Making camp for the fans again
In his first few months as Lions coach, Jim Schwartz has looked like a politician on the campaign trail, doing the proverbial hand-shaking, baby-kissing routine perfectly.
During yet another attempt to connect with the local fan base by making public appearance last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway — where he acted as the honorary starter for the NASCAR Sprint Cup LifeLock 400 — Schwartz dropped a nugget of information in a conversation with reporters.
Schwartz admitted he'd be in favor of moving training camp back out of Allen Park next year.
Whether that nugget of opinion had any grain of truth to it remains to be seen — the Lions have since denied the rumors that have started up in the interim — and regardless of where the camp might end up — be it Grand Valley's campus in Allendale, or back to Saginaw Valley State, where it resided from 1997-2001, or anywhere else — the impact of the move would be astronomically larger than any hand-shaking Schwartz can do.
It would be just what the Lions need to do to reconnect with a visibly shaken fan base, after the NFL's first-ever 0-16 season, one that had fans not showing up in droves. The Lions experienced a league-worst 11-percent drop in attendance last year, and only sold out one of their final six home games — that for Thanksgiving Day, after the NFL granted a 24-hour extension. The other five non-sellouts were the first games in the history of Ford Field to be blacked out for local television.
A league-low 435,979 attended Lions home games in 2008.
When the Lions — who'd previously had their training camps at exotic locales like the Silverdome and Oakland University in Rochester — moved their camp to SVSU's campus just north of Saginaw in 1997, on a one-year trial basis, the organization was stunned by the response. More than 107,000 fans showed up to watch practices during the three-week camp, making it a slam-dunk decision to sign an extended deal.
The final year of that contract was the first year of Matt Millen's tenure as Lions president and CEO — and highlighted by first-year coach Marty Mornhinwheg riding off in a huff on his Harley at the end of a practice. The Lions then moved into their state-of-the-art but less-than-fan-friendly practice facility in Allen Park for the next year's training camp.
While the franchise's relationship with its fans became increasingly acrimonious, the Lions did consider moving camp again to a remote site during Millen's tenure. Preliminary feelers were made to other small schools like Alma College, according to officials running the athletic programs at the time for the small private school in the center of the state.
No matter the site they may choose, holding open practice sessions again will be one of the quickest ways for the Lions to turn the tide of the apathy eroding their fan base.