Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business and league events.
For years, everyone has joked about how the NFL Draft was the Lions’ Super Bowl. And you can expect to hear that punchline again — and again — over the next couple of years, unless the team decides in the interim to go out and double its playoff win total from the last 64 years.
But here’s the reality: the NFL Draft is a huge event, a moneymaker that has grown exponentially since the league decided to take it out of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall and turn it into a traveling circus, from Chicago to Philadelphia to Dallas and to 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 and 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 outdoors in front of massive crowds, with the draft stage set in Campus Martius and other events and concerts held throughout downtown, utilizing Hart Plaza, the Fox Theatre, Ford Field and possibly Little Caesars Arena. A fireworks show is planned over the Detroit River as well.
“The draft is kind of the intersection between college football and pro football, so I think there’ll be a lot of people traveling, because it’s going to be easy to get to Detroit,” Wood said. “I’m hoping it’s going to rival what you’ve seen in some other cities — hundreds of thousands of people. But too early to put a number on it.”
Meanwhile, the Lions’ number finally came up for “Hard Knocks,” an intrusion the Lions have felt fortunate to avoid for the better part of two decades. Teams with first-year head coaches or that have made the playoffs in either of the previous two seasons are exempt from taking part in the show, one that’ll bring a 30-person NFL Films crew and gain access to practices, meetings and so on later this summer in Allen Park.
But it’s also a way for the Lions to show everyone what they’re all about, from a young, energetic coaching staff to some of the unique personalities on the roster. (Memo to HBO: Running back Jamaal Williams will need a dedicated camera crew of his own.)
“In all fairness, I’d rather not be eligible for it,” Wood admitted. “But since we are, we’re gonna embrace it. I think it’ll be a good way to build some momentum going into the season and hopefully get our fans a behind-the-scenes look that is otherwise very difficult to provide them. I know (from) other teams that have gone through it, there’s always a reluctance, but it seems like they’ve come out of it enjoying the process and feeling better for it.”
Wood went on to call it a “marketing opportunity” and “a thing that we can take advantage of,” before adding, “Hopefully some of the buzz from today will get people paying attention to us a little bit more.”
Be careful what you wish for, of course. Sometimes the “Hard Knocks” cameras aren’t so kind, as Lions quarterback Jared Goff discovered in his rookie season with the Rams. (He still gets grief about a “Hard Knocks” clip that showed he didn’t know from which direction the sun rises in the morning.)
Campbell is mostly still a caricature to fans around the league, based on that kneecap-biting introductory press conference from the day he was hired in Detroit. But his frank nature and gregarious personality should play well on TV. Same goes for some of his assistants like Aaron Glenn, Duce Staley and Aubrey Pleasant.
Hardcore Lions fans already have a good sense of that. But this will take it to another level, on a different scale for the masses, much like hosting the draft could for the city of Detroit and its downtown renaissance.
We all know Detroit’s professional sports teams have taken more than their share of body blows in recent years. But fast-forward to spring 2024 for a minute. Little Ceasars Arena will host the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s Midwest Regional in late March. The Lions will host the NFL Draft a month later. In between, there’ll be another Opening Day celebration for the Tigers and maybe even some Pistons and Red Wings playoff games as well.
Throw in the Detroit Grand Prix, which will move from Belle Isle back to a new street circuit downtown next June, the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club and the 2024 U.S. Junior Amateur golf tournament at Oakland Hills Country Club, and suddenly Detroit begins to feel like a sports destination again.
And that’s no accident. 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 spearhead the efforts to land major sporting events. It’s a high-stakes bidding game that has grown more cutthroat as other states and cities have set up public trust funds to help attract Final Fours and Super Bowls and so on.
But with downtown Detroit bustling, tourism growing and more hotel space opening, there’s momentum here. And while the NFL draft is a huge splash, there are other fish in the pond. Detroit is overdue to host the NHL and NBA All-Star games, with a new arena that’s now almost five years old. Host cities for the men’s and women’s Final Four from 2027-31 will be announced later this fall. The USGA announced last week it’ll hold eight championship events at Oakland Hills, including the 2031 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2034 U.S. Open.
So there’s a chance here we’ll see a run like we had 15-20 years ago, when the Detroit area hosted the Super Bowl, an MLB All-Star game, an NCAA men’s Final Four and Frozen Four, Ryder Cup matches and the PGA Championship, along with a pair of NBA and Stanley Cup finals and the World Series.
A chance, too, to see the Lions in a different light beginning this season. That, as much as anything, was the message delivered Monday: Don’t knock it until you try it.