Detroit: A Great Sports City

Sporting News rankings shortchange Motown at No. 11

The Gores era represents a new time for the Pistons, their fans and Michigan.
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The Sporting News just came out with its list of America’s greatest sports cities and Detroit finished 11th out of 271 markets considered. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound horrible.

Until you see what cities ranked ahead of us.

At No. 10 was Tampa-St. Petersburg. There goes the credibility of that list. Consider: In the previous two days, the Tampa Bay Bucs snapped a streak of 14 consecutive NFL games blacked out in their market – it took a Monday night football game to do it – and the Tampa Bay Rays attracted a meager 28,000 fans to an American League playoff game.

Attendance isn’t the only determinant, of course. TSN says won-loss records, postseason appearances, applicable power ratings, number of teams in the market and attendance are all taken into consideration.

So on-field success makes up a good chunk of the ratings. And what are all the titles won by Tampa again?

If you’re 27, you’ve been alive for one World Series title (Tigers ’84), three NBA championships (Pistons 1989, ’90, 2004), four Stanley Cup parades (Red Wings 1997, ’98, 2002, ’08), one NCAA football title (Michigan 1997) and one NCAA basketball title (Michigan 1989). That doesn’t include Michigan State’s 2000 NCAA basketball title; TSN considers Ann Arbor, but not East Lansing, as part of the Detroit market, which ignores the fact there are enough Spartans alumni in metro Detroit to field a small nation’s army.

No, the Detroit Lions haven’t pulled their weight. But a promising end to last season and a 4-0 start to this one has ticket demand through the roof at Ford Field despite the fact their fan base has been treated to one playoff win – one! – in the last 54 years. If the Tampa Bay Bucs went 54 years between playoff wins, how long do you suppose their blackout drought would be right now?

But not to pick on Tampa-St. Pete. No. 9 on the list was Miami, equally egregious. No. 8 was Los Angeles, which defies common sense. The nation’s No. 2 market saw two NFL teams flee for comparatively microscopic fan bases. No. 7 was Atlanta, where the Braves have for years had trouble selling out playoff games and the NHL team just bolted town. Atlanta’s reputation as a lousy sports town is well-earned.

TSN’s top five were Dallas-Fort Worth, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York.

I don’t get Dallas as No. 1, even conceding the value of the Mavericks winning the most recent NBA title and the Rangers getting to the 2010 World Series. Tough to quibble with Boston, especially since the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins have all won titles in this decade. And Philly, Chicago and New York belong on any short list of America’s great sports cities.

But so does Detroit. Only broad on-field failure or widespread and sudden fan apathy would explain Detroit ranking behind any other group of cities. And neither is the case.

The Tigers are one win away from playing for the American League pennant and only five years removed from a World Series appearance. The Pistons in this decade strung together seven straight 50-win seasons and six straight trips to the NBA’s final four. The Red Wings’ streak of 20 straight postseason appearances is the longest for any franchise across the four major professional American sports leagues.

The Pistons sold out The Palace 259 straight times until the worldwide economic meltdown brought Detroit to its knees first and fastest. Comerica Park has become Detroit’s town square. They’re thinking about expanding Michigan Stadium, already the country’s largest. Joe Louis Arena buzzes with electricity every time they open the doors for the Red Wings. (College hockey sells the place out!) The faintest sign of a pulse was enough to get the phones ringing off the hook at Ford Field.

People love lists, which is the simplest explanation for why The Sporting News compiled this one. It was a noble idea. But if the formula created spits out Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami and Tampa ahead of Detroit, well … back to the drawing board.