The time Mike Ilitch killed Arena Football in Detroit

Pro football has a storied tradition in Detroit, with the Lions being one of the most fabled NFL teams, though having little to no success over the past 50 years.

Others might think of the Michigan Panthers of the USFL, who captured a title in their brief run in the Motor City.

But there was another, often forgotten franchise that has won just as many titles as the Lions, and all of them within the last 30 years.

I am of course talking about the Detroit Drive of the Arena Football League.

The Detroit Drive were one of the early members of the Arena Football League, being founded by pizza mogul, and then-Red Wings only owner Mike Ilitch in 1988.

The Arena Football League had just started in 1987, and with as popular as football was in Detroit, the Drive seemed like a natural fit for the league.

And it was.

The team was an instant success, playing its home games at Joe Louis Arena and averaging 14,244 (per ArenaFan.com) in the first year, going 9-3 in the regular and capturing Arena Bowl II over the Chicago Bruisers, 24-13, in what is still the lowest scoring Arena Bowl of all time.

The only “down” year for the Drive came in 1989, when the league threatened to shut down, but played a very abbreviated schedule, with the Drive going 3-1, but averaging only 8,445 fans for the year before capturing the title again with a 39-26 win over the Pittsburgh Gladiators in front of more than 12,000 fans at Joe Louis.

That’s right Red Wings fans, the first team to win a title at Joe Louis Arena was an Arena Football team. Hey, hey Hockeytown indeed.

And then the team, on the back of back-to-back titles took off in the city.

In 1990, the team brought in an average of 14,710 fans per game on the way to a 6-2 regular season, then walloped the Dallas Texans in Arena Bowl IV, 51-27 in front of 19,875 fans at Joe Louis.

By now the team was legendary. Three consecutive titles and a growing fan base that got even bigger for the 1991 season, when they pulled in an average of 16,606 fans per game on the way to a 9-1 regular season. But the Drive’s bid for a four-peat ended with a 48-42 loss to the Tampa Bay Storm in Arena Bowl V, played in front of 20,357 in Detroit.

Attendance dipped in 1992, but was still among the best in the AFL, with 14,671 coming to the Drive’s five home games that year on the way to an 8-2 record. The Drive regained the title that season with a 56-38 on the road over the Orlando Predators. The fourth title in team history.

Despite the success of the team both on the field and at the gate, 1993 was to be the last season for the Drive in the Motor City, as Ilitch had purchased the Detroit Tigers prior to that season, and felt the Drive were keeping fans from going to Tigers games. It’s true.

From Crain’s Detroit in 2013:

The Drive played at Joe Louis Arena, and Ilitch sold the team in 1993 only after buying the Detroit Tigers the previous year for $85 million. Ilitch didn’t want the Drive siphoning fans away from the Tigers; the AFL and baseball share the same spring-summer schedule.

The Drive brought in 14,538 fans per game in that final season, going 11-1 in the regular season, but falling 51-31 to the Tampa Bay Storm in Arena Bowl VII, the final game in team history.

The team was then sold following the season and moved in 1994 to Massachusetts, where they played all of one season in front of little more than 7,000 fans per game before folding.

Amazingly, the franchise that was once the Drive made a return to Michigan, and not in Detroit.

Amway Corp.’s Dan DeVos purchased the rights to the Massachusetts Marauders in 1997, and moved the team to Grand Rapids where he named them the Grand Rapids Rampage in 1998. They went on to play 12 seasons in Grand Rapids, winning the Arena Bowl in 2001 before folding following the 2008 season.

The AFL eventually did return to Detroit in 2001, when Bill Davidson, then-owner of the Detroit Pistons, and Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. founded the Detroit Fury, who played its home games at the Palace of Auburn Hills, about 45 minutes from Detroit.

The Fury never caught on, going 22-41 in four season, folding following the 2004 season and averaging about 8,100 fans per game, a far cry from the days where the Drive ruled the city.

But back to the Drive. It’s an amazing bit of Detroit history that the most successful football team in the state in the past 30 years is a long-forgotten Arena Football team that averaged 14,438 fans over its six-year history.

And even more bizarre is the fact that Mike Ilitch, a man with more money than anyone, killed off the team because he thought it took away from his newly purchased Detroit Tigers.

As odd as it is, the Drive and Tigers were connected by more than just Ilitch. In fact, the team was so successful that Ilitch took General Manager Gary Vitto and moved him to a front office role with the Detroit Tigers.

Despite basically kicking the team out because he thought it took away a few dollars from the Tigers, Ilitch, Vitto and head coach Tim Marcum are all members of the Arena Football League Hall of Fame.

It may have been only six years, but what a run it was. Six title game appearances, making the championship every year, and four titles overall.

That’s right, the four-time Arena Bowl champion Detroit Drive won as many titles in six years as the Lions and Tigers have in their entire existence, and have one more than the Pistons have in their history.

In fact, the four Drive titles is still the third most in AFL history despite the team not having played a game since 1993.

 

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