How do you compare another NFL team’s home game experience to that of Arrowhead Stadium — the experience that’s such an integral part of our collective identity as Kansas City Chiefs fans? From the smells of the parking lot to the sounds of the stadium, the Arrowhead experience isn’t replicated anywhere.
So how does one go into another stadium with an open mind and give an honest assessment of the scene? First we have to recognize that it’s not Arrowhead and it’s not Kansas City — and it can’t be expected to be so. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a unique experience. Nor does it mean that fans there don’t love their city and their team just as much as we do.
I was in Detroit to see the Chiefs play the Detroit Lions on Sunday — and I tried my best to give Detriot Lions fans an opportunity to show how they do game days.
I chose this experience for the opportunity to hang out with my brother, who lives in the suburbs of Detroit. We took the long way down to the stadium, touring the much-publicized areas that were once the heart of the American industrial economy — but have long since been abandoned, covered in graffiti and overgrown with weeds and vines.
In recent years, many of the old buildings have been leveled — or are in the process of being rehabilitated. Entire streets have been repaved and landscaped with new parks. Historic neighborhoods are being gentrified. The architecture, character and history of these areas were authentic and beautiful — and it looks like people are once again starting to appreciate and invest in them.
I found the people of Detroit to be proud — and defensive of their city. They know the rest of the country thinks of their home as a burned-out wasteland, but they know the heart and history of their city — and they know its resilience. People I encountered were diverse and proud, kind and welcoming.
They love Detroit. They love cars. And they love the Lions.
The relationship between the Lions and their fans felt familiar. Folks were cautiously optimistic, coming in to the game (technically) undefeated. They knew Patrick Mahomes was a force to be reckoned with, but drunkenly promised their secondary would pick him off multiple times. You could see both a love for the team and a sense of impending doom when things didn’t go their way. You could tell they’ve been burned before — by the refs, by the quarterback and by a long wait since the previous championship.
And because it’s Detroit... by the economy, too.
The game day experience started with tailgating in the Eastern Market, said (and proven) to be the spot for Lions tailgating fun. The area was awesome. It’s a 150-year-old marketplace where a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces host up to 40,000 people per day for a farmer’s market.
But on Sunday, it’s all about the Lions.
Every lot was full of tailgating fans — many of whom were fully invested in the process. There was the family with a Lions-themed bus pulling a hot tub on a trailer, with seats salvaged from the prior stadium arranged around an impressive setup. There were several professional-sounding DJs set up in various lots blaring rap music, with people dancing on top of cars and around the surface. Pop-up vendors were selling popcorn and Lions gear, and there were bag (cornhole) games around every corner.
I was admiring a game I had never seen before when the owners (inventors?) were kind enough to invite us to play. They call it Beer Darts.
They had custom-built 15-foot boards with Chiefs and Lions paint schemes. Basically, two players sit in chairs at each end and throw darts at the opponent’s can of beer. Hit the top, and that player is knocked out — and has to drink their full beer. Hit the side, and they have to take a number of sips determined by the location of the dart hole.
Call it beginners luck, but we dominated game one — which was great, because the beer they would've made me drink was Miller Lite (shudders).
Speaking of beer, I was armed with some great local IPAs that would meet Craig Stout’s approval. First was Citra Dank Juice from Odd Side Ales, which is a hoppy IPA with just the right amount of fruit. Then New Orthodox IPA M-43, a really easy-to-drink beer that had more subtle fruit — but lots of flavor.
There were smells of grills and smoked meat across every lot — with food options varying widely — but without the unifying BBQ smoke we’ve come to expect in Kansas City. I scanned the crowd looking for Chiefs fans and saw many a red Mahomes jersey sprinkled among the crowd — not only in groups of Chiefs fans, but also among the spouses and friends of Lions fans.
The hometown boy
One thing that stuck out to me was a huge crowd of red #77 jerseys. Seeing one Andrew Wylie jersey was surprising. Seeing 30 couldn’t be a coincidence.
