Niyo: Wood marches Lions forward, not looking back

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — It’s a leadership lesson Rod Wood says he learned early on in his business career. And as he sits in a conference room inside the Lions’ practice facility, the NFL team president admits it’s one he has shared a time or two with his management team.

It’s the story of Spanish conquistadors colonizing the Americas, coming ashore and then sending their boats back out to sea and sinking them, “just to let the people know, ‘We’re not going back,’ ” Wood says. And with a chuckle, he then draws a parallel to his own arrival in a strange land — officially hired two years ago this week by owner Martha Firestone Ford and her children — while talking about the “Same Old Lions” and the new identity he is trying to build for the franchise, in big ways and small.

Lions president Rod Wood says there’s “no point in ignoring” the franchise’s past, but vows “we’re different.”

“There’s no point in ignoring it,” Wood said of the Lions’ past. “We talk about, with everything we do, trying to leave that behind. … And so, some of the things I’ve tried to do here are to make sure people know, ‘We’re not going back.’ We’ve burned the boats, or whatever. Some of it is to reinforce — not just to the fans, but also internally — that we’re different.”

That’s hard for some to believe. It’s also difficult to quantify. But there are signs the fans are buying in here, even in the midst of a season where the NFL’s relationship with its fans has been strained by a backlash over player protests and declining TV ratings. While the Pistons and Red Wings are busy explaining away empty seats at new Little Caesars Arena, and the Tigers’ declining attendance is headed for a cliff with the team entering a massive rebuild, the Lions are enjoying their best-ever turnout in Ford Field’s 16-year history.

Halfway through the home schedule, attendance is up 8 percent over last season. And with a capacity crowd of nearly 65,000 expected again for today’s nationally televised Thanksgiving clash with division-leading Minnesota, it’ll mark the fourth standing-room-only crowd in five games — a Lions single-season record.

Wood points to a number of factors for the increase, from a $100 million stadium upgrade completed this summer to an attractive home schedule this fall. The Lions are 6-4 and in the playoff hunt for the third time in the last four seasons, which certainly helps as well.

A better idea

But the Lions’ president also talks about organizational changes when it comes to fan engagement — email blast advertising, weekly focus groups with fans, and scores of changes to the gameday experience both inside the stadium and out.

Some of the upgrades are hard to miss, such as the mammoth LED scoreboards, the 700 new TVs and video walls and some 200,000 square feet of renovated premium seating. The Wi-Fi finally works, and fans have many more — and better — food and drink options in Ford Field. Fan surveys complained of a sterile, warehouse feel, but now with better branding throughout the stadium it’s unmistakably the Lions’ den, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell noted when he got a sneak-preview tour in August.

“The thing that struck me is how much was put into creating a better fan experience,” Goodell said at a forum for suite-holders. “They took areas in the stadium that were not really being utilized and created a unique experience here. You’re going to feel a lot of pride being from Detroit and this being your stadium.”

Other changes at Ford Field might seem trivial, whether it’s the pregame hype video, the “Lion Cub Cam” or out-of-town scores and fantasy football statistics displayed on the video boards. Some are more self-serving: Discounted concession prices for the first hour after doors open on gamedays — a promotion sponsored by DTE — add in-house revenue while helping to pack the stadium in time for the opening kickoff.

The Lions annually have ranked near the bottom of the NFL in overall revenue. (Forbes’ most recent valuations had them 31st at $341 million with an operating income of $48 million.) But while revenue is up this season — the team won’t say how much — for Wood the bottom line is more about a change in the Lions’ corporate culture, with an increased emphasis on accountability.

“I think the people that we have here now think about perfecting things,” he said.

That’s why the team began inviting fans to take part in focus groups before every home game. One week it’ll be season-ticket holders, the next it’ll be fans who’ve bought tickets off StubHub. They’ll spend a half-hour answering questions in filmed Q&A sessions, then receive a gift on the way out the door to enjoy the game.

The next day, Wood will meet with Kelly Kozole, the Lions’ senior VP of business development, and Emily Griffin, the team’s marketing director, to go over their notes from the weekend. What worked? What didn’t? Traffic and parking issues downtown are among the biggest problems at the moment. But all the data helps them tweak the game-day operation.

