MLS in Detroit: Making Sense of the Motor City's Bid

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Wednesday afternoon saw a flurry of news spew out of the Motor City as Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber and prominent local businessman and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert unveiled plans for a downtown soccer stadium that would put MLS in Detroit. In an event that was not live streamed anywhere at the request of MLS PR, stadium renderings were revealed for a site that currently contains an unfinished county jail. Like every other stadium rendering for any other proposed stadium, the drawings look beautiful. It will be the centerpiece of a $1 billion business and entertainment district that will make downtown Detroit the home of four professional sports teams in four different venues all within a 15 minute walk of each other. As wonderful as this all sounds, there are a lot of problems with the plan put forth by these two rich and powerful gentlemen.

The stadium site is currently owned by Wayne County, and they have no intention of giving it up.

Gilbert and his co-bidder, Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, want to build an MLS stadium and business district on Gratiot Avenue at the location of a Wayne County jail that has been under construction since 2011. The project has experienced more than its fair share of cost overruns and construction delays that have forced it to sit untouched for several years. Gilbert has been trying to purchase the plot of land and end the saga of what has been dubbed the “fail jail” since 2013. The problem is, the county has every intention of finishing the project one day and no intention of selling the land to Gilbert or anyone else.

There are other plots of land available for the stadium, but Gilbert appears to be putting all his resources into finally gaining control of this 15.5-acre portion. Viable alternatives include a rarely used park along the Detroit Riverfront next to the soon-to-be-vacant Joe Louis Arena and a site in Corktown, near where Tiger Stadium used to be, which is already the target of a large urban recreation project. Why does Gilbert want to build at that specific location when there are others available? Simple: he owns the next door Jack Greektown Casino and several other business properties in that vicinity. Eliminating the eyesore of a jail from that spot and replacing it with a vibrant entertainment district would do wonders for his bottom line.

The bid steps on the toes of already existing local clubs.

Detroit City FC has made national headlines thanks to its grassroots efforts to build a soccer club in the city of Detroit. Since 2012, they have played in the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League, where they have drawn increasing crowds with each season. Last year, they filled the stadium at Cass Technical High School above capacity, requiring them to search for a new venue in order to have any hope of growing. They raised $741,250 through a community investment campaign to renovate Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, a small city completely encircled by Detroit. They money wasn’t simply donated, they will be repaying the investors 135% of their investments over the course of the next several years. How quickly investors see a return depends on the game day revenue of the club between now and the time they have paid them all back.

The problem is, an MLS team that doesn’t include them could very likely hamper their ability to recoup the money they owe to those that put in. There’s no sign that the club is going to slow it’s growth in the short term, but once MLS shows up in four to six years, the future of Detroit City will be very much in doubt. The club’s statement on the bid mentioned contact with investors helping to bring professional soccer to the city, but did not specifically mention MLS. For what it’s worth, the club has sold out of its initial allotment of 2,000 season tickets for 2016 and has released 200 more to be sold in the coming weeks before their season begins.

There are plenty of realistic avenues that could see the club either co-exist with the MLS team or even become the MLS team. The Gilbert-Gores bid could buy out the club and simply bring it into the top tier. In the case where that doesn’t happen, Detroit City could continue along in the NPSL with its die-hard fan base, but see little chance for future growth. They could join the NASL as a pro side, but once again be hampered by the giant MLS money in the same market. Additionally, they could join the USL, possibly as the affiliate of the Detroit MLS side, much the same way clubs like Swope Park Rangers work.

Detroit City FC will likely continue in some fashion whether they jump onto the bid and join MLS or not. If they don’t, their options for growth are probably limited thanks to MLS coming to town.

Do the fans really want MLS in Detroit?

The soccer fans in Detroit can be divided up into three camps. The first, and probably smallest, faction is those that see MLS as an evil business cartel with an interest in nothing other than their profit margin. They see MLS as trying to piggyback on the success of Detroit City FC as a way to make money on their own. They think the league is going to ignore the organic growth of the non-league club and just use their growing popularity while letting City rot. They are small but very loud. Indeed, they cluttered many a Twitter feed yesterday with their vehement anti-MLS takes.

The second group is those that are okay with MLS, as long as it is Detroit City being promoted. This group, again, is fairly small, and they probably have the least hope out of the three. If yesterday’s press conference (at which no Detroit City representatives were present) is any indication, Gilbert and Gores’ plan on building something of their own.

Drew Gentry, head capo of the Northern Guard Supporters, Detroit City’s primary supporters group, did credit the MLS bid for reigniting the already powerful support for his club. He told the Detroit News:

“I will credit the individuals behind this current pitch, though, as they’ve made the biggest spectacle of it by far in the four years I’ve personally been around to have it happen. I will also give them credit, too, for re-energizing Detroit City FC’s fan base to become even more loyal to the club than they already have been.”

The final, and largest, sect is those that really do want MLS and are in support of the bid. You’d really have no idea that these people exist thanks to all the noise created by the anti-MLS and pro-Detroit City crowd.

All three sets of beliefs present valid points for their cases. Detroit City’s passionate fans are afraid that their club will become the next Atlanta Silverbacks, who folded once MLS came to town thanks to Arthur Blank. The people that want Detroit City to go to MLS not only want their club to rise up but also want a die-hard fanbase to get the MLS club started in the right way. The final group just wants high-level professional soccer in a major league city like Detroit, regardless of the team name and ownership group. In general, I’d say the overall soccer fan base does want an MLS team.

How long will this take to happen?

That’s an excellent question. MLS to Detroit has a timeline that spans four to six years with the earliest possible start date as 2020. With the obstacles presented in getting the stadium plan off the ground, it’s hard to see the team joining the league by 2020. If Gilbert gets the jail site to build a stadium, then secures all the funds for his $1 billion project, then begins construction, it’s more likely that the 2022 deadline is more attainable. Either way, Gores and Gilbert have a lot of work ahead of them if they want to succeed in this extremely complicated, and so far unclear, bid to put MLS in Detroit at long last.

Main Photo: Laura McDermott, Bloomberg, Getty Images