As you might know, Wylie played college ball at Eastern Michigan, and grew up not too far from Detroit. To their credit, the Chiefs recognized their starting left guard as a captain for the game. I met some of the family and friends in attendance, and they could not have been more excited to see him on the field as a captain. When he was introduced at midfield, he got a roaring ovation from the corner of the stadium where they were all sitting — which happened to be near me.
Once inside the stadium, the modern amenities — with shout-outs to Detroit — were obvious. Bright lights, wide concourses and a huge atrium full of activity, all beneath a ceiling designed to remind you of factory windows. The video screen was as sharp as any I’ve ever seen. It featured a touching tribute to Gunther Cunningham just prior to the National Anthem.
On Sunday, the Lions also honored their all-time team members — including an impressive number of Hall of Famers from the 1950s and 1990s. Barry Sanders — my personal favorite non-Chief of all time — was in attendance, drawing a standing ovation upon his introduction. The next biggest was for Matthew Stafford, followed by former kicker Jason Hanson.
The game experience
We had great season tickets just a few rows above the opening of the tunnel — surrounded by some of the more enthusiastic Lions fans in the building. One woman got in my face with a threatening (but all in good fun) shout of “What!!” after a Detroit touchdown. I did manage to return the favor when momentum turned in favor of the Chiefs.
But as the events of the crazy third quarter took place — the overturned touchdown, the 100 yard fumble return for a touchdown and other insanity — I noticed that all Chiefs fans had the same look on their faces. It was that mix of disbelief, quiet excitement and almost (but not quite) empathy for the Lions fans who were getting their hearts ripped out by one unfortunate call and play after another.
When the officials reviewed the Lions’ final touchdown, it looked like there was a chance it’d be overturned, but I quietly hoped it wouldn’t be; I wanted to make sure the Chiefs had enough time to score again — and I didn’t want to see what would happen if the Lions faithful had another touchdown taken off the board.
At the end of the game — after I held my breath for much of the fourth quarter before Patrick Mahomes reminded everyone in the building that he was the MVP by leading the game winning drive — the Chiefs fans in attendance celebrated politely (but rather quietly) out of both empathy and fear, I believe.
Of the two big storylines going in, neither was a huge factor.
First, Mahomes and the Chiefs offense were not able to execute the big plays we thought we might see in the dome. To my eye, the issue wasn’t pass rush pressure or crowd noise. Instead, it was inexperienced wide receivers against an underrated Lions secondary. Guys not named Travis Kelce simply weren’t getting open — and Mahomes wasn’t able to connect with the pinpoint throws we have come to expect.
The other story in any indoor game is the crowd noise. I thought the dome environment did make it feel louder than an outdoor game — and the Chiefs offense had a few minor communication issues related to the noise. The in-stadium decibel meter peaked at around 118 — a far cry from Arrowhead’s famous 142.2 — but there is something different about the acoustics in a dome. Pumped-in music and sound effects added to the noise level, as did team and player videos on the brilliant video board that called for the crowd to be quiet or loud depending on the situation. I couldn’t help but think what Arrowhead would sound like if it ever gets the rolling roof that it was meant to have all along...
The Lions played their hearts out, and the fans were appreciative. Heading out of the stadium, hearing their comments would be a surreal experience for any Chiefs fan. “It was supposed to be a blowout, so I’m just happy we made it close,” I heard one fan say. I heard another say, “It’s kinda cool to think that we might be able to hang with those guys, that we might be in that tier of teams.” When was the last time the Chiefs were the subject of that level of respect from opposing fans?
Detroit (and Lions) faithful are proud — and for good reason. The fan experience in downtown Detroit — from the Eastern Market to Ford Field and everything in between — was fantastic.
Prior to this game, some of us may have overlooked the Lions — just as many people overlook the city of Detroit. But both have a storied history, loyal fans, and are improving in dramatic ways. Its buildings and its people make Detroit a place well worth a visit — especially to watch a Chiefs victory.
It’s not Arrowhead, but it’s absolutely 100% Detroit, which is exactly as it should be.