The year was 2000 when the Detroit Lions hired Matt Millen
to be the new president and CEO of the team. The owner of the team William Clay Ford Sr.
essentially gave over the reins to Millen to run the franchise.
I think Lions fans everywhere were excited when the Lions hired Millen, because Ford was finally giving control of the team to somebody else. The Lions had won only one playoff game in the last half a century previous, and fans were hoping that this would finally be the turning point for the franchise.
Eight years later in 2008, the Lions finished one of the worst stretches in NFL history (31-84 record over that time) and fired Millen
halfway through the 2008 season. During the Millen era the Lions became, and still are, one of the laughingstocks of the NFL.
With the supposed high level of parity within the NFL, a fan may wonder how the Lions are so terrible
every season. When watching a game, a Lions fan typically has no confidence for the Lions to pull out a victory. As Lions fans, we just know they will find a way to blow an important game. They have simply been atrocious in the last decade, undoubtedly the first or second worst team in the NFL. The seventies and eighties were not much better, with zero playoff wins for the Lions. Even in the nineties, when they had Barry Sanders
, arguably the best running back of all time; they still were not that good.
Eventually one must realize that part of the blame has to go back to the top. Since William Clay Ford Sr. bought the team in 1964, the Lions have won exactly one playoff game, that is right, one
playoff game since then. They have been to the playoffs only nine times in his tenure owning the team, with all of them being on the road (except their playoff win against Dallas in 1991).
I think putting all the blame on Ford could be foolish. The bottom line is that players must play, and coaches must coach. However, the owner is the one who should be putting the right players and coaches in place. I do not think it is a coincidence that in the decade previous to Ford owning the team, the Lions won three Championships and lost a fourth.
Growing up my Dad would always say, "Ford is laughing all the way to bank." He meant that the Lions were terrible every year, but fans would still come out to the games and sellout the stadium: essentially keeping Ford happy because he was still making bank. Perhaps Ford is simply a businessman who wants to make a profit. He really has no background in football, from what I researched, other than with the Lions. The Lions are worth near $900 million dollars (according to Forbes
in 2009). The team also has revenue in excess of $200 million every year. How much of that goes into Ford's pocket is hard to say, but he is definitely making enormous amounts of money from the most lucrative sports industry in America. In fact, in 2005 Forbes listed Ford
as being worth an astounding $1.2 billion dollars and the 283rd richest person in America. I realize much of this probably came from his time with Ford Motor Company
, but his profits from the Lions are undoubtedly substantial.
Is Ford sacrificing winning in order to keep making money? I remember watching a piece on the LA Clippers a few years back talking about how much money the franchise made in-spite of the team continually losing. Could Ford being doing the same thing? Apparently, the 49ers, the best team in the 80s, made the least amount of money
among NFL teams. However, the worst team, the Buccaneers made the most money in the NFL during that same time period. I am sure the economics of the NFL are different now, but I believe the principle still remains the same: winning should be more important that making a huge profit in the NFL. I sometimes doubt if Ford really believes that. On the other hand though, the NFL is still a business and one cannot downsize the fact that owning a NFL team is very profitable.
I believe this man is in football for more than just the money (regardless if the importance of money comes first or not). I believe he wants to build a winner (if for nothing else the money that would come with it). But in nearly half a century, he has simply not been able to figure it out. He graduated from Yale and is probably extremely smart when it comes to business. However, being great at business does not make you great at building a winning NFL team. Even when he gave team control largely over to Millen, he kept him for far too long, and even gave him a huge contract extension in midst of their losing: another stupid ownership decision that continues to cost the Lions to this day. Regardless of any defense one wants to give him, people are ultimately judged mostly from their actions and what they do, not as much from what they say or think. The bottom line is that he has not produced a winner on the field, and seemingly has not even put together an environment where a winning team could be build. Even the people he has hired to try and build a winner with have miserably failed.
The question remains, where do the Lions go from here? Even if it was completely Ford's fault for losing, there is not a whole lot anyone can do. He owns the team; he is the boss. He decides who stays and who goes. Even after he retires, the team ownership will probably be inherited by his son, who has seemed to play a similar role within the organization.
I guess we will never know exactly know to what extent Ford's ownership has affected the Lions. It unquestionably has had a negative impact for years, but the extent of that is unknown. As Lions fans, I suppose we can have a "wait for next year" mentality and hope that we will land some great players in the draft. Other than that, can fans do anything?
The only way Lions fans can hope for a change would seem to come in the form simply boycotting the games. If few fans show up to games, profits would go down quickly. Could this be the way to get Ford to pay wake up and "smell the roses?" Perhaps.
Lions fans are tired of excuses and half baked attempts to produce a winning team. We are craving a winning team; Lions fans simply want to watch good football in Detroit. Period.