The Detroit Lions have a new owner. On Tuesday, the team announced Martha Firestone Ford would be stepping down from her principal leadership role and handing the reins to her daughter, Sheila Ford Hamp.
"I have been going to games (for) forever — way back to Briggs Stadium," Ford Hamp said during a conference call with local reporters. "Been a huge fan and supporter of the Lions my entire life. ...The last 6½ years by my mother’s side, I’ve learned a ton. She’s really been an incredible role model to me. She’s been hands-on, she’s tough, she’s smart, she’s gracious. I intend to emulate a lot of those things, and hopefully put my own stamp on things. I guess I plan to be hands-on and learn as much as I can about the organization and be involved in a lot of ways."
The transition had been in the works for some time according to team president Rod Wood. The timing was decided by Firestone Ford and not related to any health concerns.
"She is totally fine and healthy," Ford Hamp said. "I want to get that out there, for sure. We kind of thought this would be a good time because there’s no football right now. So rather than make a switch closer to the season or once things got underway, just seemed like a good time to do it."
Ford Hamp's role within the organization rapidly expanded following the passing of her father, William Clay Ford in 2014. While holding the same vice-chair title as her three siblings — Bill Ford Jr., Martha Ford Morse and Elizabeth Ford Kontulis — it was Ford Hamp who was most involved with the day-to-day operations of the Lions, attending every road game, league meetings and recently serving on the NFL’s Super Bowl and Major Events advisory committee.
Going forward, she's putting an emphasis on gaining a more intimate understanding of the organization's inner working.
"One of my first things that I want to do is set up with Rod some meetings with other parts of the organization that I really don’t know that well," Ford Hamp said. "I really want to take a deep dive and understand the whole thing."
One specific example she noted was the football analytics department.
"I’d like to learn way more about our analytics team, for instance," she said. "I know they’re excellent, but I kind of want to get briefed on what they do. I think there’ll be things that I may dive into a little more deeply than my mother or my father would have, and we’ll see how the leadership develops from there."
Last winter, Ford Hamp joined her mother and Wood in a meeting with a small group of local reporters to announce head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn would be returning for the 2020 season after the team had fallen well short of expectations in 2019.
“Making a change would have been the popular choice, the popular decision, and we knew that," Ford Hamp said in the meeting. "But as I say, we’re doing what is right for the organization."
Hamp Ford said while the buck now stops with her, organizational decisions of that magnitude will continue to be collectively made by the family, including her three siblings. She also stated the expectations set forth for Quinn and Patricia at that meeting remain unchanged.
"I think the overarching thing is that we want to see major improvement," Ford Hamp said. "At this point, I can’t really say what those specific measures are going to be, because I don’t know what the season is going to be like yet, but believe me, major improvement is a goal."
Firestone Ford, 94, steps down after six years as the team’s owner, a role she took over following Clay Ford’s death.
“It has been a great honor for our family to be associated with the Lions and the National Football League,” Firestone Ford said in a statement. “I am gratified that this family tradition, which my husband and I began almost six decades ago, will continue under Sheila’s guiding hand. It is clear to me that Sheila will provide superb leadership and is fully committed to competitive excellence and community involvement.”
During her tenure, she made significant changes to the organization’s structure, starting with elevating her three daughters to vice chair roles, a title William Clay Ford Jr. had held since 1995.
And after the Lions started 1-5 in the 2015 season, Firestone Ford showed she wouldn’t exhibit the same patience with failure as her late husband, firing longtime team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew. On the day of the firings, Firestone Ford read a brief statement and followed it up a week later with a letter to season-ticket holders.
“The organizational changes I made last week reflect not only our disappointment with this season, but also underscore our commitment to each of you,” the letter said. "You deserve much better. Your support, loyalty and passion for the Lions over the years has been nothing short of remarkable. You have done your part. You deserve a Lions football team that is a consistent winner and one that competes for championships.”
Within a month, Wood, who previously served as CEO of Ford Estates, was named as Lewand’s replacement. A national search, conducted with the assistance of former NFL executive Ernie Accorsi, led Firestone Ford and the Lions to Quinn, the New England Patriots director of pro personnel, as the team’s new general manager.
Since his hiring, Wood has overseen major changes at Ford Field, including $100 million in upgrades to the stadium’s video boards, sound system and suites in 2017, all funded by the Ford family.
"She’s been a wonderful leader of this team, a role model for me, as well as a terrific teacher and mentor," Ford Hamp said. "I realize I have big, little, shoes to fill."
Throughout her time as owner, Firestone Ford remained a constant presence around the team. She regularly attended training-camp practices, was a fixture on the sideline before every game, home and away, and conducted weekly meetings with the team’s management, including Quinn and head coaches Jim Caldwell and Matt Patricia.
“Martha Ford has led the Lions with skill and grace for the past six seasons,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “I have appreciated her business insights, her love of the game, her deep commitment to the NFL, and her personal kindness. We are pleased that the Ford family will continue to own and operate this historic franchise. Sheila Hamp has become increasingly involved in team and league affairs over the past several years and we look forward to working with her and the rest of the club's executive team.”
In 2017, when President Donald Trump attacked the league’s players for protesting the national anthem, Firestone Ford backed the Lions players, both in a statement and locking arms with the team during the anthem that week.
"Thanks primarily to our players, the NFL also has been a unifying force in our country and impactful change has and hopefully will continue to be the result of peaceful expression, done so in order to highlight social injustices of all kind,” she said in the statement. “Negative and disrespectful comments suggesting otherwise are contrary to the founding principles of our country, and we do not support those comments or opinions.”
Firestone Ford met with the team the following week and requested players not kneel during the anthem. In exchange, she vowed to commit financial resources to the social-justice causes that were important to the players.
A little more than a year later, the team announced the launch of Detroit Lions Inspire Change, a social-justice initiative for the City of Detroit, backed by $600,000 in funding by Firestone Ford and the players.
“Expanding upon our commitment to influencing social justice reform was a primary goal for our organization this season,” Firestone Ford said in a statement. “With the support of our players, who over the years have demonstrated a longstanding devotion to serving this community in which they live and work, we have successfully established the foundation of what we expect to be a multi-year platform in Detroit. I am grateful for the players’ participation in these important discussions happening right now in our country.”
By handing off the Lions to Ford Hamp, it ensures the franchise will continue to be run by the family, as it has since William Clay Ford consolidated control of the team from more than 100 shareholders in 1993. He bought his initial stake in the team for $6 million on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
In the same meeting in which Firestone Ford and Ford Hamp announced Patricia and Quinn would return, they also confirmed there were no plans to sell the organization.
“We’ve been approached about interest in buying the team, but there’s been no serious discussions and the Ford Family plans to own the team and there's (succession) plans in place," Wood said.
Staff writer Sarah Rahal contributed.