After three futile attempts at establishing a professional football team in Detroit in the 1920s, the "new" game took a firm foothold in the city beginning in 1934, when Detroit radio executive George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth, Ohio, Spartans for the then-astounding sum of $8,000 and moved the franchise to the Motor City.
The Spartans had joined the NFL in 1930 and, in 1932, played in one of history's most pivotal games, a hastily-scheduled championship game against the Chicago Bears that was played indoors at Chicago Stadium. From that game came three major rule changes and the separation of the league into two divisions and the establishment of an annual NFL title showdown.
Unlike previous Detroit pro football teams, the new Lions team was loaded with some of the finest players of the day and the team leader was Dutch Clark, a true triple-threat superstar and the last NFL dropkicker, who became a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Playing in the University of Detroit Stadium before crowds of 12,000, the Lions won the NFL championship in their second year, 1935. Those early successes firmly established pro football in Detroit and for more than 60 years the sport has been an integral part of the Michigan sports scene.
The Lions also made their lasting mark by scheduling a Thanksgiving Day game in their first season in 1934 and, except for a six-year gap between 1939 and 1944, continuing the tradition until the present day. Both before and after 1934, other NFL teams have tried Turkey Day games, and except for the Dallas Cowboys, without significant success.
In the 1950s, the Lions enjoyed their finest years ever with four divisional titles and three league championships in 1952, 1953 and 1957. Stars of those glittering teams, whose annual showdowns against the archrival Cleveland Browns fascinated the pro football world, included such future Pro Football Hall of Famers as quarterback Bobby Layne, running back Doak Walker, tackle-guard Lou Creekmur and safety Jack Christiansen.
Since their last title in 1957, the Lions have been looking in vain for the top spot. While outstanding players such as Joe Schmidt, Yale Lary, Lem Barney and Dick "Night Train" Lane earned election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the best the Lions were able to accomplish as a team for the next 26 seasons were wild-card berths in 1970 and 1982. The Lions finally ended their long championship drought by winning the NFC Central Division championship in 1983. The Lions under Coach Wayne Fontes and paced by Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, the team's all-time rushing leader, also won divisional titles in 1991 and 1993. Detroit's first playoff victories since 1957 took the Lions all the way to the 1991 NFC championship game for the first time in franchise history.
The Lions moved from the University of Detroit Stadium to Briggs Field, home of the baseball Tigers, in 1938, where they stayed for 37 years. In 1975, the Lions moved into the Pontiac Silverdome where they played for 37 years. Then in 2002, the team moved back to downtown Detroit and into a new domed stadium, Ford Field.