The Detroit Lions lost 10 of their sixteen games last season.
That’s known among cynical fans as SOL, or “Same Old Lions.”
On Tuesday, the team’s key leadership troika — President Rod Wood, General Manager Bob Quinn, and Coach Matt Patricia — promised more than 3,200 season ticket holders invited to Ford Field that hard work will bring better times — a seemingly annual pledge for a franchise still on a quest for its first championship since 1957.
The three leaders took questions from some of those season-ticket holders during the team’s annual summit for fans who buy tickets for all 10 home games. Some said they’d had season tickets for 40 years, and others were brand new.
The questions ranged from the draft and free-agency to roster moves, coaching changes, game strategies and ticket programs. The panelists offered answers that ranged from deeply specific to long diversions. Some they could not answer because league rules prohibit talk about players under contract with other teams.
The general tone was stick-with-us optimism little more than a month after a season that featured an exciting win over the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, but plenty of low points such as a blowout loss to the New York Jets on national TV.
“I think there are reasons to be optimistic as we go into the offseason,” Wood said, noting that the Lions defense improved as the 2018 season wore on, and that the team has nine picks for the April 25-27 college player selection draft.
It was an early question about the draft that produced possibly the most interesting comment of the night. Quinn was asked about the possibility of drafting a quarterback. The Lions have had Matthew Stafford under center for a decade, and he owns nearly every team passing record and is the highest paid player in team history — $178.2 million so far with $84 million still owed — but he has yet to win a playoff game.
“We’ll consider any position in the draft at any point in time. The whole board is wide open to us. We’re not going to eliminate any prospects. If there’s a quarterback out there we deem could help us this year or in the future, we’ll never close the door on that,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the Lions are going to draft a quarterback, and general managers are political in their answers show they don’t tip their hands, but it certainly sparked plenty of parsing of his comment. Quinn indicated that the Lions will look hard at drafting a tight end to replace Eric Ebron, who left in free agency before last season and left a noticeable gap in the offense.
Why does management willingly assemble fans to take such questions? Apart from basic customer service perks, it’s because season-ticket holders are a critical revenue source for the franchise, and since Wood assumed his role in 2015, adding off-field value has been a primary business strategy.
NFL teams cull most of their revenue from the league’s national TV broadcast rights contracts with the networks. Those billions are apportioned equally among the 32 franchises. Revenue from the shared licensing deals also generates considerable money.
Fan-generated revenue is important because teams have some control over that. Fielding a winning team falls to the GM and coach, to acquire talent and properly deploy it.
The off-field money, however, is where Wood comes in. His tenure has included a $100 million renovation of Ford Field that replaced all of the suites and club seats, added more club and concession spaces, bolstered WiFi, and installed new sound and video systems. And the overhaul was entirely privately financed.
The teams has said it has more than 40,000 season-ticket holders in a stadium that seats 64,500.
Those fans recently received their 2019 season ticket renewal information.
Of the 63,223 seats available for season ticket sales — the rest are suite seats — the team said 57,124 will see no price change or actually be cheaper in 2019. There will be 5,099 seats, all in high-demand areas along the lower bowl, that have increased in prices. Of those, 1,579 have increased by $5 or more per game for next season.
More specifically, one tier of seats is now priced at $1,519 for the season (two preseason and eight regular-season games), an increase of $170 over last year’s $1,349 price. The other increase is $50 for the season on seats now priced at $1,299 for the 10 games.
The Lions didn’t provide a breakdown of how many of each seat is getting the two price increases, but if all 5,099 seats were priced at just the $50 increase, it would mean $250,000 in new revenue for the team. However, four tiers of seating have declined by $20 or $30 for the season, so some of the revenue goose is likely offset by those discounts.
Any increase in season ticket revenue is marginal for a team estimated by Forbes to have collected $361 million in revenue in for the 2017 season, the most recent estimate available from Forbes. Last year, each NFL team collected about $255 million from the league’s shared revenue, based on financial disclosures made by the publicly owned Green Bay Packers.
So while fan-based revenue isn’t that large, teams still tend to exercise caution in raising ticket prices after a losing season, for fear of backlash.
The most expensive Lions seat for the 10 home games in 2019 remains unchanged year-over-year at $1,949, and the cheapest remains $439. That works out to $194.90 per game for the priciest season ticket to $43.90 for the cheapest. For years, the Lions have ranked in the bottom half of the 32-team NFL for ticket prices.
