DDP Centennial: The City of Champions

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The City of Champions

Detroit is part of an exclusive club of cities where all four major sports teams compete within its Downtown city limits. Whether you know Detroit as the “City of Champions” or “Hockeytown,” there is no shortage of triumphs and misfortunes these teams have given Detroit fans over the years.

Sports are often one of the fabrics that bind us, and Downtown Detroit is one of the few cities in the United States where all four professional sports teams have their home in the Downtown. 

By the late 1920s, the Detroit Lions, Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings established teams and the Pistons arrived in 1957 after moving from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Detroit.

Whatever your sports pleasure, there is no shortage of victories and losses that Detroit sports fans have been center stage for over the years.  And the Downtown Detroit Partnership has been there every step of the way as one of Downtown’s most enthusiastic and loyal fans.

Working alongside mayors and city officials, team owners and business leaders, the DDP has helped promote the city and organize a cadre of parades, events and fundraisers. The most recent is the 2024 NFL Draft that will be hosted in Detroit. 

There is so much to Detroit’s sports story. In addition to the Big Four teams, there’s the Grand Prix and the newly launched soccer franchise – Detroit City Football Club, not to mention the history of owners and their stadiums over the decades. 

Detroit’s first major sports victory happened in 1935 when the Lions won the National Football League Championship. (Yes, you read that right.) That same year, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series. A year later, the Detroit Red Wings had back-to-back Stanley Cup wins –1936 and 1937. To this day, Detroit remains the only city to defend three national sports championships in the same year, which gave birth to Detroit’s nickname: “The City of Champions.” This led then-Governor of Michigan Frank Fitzgerald to declare April 18 as “Champions Day,” an annual celebration. 

Around the same time, the legend Joe Louis rose to prominence and won the heavyweight boxing title in 1937. Louis’s excellence in the ring was only transcended by his activism and influence in the African-American community. His extraordinary career and contributions were honored in the naming of Joe Louis Arena in 1979. Joe Louis Arena was the official stadium for the Detroit Red Wings until the franchise moved its headquarters to Little Caesars Arena in 2017. 

The Detroit Red Wings started in 1926 as the Detroit Cougars, briefly renamed the Detroit Falcons and in 1932 became the Detroit Red Wings. 

After more than a four-decade drought known as the “Dead Wings” era, the Red Wings reclaimed the Hockeytown name, winning consecutive Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998 with the legendary Russian Five team members, and again in 2002. 

The Tigers began as a minor league team in 1894 and is currently the only Western league team still housed in its original city. After a victory in 1935, the Tigers did not win another World Series until after the war in 1945, then in 1968 and then their fourth championship in 1984. 

The Detroit Lions franchise began in Portsmouth, Ohio but moved north to Detroit in 1934. The Lions shared a similar losing streak after their 1935 championship. They turned it around in the 1950s with back-to-back NFL Championships in 1952 and 1953 and then again in 1957. The trade of Bobby Layne in 1958 birthed the “The Bobby Layne Curse.” After the trade, Layne said, “this team won’t win a championship for another 50 years.” It has now been 64 years. 

While the Lions are famously one of the only teams to have never gone to a Super Bowl, in 2006, the City of Detroit hosted Super Bowl XL at Ford Field. In advance of the event, the Downtown Detroit Partnership initiated the beginnings of the Downtown Detroit Business Improvement Zone. The BIZ Ambassador program was born to clean up the Downtown and develop a team of “greeters”  in preparation for the hundreds of thousands of guests. 

The Detroit Pistons started in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Fred Zollner produced pistons for cars and other engines, the inspiration for the team he bought in 1937. In 1957, Zollner moved the team to Detroit, opting to retain the name due to its relevance to the “Motor City.” The team won back-to-back championships in 1988 and 1989.

The Downtown Detroit Partnership has also played a significant role in the 40-year success of the Detroit Grand Prix. The Grand Prix has been an excellent and exciting source of income, tourism and business for the city of Detroit since its initial conception in the 1980s. During the early to mid-80s, the race consisted of Formula One cars competing in a 2.5-mile circuit around the Renaissance Center and through the streets of Detroit. In 1989 the race changed to a Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) competition until it was halted three years later. 

In 2007, Chairman of Penske Corporation, Inc. and former DDP board chair Roger Penske and the DDP revived the race as the Detroit Indy Grand Prix. The event was a huge success and returned the following year. However, due to the 2008 recession and automotive economic crisis, the race would again take a hiatus before returning in 2012 as the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear at its new location on Belle Isle. 

The DDP is very proud to be part of one of the city’s most successful and exciting sporting events with such relevance to the Motor City. Most recently, DDP has helped the Grand Prix move the race back to the streets of Downtown in 2023.

The building of all of Detroit’s many stadiums could be its own history tour. Still, from this vantage point (add corners where cling is), you are just steps from Little Caesars Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons; Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers; and Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. 

The Downtown would not be what it is today without these team owners’ commitment and investment and the city’s and its citizens’ support.

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