Niyo: As attendance dips, Lions gussy up Ford Field for $100M

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is displayed on a super column video board across the field.

Detroit — They’re calling it the “new” Ford Field. But as Don Loudermilk, one of the chief architects behind the original design of the Lions’ 15-year-old stadium downtown, surveyed all the changes Thursday, it wasn’t with regret.

Because this $100-million renovation that’s nearing completion isn’t a teardown. It’s just a facelift. And an expensive acknowledgment of the lengths to which pro sports franchises — and colleges, too — feel they must go to keep their fans coming back for more.

Completely renovated club level suites? Check. State-of-the-art video technology? Of course. Wireless connectivity to satisfy 60,000-plus users on Sunday? You got it. Enough food and beverage options to satisfy every appetite? Done.

A new contract extension for Matthew Stafford? Well, the Lions still are working on that one. And there’s going to be some cost overruns, I’d imagine.

But the rest of the offseason work here is nearly finished, “and it’s going to be spectacular,” Lions president Rod Wood gushed Wednesday, as the he gave the media a 30-minute tour of the Lions’ newly-remodeled den. “I’m very excited for the fans to see it.”

This latest redesign by Detroit-based Rossetti Associates began about 18 months ago — not long after Wood was hired — and the plans were finalized late last year. Work began in earnest in March, and with most of the heavy lifting done, Wood says everything will be ready for the Lions’ preseason opener Aug. 19. (The general public will get a sneak preview at an open practice during training camp.) The first concert will be U2 on Sept. 3, a week before the regular season opens at home against Arizona on Sept. 10.

Only then will the Lions get a real sense of not only what they look like on the field, but also what their fans will think of it, regardless of how the team is playing. And that’s the big challenge these days, for pro franchises and universities alike, as they try to convince you the best seat in the house isn’t the one in front of a big-screen TV in your own living room.

“We talk about it all the time,” Wood said.

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There are myriad reasons, obviously, from hefty ticket prices to changing demographics, or in the case of the NFL and its legion of fantasy-football fanatics, the arrival of DirectTV Sunday Ticket and Red Zone channels.

And the solutions vary.

But for the Lions, who’ve seen their attendance drop each of the last three seasons, despite making the playoffs twice, the fans had two primary complaints, aside from the obvious on-field concerns. The first was poor Wi-Fi service inside the stadium. The second were the outdated video boards.

“So when you answer those,” Wood said, “hopefully you can get people to continue to come in.”

More work needed

Just getting people in the door isn’t enough, though. Keeping them entertained requires a little more work than it used to.

“Fans are changing,” said Loudermilk, who spent more than a decade as Rossetti’s director of sports facilities, leaving shortly after the Ford Field project was finished. He's now national director at the investment firm JLL. “And fans want to be more integrated into the experience. Back when we did this almost 20 years ago, exclusivity was important to people. But now, even though you get high-end amenities and all that, they want to be part of the action.”

Some of the action will be impossible to miss, from the new sound system to the 26,500 square feet of LED video board space, including the massive end zone units — more than twice the size of the previous boards — as well as new ribbon and column displays.

Wood estimates they’ve added 700 new TVs and video walls throughout the stadium. And even the old ribbon displays were repurposed, used in the concourses along with new speakers, so if you’re in line for concessions or for the restroom, you’ll still be connected to the game.

“Everything we did was to try to keep the fans engaged throughout the entire game,” Wood said.

That’s evident in the dramatic changes to the premium seating at Ford Field, too. It’s been completely re-done – all 200,000 square feet of it -- with some of the old suites removed and replaced with terrace options, and some of the club seats taken out and replaced with new loge boxes.

There also are new sponsored private lounges and clubs on both sides of the stadium — Comerica Bank, Miller/Coors and Plante Moran ponied up — and all of them are designed to have a more communal, social atmosphere.

Same goes for the “Corner Bar” on the main concourse, another renovated gathering place that features a 90-foot bar and huge video walls and scoreboards.

“Part of the reason people come to the game versus staying home, I think, is to be with other fans,” Wood said. “Giving them places to do that was important to them.”

The arrival of Little Caesar’s Arena, home to the Red Wings and Pistons, which is nearing completion four blocks away, was an important development as well. Wood said he plans to tour it soon before it opens in September. And while he insists the LCA’s arrival “wasn’t what drove the decision” to upgrade Ford Field, “certainly we’re aware of it.”

“I think it’s great for the city that we have all four teams downtown and have great venues for them to play in,” Wood added, “and our fans go to their games and vice versa, so by comparison you want to look like you’re competitive.”

'We've caught up'

That’s especially true within the NFL, where nine teams have moved into new stadiums since the Lions opened Ford Field, with at least a couple more on the way. The Lions are expected to put together a bid to host the NFL Draft and possibly another Super Bowl — initial paperwork is due later this summer — as well as another Final Four. And Wood thinks they’re ready.

“We’ve caught up to even the newest stadiums now,” he said.

And for that, he can thank the view, standing on north side of the stadium and looking across at the exposed brick levels of the old Hudson’s warehouse that are now set off with chandelier lights. It’s all that additional space — the warehouse was a late edition to the original design — that gave the architects the room they needed for this renovation.

“A lot of stadiums aren’t that way,” Loudermilk said. “They get locked into what they are, and that’s what you have and that’s all you’re ever gonna get. This one was flexible enough. This place could be timeless.”

And as times change, that might be the best amenity of all.

Lions attendance 

Attendance for Lions games at Ford Field since 2012, with average attendance (league rank in parentheses) and percent capacity (league rank in parentheses):

2012: 63,769 average (22nd), 98.9 percent (14th)

2013: 63,796 average (24th), 98.9 percent (16th)

2014: 63,024 average (23rd), 97.7 percent (18th)

2015: 61,347 average (29th), 94.4 percent (23rd)

2016: 60,792 average (27th), 94.3 percent (21st)