The Lions have at long last emerged as America’s Team, and for the first time in franchise history are forging just about as clear a path to the Super Bowl as a Lions fan could ever hope for. To go along with the hype and excitement, a winning Lions team has real economic impacts on the city, and especially on its vibrant tapestry of restaurants and bars. As Eminem said in the opening to NBC’s January 14 broadcast of the game against the Los Angeles Rams: “This is the story of what a football team can mean to a city.”
East Lansing-based consulting firm Anderson Economic Group, LLC, estimates in a recent analysis that the net economic impact of the Divisional Playoff Game between the Lions and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is expected to exceed $50 million. Downtown spending outside of the stadium each of the past two weekends have exceeded $20 million, says Chris Moyer, a spokesman for Visit Detroit. “Restaurants and bars captured a large portion of that,” Moyer told Eater Detroit.
January is typically a slow month for restaurants, especially in bitterly cold Detroit. But in the last two weekends, when the Lions faced off with the Los Angeles Rams and then the Tampa Bay Bucs, Moyer says that’s not been the case. Like, at all. “In general, bars in the city of Detroit, [and] restaurants in the city of Detroit, are seeing so many customers come down the past couple of weekends that we’re hearing anecdotal evidence of [businesses] making what they would have expected to make the entire month,” Moyer says.
As for how the playoffs are hitting the pocketbooks of folks who work in hospitality, Moyer says the numbers aren’t in yet, but he expects that hundreds of Detroiters have benefitted from the extra income that the games produced thanks to throngs of fans who flocked to bars and restaurants to catch the action. “A lot more people got a paycheck because of the Lions’ success, and that’s a great thing,” says Moyer.
Full disclosure: I was almost 30 before I attended my first football game. Football was just never part of my upbringing: We were more of an NBA household (go Blazers, go Lakers!). Maybe boxing. It wasn’t until I moved to Detroit in 2011 that I attended my first game at the Big House in Ann Arbor. Not long after, I was invited to my second game, this time a Detroit Lion’s game at Ford Field in the executive suite of my former employer, right next to the then-publisher, on Christmas Day.
Not bad for a rookie.
While probably not typical of most peoples’ first football experiences, those games provided me — then a young reporter, brand new to Detroit — an essential glimpse into what moves the city.
No matter if you bleed Honolulu blue or you’re like me and fall asleep before the first snap, sports are as intrinsic to the Detroit experience as muscle cars, Aretha, and the music festivals that grace the riverfront every summer. There’s no escaping the gravitational pull that the Lions are currently wielding after capturing, not one, but two crucial postseason victories — a feat not realized since 1957.
Clarkston-based Union Joints restaurant group operates more than a dozen restaurants across the region, including the massive Union Assembly that sits across the street from the stadium action. The large space also houses Mom’s Spaghetti, a collaboration with Eminem, which serves boxes of noodles in red sauce to game-goers from a takeout window in an alleyway. Owner Curt Catallo tells Eater Detroit that on a regular game day, customers tend to be Lions season ticket-holders who file in and out of the expansive 503-seat restaurant before the game and maybe for a night cap afterward.
During this month’s playoff streak, though, it didn’t seem to matter if one had a ticket to the game. Customers hung around just to be near all of the action.
“Typically, there’s a wave [of customers], and then you get a little moment to catch your breath for another wave after the game,” says Catallo. “This one, we just kind of surfed through the whole thing and it was awesome. It’s a tidal wave.”
On Sunday, January 21, when the Lions beat the Bucs 31-23, Union Assembly cleared more than 2,000 covers. Staff were brought in from Union Joints’ other properties and Catallo had to rent parking space from the Central United Methodist Church to accommodate the influx of workers. Meanwhile, at Mom’s Spaghetti, Catallo says his team sold more than 500 pounds of pasta.
“For our bartenders and bar backs, it was like Opening Day in January,” says Catallo.
This Sunday, the Lions face off the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, California, for the 2024 NFC Championship Game. According to the Freep, Delta Air Lines is using a larger aircraft — an Airbus 321, which has capacity for 191 passengers, instead of a Airbus 319, which is typically used and accommodates 132 passengers — to fly the Honolulu blue waves of Detroiters out west for the game.
Where to watch the game on Sunday
A number of restaurants and bars will host events for fans who’ve stayed behind, both spots that one would expect, like Batch Brewing Company, which is collaborating with Detroit-style pizza favorite Michigan and Trumbull to offer wristbands for $35 that grant customers all-you-can-eat pizza, wings, pretzels, carrot dip, and salad. Other spots a bit more removed from downtown, like Ladder 4 Wine Bar and El Club, are hosting viewing parties.
Of course, the region is home to plenty of sports bars, dives, and downtown establishments where fans are sure to find camaraderie — and maybe the luck that Detroit needs to power through to our Super Bowl dreams.