Season tickets have a baked-in discount compared with face value of single-game tickets. The discount is an enticement to get fans to buy season tickets — revenue that the team gets up front. NFL teams are heavily cash-in, cash-out businesses and teams are constantly working on keeping revenue flowing to cover salaries and operations.
The largest year-over-year expense for an NFL team is its player roster, but those are limited by a hard salary cap. In 2019, that cap is predicted to be a max of $191 million, but that total is not yet established. The Lions say they feel good financially.
“We have as much salary cap space as we’ve had in the history of the franchise,” Wood said.
The salary tracking website Spotrac.com estimates the Lions currently have $27.3 million in spending room under the cap, which ranks 16th in the NFL and is below the league average of $33.9 million. Last year’s cap was $177.2 million, not counting adjustments and credits available for teams.
Another benefit of having a large season ticket base — some NFL stadiums are entirely sold out as season tickets, such as the Green Bay Packers — is that those fans can be relied upon to buy merchandise and concessions. That’s further revenue, although split with the team’s concessionaire, Chicago-based Levy. Teams get to keep, rather than share with the rest of the league, much of their game-day generated revenue.
On Tuesday, the Lions has several of their main concourse food stands and the team’s retail store open for business, and fans were definitely buying. To its credit, the team was allowing season-ticket holders to use their $100 worth of concession and retail credits, earned for buying season tickets by March 1, on Tuesday.
Incentivizing fans to pay off their tickets early as possible is common in pro sports because it gets cash in the door in the offseason, when the team is still responsible for paying bonuses, stadium debt, and recurring expenses such as Ford Field’s hefty utility bills.
The Lions, who did not make Wood or anyone else available for media questions, also are offering prizes to season-ticket holders who pay early, such as trips to the NFL combine, draft and the Super Bowl. They also have a new 12-month installment payment plan.
Also new this year as a perk is the “Lionsurance” program that allows season-ticket holders who miss one or two games to have half the value of the missed game’s ticket to be applied as a credit for their 2020 season tickets, if paid in full next February. All season-ticket holders are automatically enrolled in the program.
Before the executive panel on the field, the team staged a Q-and-A session near Gate A with defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni, new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and new special teams coordinator John Bonamego who returns to the team after being fired in November as Central Michigan’s head coach. He coached the Lions special teams in 2013-14.
Also speaking to season-ticket holders were player performance staffers including head trainer Kevin Bastin, strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash, and team dietitian Sarah Snyder.
Some other observations from Monday’s summit:
- The Cleveland Browns on Monday signed problematic ex-Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, released last season after video emerged of him kicking a woman. When asked why the Lions didn’t sign him, Quinn said, ““We evaluate every player on the field and off the field, and in this case, we talked about it internally and it was just a player we didn’t feel comfortable with the Lions for numerous issues. I stand by that. That’s my word. I want good players and I want good people in this organization.” This is a sensitive area for the Lions, who last year were forced to defend this hire of Patricia after it emerged that he had been arrested and indicted for aggravated sexual assault in 1996. Patricia denied any wrongdoing, and the case was dismissed in 1997 when the accuser opted not to take it to trial.
- Quinn said the Lions will closely monitor the new Alliance of American Football spring pro league that launched last weekend, just as the team scouts the Canadian and arena football leagues. He said AAF players may end up on the Lions roster. “I caught a little of it on TV this weekend,” he said.
- Asked about why the Lions maintain a stranglehold on the early Thanksgiving Day game slot, despite not being a great team, Wood said the tradition endures because the Lions launched it. He added that a third holiday game was added a few years ago — the Cowboys have the second game — to placate teams that complained about not getting a shot at Thanksgiving’s national stage. “I’m confident we’re going to have the 12:30 p.m. game as far into the future as we can see,” Wood said.
- The Lions are one of five teams that cannot refuse to participate in HBO’s “Hard Knocks” program that is a deep inside realty TV-style look at an NFL team during the preseason. Detroit’s brass wants no part of it. “I think Jon Gruden is an excellent choice for that show,” Patricia said, to much laughter. Gruden is the Oakland Raiders coach. Quinn noted that every team watched “Hard Knocks” to glean any tidbit of information that can used for an advantage.
- Team owner Martha Firestone Ford was in attendance.
Below is Lions team President Rod Wood’s recent letter, verbatim, to season-ticket holders:
A year ago, we introduced Matt Patricia as our new head coach and began a transition that will shape the Detroit Lions for years to come. In 2018, our win/loss record did not meet the expectations of the Ford Family, our entire staff nor our fans. Nonetheless, I wholeheartedly believe in the direction of our football team.
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