More than ever, the rule in deciphering the NFL is to follow the money. Industry revenues have topped $10 billion. More than two-thirds of its franchises are worth at least $1 billion (via Forbes magazine). The salary cap, a percentage of total revenue, jumped by nearly 10 percent in 2014.
In that context, I view William Clay Ford Sr. -- who died Sunday at 88 -- as a quaint relic. Ford was the patriarch of a dynamic family of American capitalists, of course, but he ran the Detroit Lions in a way that suggested profits were not nearly as important as they are to many sports owners. In that sense, Ford provided a favorable structure from a fan's perspective: He ran the team like a civic trust as much as a business.
You can criticize Ford's operation of the franchise during the past 50 years. It's also worth pointing out that regardless of annual revenue, he was sitting on an investment that appreciated from $4.5 million at his 1963 purchase to $900 million based on Forbes' 2013 estimate. But two related trends illustrate how Ford and his family looked past the bottom line in operating the team.
First, the decision to build Ford Field in downtown Detroit was as much of an attempt to provide a struggling city with an anchor for renewal as it was to maximize profits. The Lions paid 49 percent of the $440 million price tag and helped round up a total of 75 percent in private investment, according to NFL accounting -- the third-highest percentage among the 19 NFL stadiums built or renovated from 1997 to 2010. Ford Field opened in 2002.
The Lions have been heavily burdened by debt since then, according to Crain's, helping lead to a startling revelation when Forbes estimated last August that the Lions have posted a negative operating income -- i.e., a loss -- in six of the past seven years. They were the only NFL team to do so in the most recent fiscal year, according to the magazine, yet they still returned for the 2013 season with the NFL's largest preseason player payroll ($155.9 million).
The Lions are a private business, so it's important to remember that Forbes uses an algorithm to project valuations based on a limited amount of public information. But assuming the magazine applies the same method to all teams, we can suggest with confidence that in recent years, Ford allowed the Lions to operate as one of the NFL's least profitable teams.
ESPN's Michael Rothstein wrote that Ford left a complicated legacy, of which the financial state of the Lions is but a small part. To me, however, the minimum standard for an NFL owner is to provide the financial template for winning. You can't buy victories, as the Lions have proved, but there is nothing worse than seeing a sports franchise wallow because of an owner's parsimony.
William Clay Ford was a private man, and he never fleshed out his thinking on this issue publicly, but the available evidence suggests he met that standard -- and then some.