It’s been a rough year for viewership in the NFL. Both attendance and television ratings are down, and by a sharp degree.
Whether it’s due to protests during the anthem, a rash of injuries to star players or an unexciting on-field product (amid a myriad of other factors), the NFL isn’t drawing fans the way it has in years past.
That makes the Lions an outlier.
They are one of only 10 teams whose attendance has increased from the 2016 season. And no team has shown a sharper spike than the Lions.
Last year, the Lions averaged 60,792 fans per game at Ford Field. Through seven home games in 2017, they’ve averaged 64,371. Ford Field’s capacity is 65,000.
That’s a 5.89 percent increase. The next closest team is the Jaguars, with a 3.86 percent increase (from 61,915 fans per game to 64,303). The Jaguars have climbed from last place to first in the AFC South.
The Lions’ attendance surge is probably more attributable to last year’s success. They went 9-7 and made the playoffs in 2016, with six of those wins coming at home. They also spent big in the offseason, signing two marquee free agents in Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang, and entered the 2017 season with their sights set on a division title.
Another key development over the summer? Ford Field underwent $100 million in renovations, including the addition of two massive video boards behind each end zone. The spruced-up stadium has been an attraction like never before.
Per data from Pro Football Reference, Ford Field’s average attendance is the highest it’s been in its 16 years of operation.
In the past month alone, the Lions have set a Ford Field attendance record for a Thanksgiving game (66,613) and a Saturday game (65,872).
True, attendance numbers are based on tickets sold instead of turnstile count. But Ford Field’s numbers don’t seem phony. It’s one of the few stadiums this season that hasn’t shown scores of empty seats midway through a game.
“Our fans do a tremendous job supporting us, absolutely tremendous,” Jim Caldwell said after Saturday’s win. “They did on the road when we were down in Tampa, they do it at home. They’re a knowledgeable crowd. It makes it difficult for the opposition to come in and play. I think what our fans are most interested in is winning, and that’s the thing that we have to keep doing.”
With Saturday’s win, the Lions secured a .500 record or above in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1999 (8-8) and 2000 (9-7). Though a low bar for success, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by the fans.
It bears mention that the team has had an enticing home schedule. They hosted the Cardinals in the season opener, the NFC Champion Falcons in Week 3, the 2015 NFC Champion Panthers in Week 5, the Steelers on Sunday night in Week 8, the Vikings on Thanksgiving and the Bears on Saturday afternoon in Week 15. They also got off to a 3-1 start, which fueled fan excitement and may have boosted ticket sales for future dates.
Other teams to enjoy noteworthy attendance spikes this season are the Titans (3.00 percent) and the Falcons (2.36 percent), the latter of whom is in its first year in a new stadium.
The sharpest attendance drop, excluding the relocated Los Angeles Chargers, belongs to the Bengals. Amid a 5-9 season after an 0-3 start, the Bengals have seen attendance fall by 10.71 percent from 2016.