It’s a little unfathomable now but this stadium, hard against a river wall along the Ohio River, was a part of the NFL circuit some 80 years ago.
Optimistic city fathers in Portsmouth, Ohio, paid for and built Universal Stadium in 1930, the first full year of the Great Depression. The hometown Spartans, featuring future Hall of Fame back Earl “Dutch” Clark, were virtually unbeatable in their four seasons here, logging a home record of 19-2-4 with wins against the likes of the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and New York Giants as those teams traveled through town to the Midwest or East Coast. Hence the selection of Portsmouth as a sort of crossroads franchise for the still-fledgling, money-strapped league. The small city also was a mere 90 miles from the early NFL’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. NFL president Joe F. Carr liked to come down and take in Spartans games from a seat in one of the field boxes shown above.
The Spartans lost the 1932 NFL championship game to the Bears, 9-0, in the indoor venue of Chicago Stadium, in the NFL’s first playoff game ever. But drawing from Portsmouth’s relatively small fan base in the midst of the Depression drained the Spartans financially. In 1934 they were sold and moved to Detroit to become the Lions, leaving Green Bay as the NFL’s last remaining small town. The following year, 1935, the Motor City won it all with small-town Portsmouth’s former team.
Universal Stadium, in defiance of time and changes that swept the entire NFL to major cities and TV-studio-like structures, is still there at the confluence of the Ohio and Scioto rivers with hilly Kentucky just across the waters. It now bears the name Spartan Municipal Stadium, and today two high-school football teams and the semipro Kentucky Warriors still use the gridiron, grandstand and locker rooms of what is believed to be the oldest NFL structure to continuously house football.