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What if the Detroit Lions were a winning franchise?

What would it do for the fans? The city? The players?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a dream we’ve all dreamed. It’s a future we all continue to hope for. What if the Detroit Lions—a franchise that has won a single playoff games in the past 62 years—finally found success? What if the Lions not only had one, miraculous run, but had the reputation of the league’s most successful teams. What if the Lions found their names besides the Steelers and Patriots and Packers?

What would it do for the city of Detroit? What would the reputation of their fans? Would the Lions become a nationally-treasured franchise or become the villain of the league. Let’s explore some of these questions as we ask: What if the Detroit Lions were a successful franchise?

The fans

Earlier this week, a study ranked Lions fans just 22nd among all NFL teams based on certain economic and social media factors. But just how much would a winning reputation help the fans get more engaged?

In short, a ton. Looking at that same study, it’s clear the most popular teams, when it comes to social media interaction, are the franchises that have the best long-term reputations. The top 10 include the Patriots, Steelers, Eagles, Panthers, Broncos and Packers.

In terms of attendance, the Lions are actually already in pretty good standing. Despite decades of little-to-no success, Detroit still ranked 18th in attendance last year (by percentage), and that fan study ranked Lions fans 18th in “road equity” a measure of fans’ willingness to travel to see their team play.

Throw in a decade or two of actual winning, and there’s no doubt the Lions would become one of the most passionate fanbases in the league. We may even get a fancy name like “The 12s” or “The Dawg Pound.”

National appeal

But would the Lions catch on nationally? Would Detroit be able to convert fans from other cities and states to become part of Lions nation?

Obviously, there would be an uptick in interest. Detroit would get more nationally televised games, and fans would follow. Obviously the bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles will remain at the top of NFL headlines, and cities that have a deeper football culture like Dallas and Houston will never lose value or appeal. But we’ve seen smaller market cities become NFL fan havens. New Orleans, Green Bay and Boston have all generated an intense football market locally, and brought themselves a bunch of appeal to fans around the NFL.

But one thing that could be holding the Lions back is their lack of superstars. So many fans of the NFL latch onto specific personalities and players, whether it be because of fantasy football or otherwise. In the past, players like Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson managed to reach superstar status despite the lack of success, but Detroit doesn’t have a player like that right now.

If the Lions were successful, though, you’d have to imagine Matthew Stafford would be a mega-star. Quarterbacks get all the credit and all the blame, and even if Stafford were playing at the same level he is today, if Detroit was winning, he’d be in the conversation of best quarterbacks in the league, and he’d be in the top 10 in jersey sales every year.

The city of Detroit

If the Lions were successful, would it help expedite the process of turning around Detroit? The city has already made tremendous strides in the past 10 years, but there is still a lot of work to do, and the surrounding neighborhoods are still in pretty bad shape. Would a winning franchise help out?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably no. Back in 2013, the University of New Hampshire published a study called “Economic Effects of Successful Sports Franchises on Local Economies.” In the end, they concluded that “none of the analysis suggests that there is a correlation between an individual team’s success and how the regional economy does as a whole.”

Game will be more attended, perhaps some sports bars downtown will see some serious profits, but the city of Detroit is not going to magically rebound with some Lombardi trophies.

The Lions’ franchise

For as long as the list has been coming out, the Detroit Lions have found themselves towards the bottom of Forbes’ most valuable NFL franchises. As of last year, they were the second-least valuable team in the league.

All you have to do is look at the Patriots as an example of how much success affects overall value. Before Bill Belichick was in town, the Patriots finished fourth or fifth in their division in seven times in the previous 10 years. In Belichick’s first year, the Patriots were valued at $464 million, just over the league’s average ($423 million). Two decades of unfathomable success, and now the Patriots are the second-most valuable franchise in the NFL and the sixth-most valuable franchise in all of sports.

Obviously, the Lions would have to pull themselves out of a bigger hole, but there’s no doubt this franchise could be in the top 10 with some success.

And we’ve seen just how financially and socially successful a winning sports franchise can be in Detroit. Despite the last couple years of horrible hockey and the decades of the “Dead Wings” era before the 1990s, the Detroit Red Wings remain one of the most valuable NHL sports franchise in the league. Granted, there are other factors at play here—like the fact that hockey is a regional sport that has always been popular in Michigan—but it remains proof that despite some local economy issues, a sports franchise can be financially successful in Detroit.

Lingering questions

Barry and Calvin?

If the Lions were a successful franchise, would we have gotten a few more seasons out of Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson? It’s obviously impossible to know, but it would be out of the question. While Johnson talked a lot about injuries influencing his decision to retire at the age of 30, he also did say the following:

“I didn’t see a chance for them to win a Super Bowl at the time, and for the work I was putting in, it wasn’t worth my time to keep on beating my head against the wall and not going anywhere.”

If the Lions were successful, I’d say there’s a pretty damn good chance we’d see at least another season or two of Megatron.

Barry is an entirely different situation, as he seemed to simply fall out of love with the game. Of course, his conflicts with the organization were no secret, and a little success could’ve masked all that.

Free agents?

Obviously, it becomes a little easier to convince players to play for a winning franchise. Players nearing retirement would consider Detroit for one last shot at a ring. People would be more willing to deal with the weather or Matt Patricia’s tough rules if the promise of winning came along with a Lions contract.

It’s all part of the vicious cycle that people don’t talk about in the NFL. Winning breeds more winning, and while we see some parity in the NFL, we don’t nearly see as much as they like to suggest.

Heroes or villains?

Would the Lions be accepted as villains or heroes. If the string of success were to start now, there’s no doubt the Lions would make a compelling hero story. The franchise building themselves out of rubble would undoubtedly draw comparisons to the city of Detroit—a story more Americans would feel compassionate towards.

But as they say, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Too much success and the jealousy and envy bleeds through. If the success lasted long enough, we’d have generations of obnoxiously cocky Lions fans who would know nothing of our current struggles and would then take things for granted. People would start hating Lions fans like they never have before, and yeah, eventually they’d assume their final Patriots-North identity.