What if Spartans never left the city of Portsmouth Ohio? For one, some of you may be asking yourself who the Portsmouth Spartans are. Today, the Spartans are now known as the Detroit Lions and have remained the Detroit Lions since 1934 when a group led by Detroit radio executive George Richards (owner of Detroit’s powerful WJR) bought the Spartans and moved them to Detroit.
In an article by Bob Greene, a CNN contributor and best selling author, he wonder’s what the city of Portsmouth would be like today if the Spartans never left Portsmouth.
In the 1930’s, the NFL was in the middle of trying to bring NFL teams to small market cities in order to keep those cities from acquiring AFL franchises. In the midst’s of this the Portsmouth Spartans were born playing their home games at Spartan Stadium.
During their four year history, the Spartans made a name for themselves and played in some memorable games in NFL history. In 1932 in a game against the Green Bay Packers, Spartan head coach Potsy Clark refused to make a single substitution in the game resulting in the Spartans beating the Packers 19-0 all while using only 11 players. This has been since known as the “Iron Man Game”. The Spartans also took part in what is seen as the first ever arena football game. In 1932 the Spartans played the Chicago Bears in an unscheduled NFL Championship Game after both teams went 6-1-4 to finish the season. Because of blizzard conditions in the Chicago area, the NFL moved the Championship Game from Wrigley Field to Chicago Stadium which could only hold an 80 yard field. Chicago ended up going on to win the Championship 9-0 and because of the circumstances leading up to this unscheduled game, the NFL decided to divide the teams up into Western and Eastern Conferences and having a regularly scheduled Championship game starting in 1933.
Unfortunately though for Portsmouth the Great Depression was in full swing during the 1930’s and because of this the small river town in southern Ohio couldn’t compete with larger markets.
According to Greene, during the 1930’s, when the Spartans were in Portsmouth, the city had a population of around 42,000 people. Since then that number has nearly been cut in half however Greene states that number has little to do with the loss of their NFL franchise to Detroit. The large steel manufacturing factory in Portsmouth closed down and many other manufacturing business’ also left town.
You cannot help but wonder though what would it be like if the team never left? Greene says that many of the civic leaders in town believe that if the Spartans remained, the trajectory of the city would have been better then what it is now. To see how a small town does with an NFL franchise and the success it could bring, you don’t have to look any further than the Green Bay Packers. The city of Green Bay has around 101,025 residents and has had the benefit of being the home of one of the most iconic and recognizable sports franchises in history.
Even though they are largely supported by the Boston metropolitan area, the New England Patriots also play in the small town of Foxborough Massachusetts which only has a population of 6,298.
Now if you look at the other side of things, what would Detroit be like if the Lions never came to town?
Prior to the Lions, Detroit had four professional football teams all playing at different times. In 1905 there was the Heralds/Tigers, in 1925 there was the Panthers then finally in 1928 there was the Wolverines. The Wolverines however did not last a season after New York Giants owner Tim Mara purchased the team and folded it in order to acquire quarterback Benny Friedman. Friedman actually played for the Cleveland Bulldogs however during this time the Bulldogs and Wolverines shared the same coach and much of the roster.
For six seasons, the city of Detroit was without a professional football franchise.
The Lions still are often times the butt of jokes around the NFL and even within the Metro Detroit Area due to the teams relatively unsuccessful history since the 1960’s. However if the Lions never came to Detroit what would the city be like today? Sure some fans may say that they would have years added onto their lives due to the lack of stress of on Sunday’s. But as much as we probably hate to admit it at times, we love the Lions and hope for better things to come in the future.
Could the city of gotten another NFL team during this time? Sure there probably would’ve been a good chance at that happening given the prosperity of the city during the 1940’s and 50’s. However with the slow decline of the auto industry and the growth of the suburbs there would’ve been no guarantee that the city would have gotten a professional football franchise after the 1950’s.
Even if the Lions were never to be, the auto industry still would’ve had it’s eventual collapse and Detroit would still see the down period it has seen over the past 30 years.
I can’t see the city benefiting from not having a professional football team, so things could have actually been worse.
Portsmouth’s loss is definitely Detroit’s gain.