Zip line, cheerleaders add zing to Lions' home opener on Sunday

Brighter light, crisper sound, faster entrances, special seating, spirited cheerleaders — and a 200-foot zip line.

If you are headed to Ford Field for the first home game at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, Lions officials promise they've done more to enhance your experience for this year than at any time since the stadium opened in 2002.

The Lions plan to offer directions on social media to get you to the stadium and also set up special Uber drop off and pickup areas. There will be new pregame activities, including a 200-foot zip line that runs down Adams Street at 25 m.p.h., to help get your adrenaline flowing.

They've added several high-tech walk-through metal detectors to shorten lines and help you get in the stadium faster.

"We have been looking at every single process," said Kelly Kozole, Lions senior vice president of business development. "Literally, every square inch inside the facility, as well as outside at Pride Plaza, we've made changes or improvements."

The changes are part of an ongoing multimillion-dollar effort, Kozole said, to draw fans in — and to keep them coming back.

Changes have been inspired by what's worked at other stadiums and amusement parks, officials say.

In the past few years, the Lions — and other sports teams — have been trying to enhance what they call "the game experience," that thrilling, heart-racing, over-the-top rush you get when your team takes the field.

Across the National Football League, ticket sales have been at risk as they compete with the home experience: Games on high-def, giant screen TVs, with remote replays, your favorite comfort foods and cold beers, all far from the hassle of traffic and long lines at bathrooms and concession stands — and perhaps out-of-control spectators.

"We're competing with that, as well as all the different entertainment options in town," Kozole said. "We've been saying it, and we really mean it, we're listening to our fans."

In 2014, when the Lions went to the playoffs, it had an average game attendance of 63,024. Last year, it dropped to 61,347.

Ready for game day

Stadium improvements this year include 15% brighter LED lights, an improved audio system, restored roof that will last longer and look better, and Honolulu blue end zones.

There will be more to do, more to eat, and more to see, including an official cheerleader squad, which debuts at 12:30 p.m., before kickoff.

Cheerleaders — in case you aren't old enough to remember — haven't been a part of the team lineup since the 70s. A new team — 28 women — is back.

"That was one of our top comments from fans since 2002, when we opened Ford Field," Kozole said.

Until this year, there were only six teams that didn't have cheerleaders. Now, there are five.

To speed the time it takes to get in the stadium, Lions officials said they spent about $500,000 on more than 100 magnetometers, walk-through metal detectors, so they no longer have to use hand-held devices to check you — and they have added new suite and club entrances.

"A lot of our fans tend to come right before kick off, and it gets backed up," Kozole said. "We feel we will have an improved ingress for fans, where they are not waiting as long to come into the stadium."

But one thing that isn’t changing, officials acknowledged, is Wi-Fi, which for many fans — and even the Lions organization — has been a disappointment.

Ford Field in 2013 was the first major stadium in Michigan, and only the ninth in the NFL, to offer fans wireless Internet service. The upgrades initially cost about $4 million, and it was supposed to offer fans better, and faster, connectivity that would improve the game experience. It never quite worked the way it was expected.

Still, the team said, it plans to fix wireless connectivity, but not in time for the first few games.

"People are spending their hard-earned dollars with us," Kozole said. "We want to make sure we provide this amazing experience that they walk away saying: 'Wow, I want to come back to Ford Field. I want to come back to a Lions game. I want to come back to a concert.' "

In addition to Wi-Fi and apps rolled out in 2013, the Lions have been offering officially sponsored pregame parties on Brush Street and more on-site entertainment, such as a 50/50 raffle jackpot. There's also electronic ticketing, new food vendors, and post-game activities for kids younger than 14 to get a free mini football — and run a touchdown on the field.

This year, the team is adding new Uber stands off Woodward and the northbound East Fisher service drive, if you use the travel service.

Outside, on Adams Street, there will be a 30-foot high, 200-foot long zip line, to race down. It will be free to ticket holders who sign a waiver and are between 45 pounds and 250 pounds. It's managed by SuperGames, a Columbus, Ohio, company that also runs a line for the Cleveland Browns. The line starts at 30 feet up, and descends to about 10 feet.

"It's a pretty exciting activity," said SuperGames manager Zach Wells. "It's intense."

The team also is setting up a karaoke machine.

And, if you prefer games of chance, a Plinko game, and a cash machine, the Lions Cash Blaster, that fans can get inside and try to catch paper bills blowing around. The bills can be exchanged for merchandise and concessions in the stadium.

From 11 a.m. to noon, the team will offer soft-pack cooler giveaways at the gates, an incentive to get you into the stadium early. The free items will be different each game.

Special treats, better seats

Inside, in addition to the usual concession fare, some of which will be sold at lower-prices.

Fans can buy a huge, four-pound blue doughnut with Michigan apple filling — a treat for two to four people — for $15. There also will be new bratwursts infused with ale, and fresh, house-made pretzels, and Lions-branded burgers and fries, and icy treats — including Stafford Strawberry Lemonade — from the Detroit Water Ice Factory, a shop set up to donate some of its proceeds to charity.

Season ticket members will also get to use a 20% discount in the Stadium Collection store, which has been reconfigured, from 11 a.m. to noon. It's a perk, the Lions said, that fans requested.

And new this year, the Lions also are selling special seating — Tunnel Club seats — in the end zone that lets the fans see, and even high-five, players as they walk out onto the gridiron during introductions for $10,000 for a season membership. As of Thursday, there were only a few tunnel seats left.

"The goal is to have a packed stadium to give us a football advantage," Kozole said, noting that enthusiastic fans can tip the balance in a close game. "That's really what drives all this, our football team."

But are all the improvements in vain if the players on the field don't win?

"I would disagree," Kozole said, making no predictions about how many games the team would win this season. "While we can't control what happens on the field, it's a great family outing. It's a great day out with friends. It's more than just a football game."

And 1,500 season ticket holders who upgrade their tickets for $50, can get a pass to get in earlier, too.

(2016 © Detroit Free Press)


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