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SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40
Published November 10, 2003
Tom Lewand may owe his career to the dorm he was assigned to his freshman year at the University of Michigan. The student across the hall happened to be the manager of the football team, a job that Lewand would soon assume with his new friend's help.
Lewand's aptitude at managing the squad caught the eye of legendary football coach Bo Schembechler. He suggested Lewand try his hand at sports management, and arranged an introduction to the Detroit Lions. Lewand was on his way.
Today the Lions' chief operating officer, Lewand was instrumental in shepherding the Ford Field project. The team's 120 employees report to him, and he still serves as capologist, the post for which he was hired in 1997. Capologists manage NFL teams' salary caps.
"Being a lawyer, being smart and loving sports, it was just an ideal fit for him to go into sports management," Schembechler said. "I told him, 'You ought to be doing something in sports because you love it, you are good at it, and you ought to do it.' "
Lewand is "good" at it, as the coach predicted he would be. The Lions' revenue has grown 400 percent since he arrived at the team in 1997, though he admits much of that is due to the opening of Ford Field in 2002.
Ever mindful of the Ford family's preference for secrecy, Lewand declined to provide team revenue figures. The Fords have owned the team since 1963.
With the 2006 Super Bowl and 2009 Final Four coming to Ford Field, Lewand expects the growth to continue.
While all of marketing reports to him, he says his real focus is to ensure the Lions field a competitive team, something the franchise has not done for some time.
"I have been overseeing marketing for one and a half years, with sales in the new stadium and sponsorships, but it is all just a means to an end," he said.
Nonetheless, Lewand's career in football tracks the change in the economics of the game. Ten years ago, the main issue for someone in his position at an NFL team would have been cost control. But today, because of the stadium boom and advances in marketing, it is revenue growth.
With a family active in Michigan Democratic politics (his father was chief of staff for former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard and chairman of the state's Democratic Party), Lewand thought about a career in that profession. He earned a law degree, worked for some law firms and even interned at the Clinton White House.
But his love for football, the Schembechler advice and his timely meeting with the Lions paved his road into sports.
"My immediate family was happy to see me stick around the area," he recalled of the reaction to his entry into the sports business. "Everyone looked at it with a degree of excitement, but a degree of somewhat caution, as it is a mercurial business."
As manager of the powerhouse Wolverines football team, Lewand did everything from shag punts to arrange travel to create scouting programs. When he returned to the campus for graduate degrees, the NCAA had recently reduced the number of graduate assistants teams could employ, so the club needed some help.
Lewand recalls standing on the sidelines one day when Schembechler idled up and offered his pearl of wisdom.
"Bo Schembechler said, 'Hell, you have been working for me for free for 10 years, why don't you go and get paid for it,'" Lewand said. "I had a relatively extensive political background and thought that my direction might be to a law firm or an investment bank, until I had that conversation."