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USFL's Michigan Panthers will play at Ford Field in 2023; EMU may host practices


Detroit — The Detroit Lions soon will have roommates.

The United States Football League, which will launch its second season in April, is set to announce Thursday that the Michigan Panthers will play their home games at Ford Field in 2023, according to a source with direct knowledge of the league's plans.

The source spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement hasn't been made yet. That announcement is set for Thursday, with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in attendance.

The USFL announced Monday morning it was holding a "special announcement" at Ford Field on Thursday. The Detroit News previously reported the USFL was zeroing in on Metro Detroit for one of its hubs, and had considered Eastern Michigan's Rynearson Stadium and Ford Field. EMU athletic director Scott Wetherbee confirmed to The News on Monday that USFL games will not be coming to the Eagles' home stadium, but the university remains in active discussions to host USFL practices.

The eight-team USFL played all of its regular-season games in Birmingham, Alabama, during the inaugural season of 2022, to save money, with the plan to move into each of the city's markets by 2023. Instead, it decided on a slower branch-off, with multiple hub cities set to host multiple teams in 2023.

Birmingham will continue to host games in 2023 as a hub for the hometown Stallions and New Orleans Breakers, and the second hub will be Memphis, Tennessee, which was awarded a franchise and a hub in November amid a public announcement that also featured the mayor. Memphis will host its team, the Showboats, and the Houston Gamblers. Detroit will be the third hub — it wasn't immediately clear which team or teams will join the Panthers in Detroit — and there could be a fourth hub, possibly in Philadelphia, which has its own USFL team, or Canton, Ohio, which does not. The three remaining teams without confirmed hub locations are the New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers.

In assessing a move to Detroit, the USFL prioritized stadiums with ideal logistics, most notably artificial turf and quality television-production infrastructure. Ford Field is set to install new artificial turf this month. Besides Ford Field and Eastern Michigan, the league never seriously inquired about other noteworthy Metro Detroit locations, such as Wayne State about Tom Adams Field in Detroit, or Detroit City FC about Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck.

The Michigan Panthers were a revival of the team that was part of the old USFL in the 1980s, playing at the Pontiac Silverdome and winning the championship in 1983, once drawing more than 60,000 for a playoff game. This latest USFL is not affiliated with the old USFL, though the use of the Panthers was a strategic boon for the new league. The Panthers were a league leader in merchandise sales and social-media reach. The Panthers are coached by former NFL coach Jeff Fisher, and finished 2-8 in in the 2022 season, after using the first overall draft pick on former Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson.

The 2023 USFL regular season starts in April and runs through June, with the playoffs in July. An official schedule hasn't been released, but the inaugural season included 10 regular-season games.

The News reached out Monday morning to officials with the USFL, Detroit Lions and city of Detroit. The USFL and Lions declined further comment beyond the league's Ford Field announcement. The city of Detroit confirmed Duggan will be in attendance at Thursday's announcement, but declined further comment.

The USFL is the latest attempt at reviving professional spring football, and already has outlasted multiple recent competitors, including the AAF (2019) and XFL (2020), neither which made it through a full first season. The XFL, since sold by Vince McMahon to a group led by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, is planning to play again in 2023.

The USFL largely mirrors NFL rules, and rosters in 2022 featured mostly players recently out of college. Each team, all owned by the league, has a 40-man roster and a 10-man practice squad, all made up mostly of players passed over in recent NFL drafts, or players who have played in the NFL and are trying to revive their careers.

The announcement set for Thursday at Ford Field — which has a football capacity of 65,000 — will feature Duggan as well as Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks and other dignitaries. Fox is a majority owner of the USFL. Fox Sports and NBC broadcast games in 2022. The league averaged more than 715,000 TV viewers for its games in 2022, with more than 1.5 million watching the championship game between Birmingham and Philadelphia, which was played in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The first USFL game of 2022 drew 17,500 fans, with ticket sales dropping drastically after the first weekend. The USFL reported an attendance of about 20,000 for its championship game.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984