This Once Was an NFL Stadium

Spartan grandstand

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.

Spartans locker room

The main locker room at Spartan Municipal Stadium once was warmed by a coal furnace (bottom, right).

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.

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24 thoughts on “This Once Was an NFL Stadium

  1. Alla says:

    This piece was cogent, wettw-rillen, and pithy.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    The first NFL night game was played there!

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  3. Debbie Bennati says:

    My Grandfather R.E.Fowlkes played professional football back in the 1920’s. I have his uniform. His nickname was “Skip” and is written on his helmet . Is there a roster of team members available? If any museum is started I’d consider donating money his uniform. Have pants knee pads, helmet and shoulder pads.

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  4. steve says:

    Thew Ironton Tanks were never in the NFL, even though they plays NFL teams like Portsmouth and Cincinnati.

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  5. Tami Stamper Pinson says:

    Yes this was an important part of football history! I don’t understand why it’s not protected and prized for its place in the history of National Football. It’s sad.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    I wish the nfl would step in and do something to preserve this stadium.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    The stadium is truly magical and special for all of us that played and coached there. It represented Portsmouth well and allows future athletes to walk and run in the foot prints of those wonderful athletes of the past.

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  8. steve says:

    The Tnks were never in the NFL, they were a semi-professional team. But, there’s a lot of history at Tank Stadium too.

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  9. Anonymous says:

    My Dad passed away this year at 93 and he grew up in Portsmouth. He use to tell us stories of going to see the games . Amazing stories…

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  10. Jeff Whitson says:

    Tank stadium in Ironton has come thought the years a little better, Ironton high school uses it as their home field and has taken care of it, just put turf in last year. who are the two HS teams that use it now? I thought both Portsmouth schools have new facilities

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  11. Brad Bear says:

    Fun fact about the Spartan Stadium… It was the location of the first night professional game played under artificial light.
    Here are some aerials of tank stadium I shot this past fall. Halfway through the video you can see the original stands and canopy which have been untouched. At 3min there is a great night shot with the stands and field during a game. Enjoy.

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  12. Anonymous says:

    I had the pleasure of playing and coaching in the grand old facility . It would be a true tribute for the lions to play and exhibition game there.

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  13. 30adgreen says:

    Check out my screenplay on the Facebook page “the Lions of Portsmouth Movie.” It’s about Portsmouth trying to get the team back from Detroit!

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    • Very cool. I did not know — but am not surprised — that Portsmouth attempted to hang onto the Spartans. And to think the Spartans almost became an enduring small-town NFL team like the Packers…

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  14. Amy Partlow says:

    They should have one of there games played there. Would be nice to get some money to help restore it a little better. I welcome them to Portsmouth Ohio home of the former Spartans and now the Detroit Lions.

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    • Amy, I agree. The NFL in general needs to get in better touch with its past. The Lions playing in an exhibition game in Portsmouth would be very cool — on a par with the annual Hall of Fame game in Canton’s humble Fawcett Stadium. Maybe with the NFL’s 100th anniversary coming up in 2020…??

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  15. Bill Poe says:

    There is another NFL football stadium about 30 miles from Spartan Stadium it is called Tank Memorial Stadium in Ironton Ohio

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  16. The NFL should honor its roots and take the game back to the stadium at least once. That would be cool.

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  17. Kenneth Hall says:

    Always wondered if the Spartans wore the same colors as the Lions do, and now I know. 🙂

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