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O'HARA: Lions enhancing gameday experience for fans

PHOENIX– The renovation project that the Detroit Lions have undertaken to improve and upgrade Ford Field to enhance the gameday experience for fans is not being done at the expense of the product on the field.

Some fans have expressed fears that the stadium enhancements might put a squeeze on the team's ability to compete for players.

Those fears are unfounded, Lions president Rod Wood said Tuesday at the NFL Annual Meeting. Lions management remains committed to paying market value for players – at least – to build a competitive roster.

"I'm happy to clear that up," Wood said good-naturedly. "There's this thing the National Football League has called a salary cap ($167 million per team in 2017), first of all. Every team has to live within the salary cap. Year to year, you're going to spend more cash than the salary cap. Other years, you're going to spend under the cap.

"Over a four- or five-year period, you're spending essentially at the cap. Money that we're putting into the stadium isn't money that could be allocated to the players. The salary cap dictates what you can spend.

"It's not like we're taking money away from a free agent that we might have been able to add to the team, to do things to the stadium."

Evidence that the Lions have not been held back in free-agent signings is how they were able to outbid competing teams to sign two veteran offensive linemen early in this year's free agency period.

Right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Rick Wagner got contract offers from the Lions that exceeded those for other teams. That included their formers teams – the Packers, in Lang's case, and the Ravens in Wagner's case.

Stadium improvements, which have included correcting the long-standing WiFi problem in Ford Field, help the Lions compete for fans, Wood said.

"The things we're doing to the stadium are required," Wood said. "Not only to keep the fans that we have but to attract the younger fans who want to come to the game and have access to WiFi and experience their fantasy football experience and stay in touch with people through social media, are things we couldn't do if we didn't enhance the stadium."

Ford Field opened in 2002 and is still considered one of the top sports venues in the country after 15 seasons of hosting Lions home games and numerous other events. However, upgrades are necessary because of the intense competition to attract – and keep – fans.

Wood expressed the franchise's desire to bid on other events – such as hosting the NFL draft, which is held next month in Philadelphia, and possibly another Super Bowl. Ford Field hosted Super Bowl XL in 2006.

However, as Wood spelled out in listing the franchise's priorities, the football team is at the top of the list for ownership and management.

The 2016 season represented a good start for the Lions in Bob Quinn's first season as general manager. The Lions improved from a 7-9 record in 2015 to 9-7 and a Wild Card berth in the NFC playoffs.

Wood actually was hired a little more than midway through the 2015 season, when owner Martha Firestone Ford fired former president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew, and charted a new direction for the franchise.

"It's been a good year and a half," Wood said. "We made a lot of progress, I think, starting with the changes we made on the football side. Hiring Bob Quinn was a great addition to the team and the organization he built under him.

"It was a good season, but it wasn't a great season.

"On the business side we accomplished a lot: A lot of work on the stadium, getting the WiFi fixed, the plans for the renovation this summer, revealing the new uniforms on April 13, adding cheerleaders.

"There were a lot of things that were big additions to the fan experience. There's still a lot more to do."

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