Inept Detroit Lions invest millions in Ford Field upgrade — how?

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) passes against the Seattle Seahawks in the first quarter of the NFC Wild Card Playoff on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, at Centurylink Field in Seattle. (Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) passes against the Seattle Seahawks in the first quarter of the NFC Wild Card Playoff on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, at Centurylink Field in Seattle. (Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

I laugh hard at anyone who makes the statement that owning a sports franchise is just like any other business.

It is usually uttered by some knee-jerk fanboy of hyper-capitalism who wants to defend team owners from some accusation of wrongdoing, or when the owners cry poverty over enormous player salaries (which is very easy to do when those salaries are public knowledge and the owners’ profits are not).

I was reminded of that obnoxiously simple-minded argument when I was reading two news items about the Detroit Lions today. The Lions unveiled their renovation of Ford Field, which set them back a paltry $100 million.

The bulk of the renovations had to do with spectator amenities, like a new bar and food options, which all sound wonderful.

But buried in that announcement was another one, that the Lions have taken down banners they previously hung in the stadium rafters commemorating their playoff appearances. The banners have been a source of amusement to fans of other teams, who usually just hang banners for championships.

The Red Wings, for example, had banners for 11 Stanley Cups, as well as 18 NHL championships (known in later years as President’s Trophies, when the team finished the regular season with the most points) and more than a few division titles hanging at Joe Louis Arena.

But not every time they simply made the playoffs.

The Lions had a proud tradition of winning — until they didn’t. Since the franchise moved to Detroit in 1934, they won 4 NFL championships in the next 24 years, including 3 in the 1950’s when they ruled the league.

After their last title in 1957, they have ruled nothing. In the 60 years since, the Lions have made the playoffs 12 times, and won just one playoff game, not getting anywhere near the Super Bowl since the NFL championship was named that in 1967.

But here they are, sinking $100 million into a stadium that cost $430 million to build just 15 years ago. And let’s not forget that they had help with public (read: taxpayer) money when the place was built.

I ask you: How many other businesses so inept would be so flush with cash?

The short answer is: This is not any other business.

The National Football League, and other American pro sports leagues, have managed to sidestep the rules and laws that other businesses must deal with on a daily basis. Sports teams do not have to endure the same sorts of market forces and competition that other businesses do.

If you want to go into the fast-food business, for example, all you have to do is open a burger or sandwich joint, and see what happens. If you want to, you can open it right next to a McDonalds and as long as you don’t steal their trademarks or prevent them from doing business, they have nothing to say about it. Some such places survive and thrive and others don’t, but the likelihood of success is within the realm of possibility.

But what if you want to go into the football business? Just ask Donald Trump how that worked out for him. Or Vince McMahon. Or anyone else foolish enough to try to compete with the NFL.

If you want to watch pro football live in Detroit, it’s the Lions or nothing. And there is no hope whatsoever of that changing, no matter how terrible the team’s record may be.

That’s a racket that even Tony Soprano would love.

Not that there is anything illegal or even immoral about that. A great deal of the strength of that monopoly derives from the NFL building fan loyalty, not just for its teams winning games but loyalty to the league itself for things like fantasy football, which has caused lots of people to pay cable and satellite fees — which then line the pockets of NFL owners — to watch NFL games without the slightest interest in who wins it.

No, the fact that the Detroit Lions make the kind of money that do, that allows them to spend over half a billion dollars on facilities in less that two decades, shows that this is not just another business.

One can almost say that owning an NFL team isn’t really a business — as we understand the term — at all. It’s really little other than a license to print money.

Go team.

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Posted by Scott Yoshonis

Scott is the sports editor of the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach him at (231) 398-3112 or syoshonis@pioneergroup.com.

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