By Bill Shea
Crain’s Detroit Business
Published: November 21, 2010

Second-year quarterback Matthew Stafford literally is the poster boy for the rebuilding Detroit Lions, appearing on billboards and other marketing materials aimed at selling tickets.

Fans, however, may not be interested in buying individual game or season tickets to watch second-stringer Shaun Hill pressed into service at quarterback because Stafford is sidelined again with another shoulder injury.

Stafford’s failure to finish three of his last four starts has raised questions about his durability, and it doesn’t help ticket sales. Especially for a team that’s just 4-37 since 2007.

“Stafford downtime hurts, especially for a team that has a low sellout rate like the Lions,” said Rodney Fort, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. “Long term, that is a real concern for the Lions. He is so good when he is healthy, but that isn’t often enough. Fans must wonder, “Why buy season tickets when the team’s fortunes are really week-to-week?’ ”

Going into this past weekend’s game at Dallas, the Lions were 2-7 and had set the NFL record for consecutive road losses at 25 with a 14-12 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

However, the team announced Thursday that its next home game, the annual Thanksgiving Day game that’s a tradition among fans even if the Lions are terrible, has sold out.

Half of the team’s home games were blacked out on local television in 2008 and 2009. So far this year, only Detroit’s 37-25 victory over the Washington Redskins on Oct. 31 has been blacked out.

Ironically, that was Stafford’s first game back since injuring his throwing shoulder in the first half of a season-opening 19-14 loss at Chicago, which forced him to miss the next five games (in which the Lions went 1-4).

Stafford threw four touchdowns against Washington, but only the 46,329 fans at Ford Field saw it live. The next week, Stafford threw two touchdowns and ran for another before reinjuring his shoulder and being forced to leave with about five minutes left against the New York Jets, who later won in overtime.

The Lions must sell 54,500 tickets to sell out 65,000-seat Ford Field in each of its eight home games every season. Premium/club seating at NFL stadiums is exempt from sellout requirements.

The NFL mandates that games be sold out 72 hours before kickoff or they are blacked out within a 75-mile radius of the home team’s stadium. If a team is close to a sellout, the league sometimes will grant a 24-hour extension to sell tickets.

The Lions’ stated goal this season was just one or two blackouts.

Detroit has averaged 54,132 for its four home games this season, which is 29th in the 32-team National Football League. Only St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Oakland draw fewer per game on average.

Detroit has three straight home games coming up, starting Thursday with the New England Patriots, who have the NFL’s best record. After that, they host the Chicago Bears (Dec. 5) and Green Bay Packers (Dec. 12) before a two-game road trip to Florida. The season finale is Jan. 2 at home against the Minnesota Vikings.

Black out, red ink

Not being on television doesn’t have a serious direct financial impact on the Lions because the NFL negotiates its network and cable television deals collectively and distributes the revenue evenly among teams. That averages about $100 million per team each season.

But the team doesn’t get local exposure when blacked out, which can perpetuate the cycle of blackouts if fans continue to lose interest. That, in turn, leads to less revenue from game-day concessions and merchandise sales.

The Lions, according to Forbes, posted a $2.9 million operating loss against $210 million in revenue last season. Only one other team, the Miami Dolphins, took an operating income loss in 2009 ($7.7 million), Forbes calculated.

Shouldering a load

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league.

In an old NFL Films feature about quarterbacks, former Cincinnati Bengals passer and current CBS Sports analyst Boomer Esiason put it plainly: “No one is watching the nose tackle except for the nose tackle’s wife and mother. Everyone is watching the quarterback.”

Quarterbacks get the most money and most attention. In Stafford’s case, it’s a contract that could pay him $78 million, the most lucrative deal in franchise history.

While details of the contract haven’t been made public, it’s believed some of the potential payout is linked to playing time benchmarks that he’s unlikely to meet in the short term because of the injuries. (See box at right.)

That protects the Lions to some degree financially, but hits Stafford in the pocketbook. His endorsement potential is affected, too. He’s reportedly due to earn $750,000 this season in endorsements, which include pitching nationally for Unilever’s Axe male-grooming products and locally for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Sports marketing insiders have their eyes on Stafford.

“(He’s) on a watch list of sorts — a sports celebrity with great marketing potential on a national level,” said Bob Williams, CEO of Evanston, Ill.-based Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing Inc., which represents companies that want to hire athletes to endorse products. In the past, Burns has brokered deals involving Detroit stars such as Barry Sanders, Isiah Thomas and Kirk Gibson.

“The stakes are much higher on the local level. The Lions have invested their future monetarily and from a marketing standpoint in Matthew,” Williams said. “Lack of playing time due to injury has a ripple effect. It slows ticket sales with the team not winning as much. Matthew’s image growth is slowed by the lack of performance. Companies are in a “wait and see mode’ with Matthew. His career could go either way at this point.”

Stafford has played in 13 games since being drafted by Detroit as the first overall draft pick out of the University of Georgia in April 2009, but he’s been forced to leave four games with injuries — three of them to his throwing shoulder.

The latest injury, a shoulder separation on Nov. 6, has him on the bench and has team management playing coy with reporters about the severity of the injury. Stafford was examined last week by orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, who specializes in treating such injuries among pro athletes, and it was determined that surgery isn’t needed at this point.

The team also decided not to put Stafford on injured reserve, which would end his season. It still could do so.

For now, Stafford is on a rehabilitation program and potentially could return in mid-December.

“We’re not setting any timetables,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters. “I don’t know what kind of timetable he’s going to be on because it’s going to be on how he’s feeling.”

Some say there are other reasons to watch the Lions beside Stafford.

“Don’t forget they are still impressive to watch on the defensive side of the game with their new first-round draft pick, Ndamukong Suh,” said Michael Rapkoch, president of Addison, Texas-based Sports Value Consulting, LLC. Suh is a contender for NFL defensive rookie of the year.

The success Stafford has had in his limited playing time may have bought the team some breathing room, he said.

“Having Stafford helped bring a sense of loyalty to the team and, thus, the fans may continue to show their support,” Rapkoch said.

Bill Shea: (313) 446-1626, bshea@crain.com

http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20101121/FREE/311219968/staffords-injuries-could-hurt-lions-too-ticket-sales-may-take-it