Love, Lament and the Lions
I'm looking at the newly released Forbes ranking of NFL team valuations early this afternoon — where my Detroit Lions rank a dismal 27th, in addition to being at the bottom in revenue and near the bottom of almost every other financial measure on the list — and suddenly I'm thinking about my 9-year-old son.
I get up and walk out of my office, where the NFL Network is blaring. Nearby, in our family room, my boy is glued to NCAA Football 11 on the PlayStation 3. But he's also got the volume of the video game on mute so he can hear a disembodied voice call play-by-play on a replay of an actual pro game on the same television. Meanwhile, in about an hour, he'll be suiting up so I can drive him to practice with his Pop Warner team.
Football is everywhere in our home, from the giant maize-and-blue Fathead helmet The Wife has plastered on one wall to my younger daughter's cheerleader uniform.
"Yo, man," I say to him, wandering into the family room to see if I can distract him from the TV.
No such luck. "Huh," he says, without so much as a flinch away from the game. "What's up?"
"When's the last time we checked out a Detroit Lions game?"
Now, the game pauses. He swivels his head quickly and flashes a mischievous grin full of braces. "Back when they played the Broncos," he says without hesitation. "It was a preseason game. The Lions got crushed. I was 5."
A preseason game. Four years ago. (And actually the Lions didn't lose, but did plenty enough in my son's eyes in the years and and games that followed.) For a second, the sports dad in me feels a surge of guilt. And then I remember...we're talking about the Lions.
I remember how fans were in the full grip of the Matt Millen era back then, watching in curiosity and then horror as he steadily turned the Lions from also-rans to all-out laughingstocks. I remember the anger I felt at the sheer stupidity of the Lions ownership for allowing Millen to hang on year after year, despite the flops and draft busts and embarrassing episodes (like his shouting match with Johnny Morton). I remember feeling pissed at myself for being stupid enough to harbor such a passionate rooting interest in, as George Carlin used to call it, "logos and color schemes."
And that was before the Lions went 0-16 in 2008.
By that disastrous year, I had long since made a promise that I wasn't going to waste my time or money on the team. It wasn't just the losing. Hell, I've been a Lions fan since I was 8, so I'm pretty used to losing. But this was something else, something far more wretched than anything I'd ever seen in Detroit sports. The ownership was utterly imperious and didn't appear to care about even the semblance of offering paying customers a decent product.
So since you can't "fire" a team's owner, I did the next best thing: I stopped spending my money with the Lions. Stopped going to games. Stopped buying gear. Can't say I stopped caring about the team altogether, but I wasn't exactly crying when they were blacking out home games for lack of ticket sales during the Daunte Culpepper "era."
Meanwhile, over the years, my boy and I have attended a host of college sports, high-school football games and Pop Warner contests. (In between, there's been T-ball and soccer, Pistons and Tigers matches.) I still transferred my love of sports to the kid, football especially, but we haven't been to a Lions game since Steve Mariucci was on the sidelines. So instead my son roots for an array of other NFL teams. Money that otherwise might've gone to Lions game tickets or replica jerseys has found other uses.
I suppose stories like mine don't come close to fully explaining the Lions' revenue and valuation woes. But when I see the Forbes list, I wonder how much of the Lions problems do reflect the abject frustration that has gripped fans like me over the years, people still reeling from the madness of the Millen years. I mean, really how hard is it to make a profit off of fans of the NFL, easily the most popular sports league in the nation? (Consider that the top team on the Forbes list, the Dallas Cowboys, is valued at nearly $2 billion.)
The Lions don't suffer a deficit of love around here. I'm not a fair-weather fan: I've always pulled for the Lions first and foremost and always will. But just because they have my heart doesn't necessarily mean they'll get my hard-earned money.
The upside is, I think the team is getting better so I'm giving consideration to ending my unspoken boycott. Not sure that my piddling few dollars will matter much to the team's bottom line, but it would definitely be nice to get my son out to Ford Field regularly to see an authentic pro team. So I stand near him as fiddles with the video game paddle.
"You think you want to go to a game or two this year?" I ask. "The Lions might finally be getting better."
He waits a beat, then: "Yeah, let's go. But can we go when they're playing somebody good?"
That way, he figures, we can be fairly sure we won't just be wasting our money.