Ford's Detroit Lions didn't match automaker's turnaround

William Clay Ford Sr. assumed full control of the Detroit Lions on Jan. 10, 1964.
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DETROIT -- William Clay Ford Sr. bought the Detroit Lions in 1963, but was never able to realize the same successful on-field rebirth with the team that the Ford family’s automotive company managed in recent years.

It has been Ford’s intent to keep the National Football League franchise in the family, according to a source familiar with the estate situation who spoke to Crain's Detroit Business, an affiliate of Automotive News, only on the condition of anonymity for a November 2013 story.

Ford’s eldest child, William Clay Ford Jr., 56, is executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. and has been the Lions' vice chairman since February 1995. He sits on several of the NFL's most powerful committees and acts as the day-to-day chief executive of the team in his father’s place. It hasn't been disclosed if Ford Jr. owns any shares of the team.

Ford Sr. died Sunday at age 88 of pneumonia.

The Lions said Monday that ownership of the team will transfer to his widow, Martha Ford, 88, and William Clay Ford Jr. would remain vice chairman.

“Pursuant to long-established succession plans, Mr. Ford’s controlling interest in the Lions passes to Mrs. Martha Ford. She and her four children will continue to be involved in the ownership of the franchise, as they have during Mr. Ford’s tenure,” the Lions said.

Early position

Ford paid $4.5 million to buy out more than 100 other Detroit Lions shareholders in late 1963 and assumed full control on Jan. 10, 1964. He had been a minority owner and sat on the team’s board since 1956. He became team president in 1961.

“It is with profound sadness that we mourn the loss of Mr. Ford and extend our deepest sympathies to Mrs. Ford and to the entire Ford family,” Lions President Tom Lewand said in a statement.

“No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions. Those of us who had the opportunity to work for Mr. Ford knew of his unyielding passion for his family, the Lions and the city of Detroit. His leadership, integrity, kindness, humility and good humor were matched only by his desire to bring a Super Bowl championship to the Lions and to our community. Each of us in the organization will continue to relentlessly pursue that goal in his honor.”

Forbes.com estimated Ford Sr. is worth $1.35 billion and that the Lions are valued at $900 million.

Deal approved in 1963

Ford Sr.'s bid to buy the majority ownership of the team was approved by the Lions' board of directors on Nov. 22, 1963 -- the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

He bought the team from a consortium of 144 shareholders for $4.5 million after a power struggle between Goebel Brewing Co. President Edwin Anderson and D. Lyle Fife, owner of Detroit-based Fife Electric Supply Co.

In the 50 seasons that he’s owned the Lions, the team has made the playoffs just 10 times and compiled a 310-441 regular-season record. In that time, Detroit’s sole playoff victory was in January 1992. The team has not won a championship since the 1957 season, and has never appeared in a title game or Super Bowl since then -- a source of often harsh criticism of Ford by fans and media.

The Lions have had 14 full-time head coaches during Ford’s tenure, the most recent being the hiring of Jim Caldwell in January. Ford didn’t attend Caldwell’s formal introduction press conference at Ford Field. Team officials said he was under the weather but did not elaborate.

Under Ford, the Lions moved from Tiger Stadium in Detroit to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1975. The team used a mixture of mostly private but some public funding to build $500 million Ford Field in downtown Detroit, where the team began play in 2001.

You can reach Bill Shea at bshea@crain.com.


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