“Even when we think there’s something we’re doing well,” Wood says, “there’s always something you can do better.”

Detroit Lions president Rod Wood, general manager Bob Quinn and vice chairman William Clay Ford, Jr. chat on the field before a game last month at Ford Field in Detroit.

Signs of stability

Wood has brought in top executives from other successful franchises — “organizations that were used to getting things done,” as he puts it — to assist in that effort. Bill Hawker, the VP of corporate partnerships, arrived last year from Green Bay, where he’d spent a decade in a similar role. Tom Wyatt left the Houston Rockets this summer to join Hawker’s team as the Lions’ new corporate sales director.

Those sponsorship deals played a huge part in the stadium renovation, a privately financed project that completely overhauled Ford Field’s club level. Comerica Bank, MillerCoors and Plante Moran all signed naming-rights deals for club lounge and suite spaces. And unlike in the past, Wood says, the activation is the key.

“So it’s not just ‘Give us money and we’ll put your name up,’ ” he said. “It’s ‘What’s in it for you that we can deliver?’ Whether it’s getting your brand out or helping you grow your business or recruit employees or do good in the community.”

After all, this is a community asset we’re talking about, even if the Lions’ hapless history suggests otherwise. Most fans can recite the history like a child doing arithmetic: They’ve won just one playoff game since 1957, and they haven’t won their division since 1993.

But the Lions have made the playoffs twice in the last three seasons, and now find themselves in a moment of rare stability on the football side. The franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford, just signed the NFL’s richest contract and is locked up through 2022. The head coach, Jim Caldwell, has a new multiyear contract extension of his own. And halfway through his second season as general manager, Bob Quinn, after a significant overhaul of the personnel department, seems to be building a solid foundation with the team’s roster.

“And I do think the fans are appreciating what we’re trying to do,” Wood said. “Hopefully the ‘Same Old Lions’ phrase is at least dying as opposed to growing. Obviously, with everything the Lions have gone through, with the 0-16 season and not having a home playoff game in forever, I can understand why people would be skeptics. But hopefully we’re earning that trust back. And the fact that the fans stuck with the team through all that tells you how loyal they are.”


‘We can do big things’

Wood’s hiring raised eyebrows in 2015, going from the Ford family’s investment adviser to running an NFL franchise — something the 57-year-old Michigan native infamously highlighted in his own introductory press conference. But he has made a mark rather quickly.

In his first offseason, the Lions added cheerleaders for the first time in the franchise’s modern history. This past summer, they unveiled new uniforms, all while completing the kind of stadium project in eight months that other teams have spread over multiple offseasons.

“I just wanted to continue to reinforce a culture that we can do big things,” Wood said. “And once you do big things, then people can believe, ‘OK, we can do the next big thing.’ ”

Next up, in addition to joining Detroit’s Major League Soccer bid — Ford Field would be the expansion team’s new home — is the Lions’ push to host the NFL draft, a huge event that has become like a mini-Super Bowl with rotating host cities. Philadelphia drew an estimated 250,000 fans for the three-day event last spring. And Wood and his executive team were in New York last week to make their pitch for hosting the 2019 or ’20 draft. He declined to reveal many specifics of the Lions’ proposal, but it’ll involve multiple venues and a likely collaboration with Olympia Entertainment. Detroit was one of eight cities invited to make a presentation to league officials over a two-day period, “and it seems to have gone very well,” Wood said. The plan is for NFL owners to vote on those bids at their spring meeting next March in Orlando.

“I know we have a really good chance at ’19 or ’20, so hopefully that’ll come to fruition,” Wood said.

In the meantime, there’s this holiday tradition to uphold. The Lions have won four in a row on Thanksgiving, and the players certainly understand the significance. This game has been a fixture in Detroit since 1934, and for so many years, it was the highlight of an otherwise disappointing season.

“So we try to show our appreciation to the fans for their support over the years by making sure we get a win on Thanksgiving,” safety Glover Quin said.

But this year, it feels like a wishbone fight for the NFC North title with the Vikings, and they all know what a division title would mean come January.

“It would be phenomenal for the fans, for the Ford family and for the city, to have a home playoff game,” Wood said, nodding. “That’d be another one to knock off the list.”

Or to go back to his original story, another ship to sink.