The Portsmouth Spartans were an American football team that was a member of the NFL from 1930 to 1933. The Spartans franchise is still alive today in the form of the Detroit Lions. The team was formed in 1929 by bringing together players from defunct pro and semi-pro teams from the tri-state region of Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. The construction of the team’s home stadium, the Universal Stadium was funded by Portsmouth residents, which prompted the NFL to grant the team league membership in 1930.
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The team began play during the 1930 season, sponsored by the Green Bay Packers. Their very first competitive game came against the Newark Tornadoes on September 14, 1930. They won 13-6 and they would go on to finish the season with a relatively poor 5-6-3 record. Along the way, the Spartans played in one of the most significant games in the history of the NFL. On September 24, 1930, the Spartans played the Brooklyn Dodgers in what would become the first ever floodlit game in the NFL. At the time, night games, a common feature of today’s game thanks to Monday Night Football were then an unheard of thing. The grandstand bulbs placed around the stadium flooded the pitch with light providing a spectacular display that the fans were unfamiliar with. The game ended 12-0 in favor of the Spartans, but the result took a backseat in newspaper reports the following morning as writers concentrated on describing the awe generated by the lights at the Universal Stadium.
In 1931, the team improved significantly and were in contention for the title through much of the season but their challenge fell apart towards the end of the season as they relinquished first place to the Green Bay Packers for a third straight title. In 1932, they finished joint top alongside the Chicago Bears with a 6-1-4 record. To decide who would take home the NFL title, the two teams were matched up in a fixture that would be later officially considered the first ever playoff game in the NFL. The game was played on December 18, 1932 at the Chicago Stadium. The venue, a less than regulation size indoor arena was forced on the two teams because the Wrigley Field, which was the rightful host of the contest had been rendered unsuitable by heavy snow fall. The game ended 9-0 in the Bears’ favor, with only one disputed touchdown from Bronco Narguski separating the two teams.
That game generated two lasting impacts that have come to define the game today. First, the immense interest generated among fans by the fixture encouraged the league to introduce the Eastern and Western conference split and establish a regular championship game to decide the NFL championship starting 1933. This would then evolve into the elaborate playoff structure that exists today. Secondly, the disputed play that led to the Bears’ touchdown resulted in one of the most significant rule changes in football history. The two-yard pass from Narguski to Grange for the winning touchdown was deemed by the Spartans to have been illegal because it came from less than five yards behind the line of scrimmage. This violated the existing passing rule but the play was allowed to stand. League owners retrospectively made forward passes from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage legal. This became one of the game’s most dangerous plays and is a popular feature in team’s attacking strategies.
The 1933 season was slightly less fruitful as they finished second in the Western Division with a 6-5 record. That would prove to be the Spartan’s last season in the city of Portsmouth.
Why were the Portsmouth Spartans Relocated?
Despite the relatively impressive performance of the Spartans in play, they were plagued by the hard financial times precipitated by the great depression. Portsmouth was the second smallest market in the league, only behind Green Bay which meant that the team found it hard to fill even their small arena. The team was immensely popular, but few people could afford tickets to watch games. Up to 5,000 fans usually turned out to watch free team training sessions but less than 2,000 paid to watch actual games. Eventually, the team sank deeper into financial mire and with cash reserves depleted, they found themselves forced to offer players team shares as payment. In 1934, the franchise was purchased for around $15,000 by radio mogul George Richards who immediately hatched a plot to relocate to Detroit. The relocated franchise was renamed Detroit Lions and they went on to win the league in their very first season.
Portsmouth Spartans Notable Players
Ox Emerson G 1931-1933
Roy Lumpkins QB 1930-1933
Glenn Presnell HB 1931-1933
Dutch Clark QB 1931-1932
Harry Ebding WR 1931-1933
George Christensen T 1931-1933
Chief McLain FB 1930-1931
Chuck Bennett B 1930-1931
Jap Douds T 1930-1931
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