10 years later, innovative Ford Field still scores

Posted on August 21, 2012

It has been a decade since Ford Field opened with the Detroit Lions losing — go figure — a preseason game to the Pittsburgh Steelers in August 2002.

Now the $500 million stadium and office complex continues to serve as a template for modern urban football stadium design. It was one of the few bright spots over that time for the football team as it slowly emerged from the bleakest period in its 82-year history.

The Lions have lost 113 of the 160 regular-season games they’ve played at Ford Field — including a league-record 0-16 season in 2008 — but they’ve still averaged 59,260 tickets sold per game over that time at the 65,000-seat venue.

Part of keeping attendance strong is the popularity of the National Football League in general, but part of it is the widely acclaimed downtown stadium that replaced the larger Pontiac Silverdome, a monument to bland mid-1970s stadium architecture.

Like the Lions, who earned a playoff berth last season for the first time since 1999, Ford Field’s future looks bright: The stadium continues to pump revenue into the football team, and new office tenants and entertainment options are being drawn up as the economy improves.

Old and new

Southfield-based Rossetti Associates Inc. won the mid-1990s competition to design Ford Field, thanks to the idea of integrating part of a seven-story Hudson’s Department Stores warehouse directly into the project.

“We had a unique idea of reconnecting the city with the Lions,” firm President Matt Rossetti said. “At the time, there was nothing like this. Everybody was building out in the suburbs, and the ones in the cities would have blocks of open land around them for parking. This was really first of its kind.”

The steel-and-glass-enclosed stadium used the warehouse as part of the architecture — a far cry from the cookie-cutter domes and open-air venues that dominated NFL venue design for decades.

The Minnesota Vikings are looking at Ford Field for inspiration for their $975 million, 65,000-seat stadium slated to open in 2016, Rossetti said. Also influenced by the Detroit stadium were the $587 million Soldier Field renovation in Chicago and the $717 million Lucas Oil Stadium opened in 2008 for the Indianapolis Colts, he said.

“The (Chicago) Bears’ rebuilt stadium reopened one year after Ford Field, with all 130 traditional suites built on the facility’s east side,” trade publication Sports Business Journal noted in a story this month.

The Hudson’s warehouse, in use from 1913 to 1995, was turned into 230,000 square feet of Class A commercial office rental space that rents for $21 to $23 per square foot. Tenants include law firmBodman PLC, and there is speculation that Warren-based advertising agency Campbell-Ewald will bring most of its 750 employees to the building — a rumor that company won’t confirm or deny, although it acknowledges it’s considering a move.

‘VIP neighborhood’

That warehouse side of the stadium is home to most of the 129 suites, club seats, the 262-seat press box and the broadcast facilities.

Grouping the suites and club seats together created a “VIP neighborhood” that is “perfect for corporate sponsorships and mingling” while the diehard fans swarm the other three sides of the stadium, Rossetti said.

Ford Field leases more single-game suites today than full-season rentals compared to 10 years ago, Lions President Tom Lewand told SBJ. He oversaw the stadium project for the Ford family, who own the Lions.

The average annual fee for a Ford Field suite is $96,000, and the average annual cost for one of the stadium’s 7,312 club seats is $1,509, according to a CSL Internationalstudy last September. That gives the Lions $23.1 million in annual potential premium seat revenue.

The league average is $140,219 for a suite for a season and $2,504 for a club seat, according to the report, which noted that corporations are the typical purchasers of premium seating because of the price.

Ford Field’s single-game suites leased for $3,000 to $12,000 a game in 2011, with seating for groups of 12 to 50 people, SBJ reported.

Non-premium seat season tickets for 2012 range from $350 to $990 for 10 games, while club seats are $1,000 to $2,000.

Downtown development

Both Ford Field and Comerica Park were billed as economic development projects for the city.

“I think it’s helped stabilize downtown as an entertainment destination,” said Jim Bieri, president of Detroit-based Stokas-Bieri Real Estate. “The size of the crowd makes a difference. The fans tend to come down longer and stay longer.”

Downtown bars and restaurants cater to fans with specials and shuttles to the stadium, but there hasn’t been a boom of new business or construction around the stadiums.

“It’s continuous activity (on game days), but it’s not an everyday thing, and it’s not blossomed beyond food and beverage yet,” Bieri said. “Trying to develop around stadiums is not something that is perfected yet. (The stadium) certainly didn’t hurt anything. I think the overall effect is positive.”

Rossetti said his lone disappointment is that more of the original design to make the site an entertainment neighborhood didn’t happen because the economy began to fall apart.

The House of Blues concert venue and restaurant chain decided not to open a Detroit location that was under consideration, and that, in turn, squelched a chain hotel project, Rossetti said.

“The whole venue was part of a master plan for that site that was going to include more entertainment and bars,” he said.

Rossetti also said the Lions and Ford family were nervous about connecting to the office building because retail in the nearby Trapper’s Alley neighborhood had begun to collapse.

“We were able to show them it would be a much more magical and unique venue with the warehouse,” he said.

Connecting the office space also saved an estimated $50 million to $60 million in project costs, he added.

Homeward bound

Moving into Ford Field was a homecoming for the Lions.

The team had left Tiger Stadium, its primary home since 1938, for the 80,311-seat Silverdome in 1975. Under the lease with the city-owned dome, the Lions didn’t share in the suite, parking and concession revenue — cash NFL teams consider vital because leaguewide broadcast deals and gate receipts don’t always cover player payrolls (the salary cap was at $40.7 million in 1996 and now is $120.6 million) — and other expenses.

Lions majority owner William Clay Ford Sr. and his son William Clay Ford Jr., a minority owner, worked with Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch in the mid-1990s to convince political and civic leaders — and the voting public — that new stadiums were needed to keep the teams financially competitive and to bolster a dead area of the city.

Now, the Lions get all of that revenue.

Cost analysis

Compared to recent stadium price tags, Ford Field looks like a deal.

The five NFL stadiums built after 2002 have cost much more.

The New England Patriots’ 68,756-seat Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., opened a month after Ford Field and cost slightly less ($412 million). That venue was built with 83 percent private financing, according to a report earlier this year from Minneapolis-based advisory firmConventions, Sports & Leisure International.

Going back to the Washington Redskins’ construction of $250 million FedEx Field in 1997, which is the start of the report, the average NFL stadium has cost $525.4 million, with 44 percent of capital costs privately financed and the remaining 56 percent from some type of public funds.

The CSL report covers 20 stadiums, two of which — the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field and the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field — were major renovations to existing facilities. It also includes the proposed $987 million San Francisco 49ersstadium project.

Second home

The stadium wasn’t the only major capital project for the Lions a decade ago.

In March 2002, the team opened a $35.5 million, 460,000-square-foot training complex and headquarters, including two full outdoor practice fields, in Allen Park on land it is leasing for 30 years from Ford Motor Land Development Corp. There’s also been other construction at the Ford Field site.

In 2005, a five-story, 115,000-square-foot office building that houses accounting firmPricewaterhouseCoopers, and an adjacent five-story, 1,200-space parking deck, were built for $40 million. The PWC building is privately owned and its land was separated from the stadium authority’s ownership.

Rossetti is still under contract with the Lions, and there are plans to add more amenities to the site, Matt Rossetti said, adding that he’s obligated not to discuss them publicly.

“We’re just beginning to talk about those things. (The Lions are) getting fired up right now,” Rossetti said. “It always begins with the perspective on what can be done.”

By Bill Shea, Crain’s Detroit