MLS Expansion Profile: Detroit

The deadline for cities to apply for MLS expansion has come and gone and twelve ownership groups have stepped forward with the intent of becoming one of the four newest teams in MLS. One of those cities was Detroit, Michigan, my hometown. With a bid led by two NBA owners, the Motor City has a solid case to be given a top tier team. If they can get their downtown stadium figured out, they certainly have to be considered one of the favorites.

MLS Expansion Profile: Detroit

Ownership Group and Stadium Plan

The Detroit bid is backed by a pair of NBA owner billionaires originally from the city. First is Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores. He went to high school in Genesee, Michigan, and attended Michigan State University. He bought the Pistons in the summer of 2011 and has a net worth of nearly $4 billion. His counterpart is Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Gilbert was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit and is also the CEO of Quicken Loans, which is based in the city. He has a history of real estate development in the downtown area and is trying to not just build a stadium, but develop an entire entertainment district around it.

Speaking of that stadium, the plan isn’t entirely set. Gilbert and Gores want to build at the site of an unfinished county jail. The construction project was victim of many cost overruns and hasn’t been touched for several years. Gilbert wants the county to sell the land over to him for the stadium and surrounding entertainment district, but the county wants to finish what they started.

They have made a strong offer for this jail site that the county is now reviewing. The offer would involve building a new criminal justice center for the county on a different site in exchange for land for the stadium. The expansion bid would get a huge boost if the county were to accept this offer.

Although the jail site was the only stadium proposal in the bid, the entire thing isn’t dead if the county refuses to sell them the land. There are other sites under consideration as backup plans. The most likely scenario has the stadium going along the Detroit Riverfront near the soon to be demolished Joe Louis Arena. However, the jail site would be more advantageous for the team and, by many accounts, better for the city as a whole. The issue of public funding hasn’t been at the forefront, but you can expect Gores and Gilbert to try and pilfer some funds off the city, county, or state.

Current Soccer Landscape

Detroit is one of the two cities applying that does not currently have a professional team (San Diego is the other). The most successful soccer team in the area is the NPSL’s Detroit City FC. They averaged over 5,000 fans a game as an amatuer club, which led the NPSL. Their home opener in 2016 set a record for the most attended NPSL regular season match with nearly 8,000 fans at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, a small city completely encircled by Detroit. I’ve been a season ticket holder for the club since the 2014 season. I can attest that the atmosphere in the stadium is second to none at that level and blows away the matchday experience of most MLS teams.

There are a handful of other amateur clubs in the area, but none have the pedigree of DCFC. Michigan Bucks, who are owned by Dan Duggan (brother of Detroit mayor Mike Duggan), had been trying to bring MLS to the city for years but ultimately failed to do so. Also in the immediate area are Michigan Stars and Oakland County FC. Neither has strong attendance. If you travel around the state, there are the moderately successful NPSL teams Lansing United, Ann Arbor FC, and Grand Rapids FC. All three do well at the gate in their own right, but see dramatic increases in attendance when Detroit City comes to town.

The area has hosted top level soccer before. The Pontiac Silverdome, which is about 45 minutes from downtown, hosted a few matches in the 1994 World Cup, including the opening match between the United States and Switzerland. The International Champions Cup has been to nearby Ann Arbor twice. Each time more than 105,000 fans packed Michigan Stadium to watch Real Madrid first play Manchester United in 2014 and then Chelsea this past summer. The USMNT played a Gold Cup match against Canada in 2011 and the USWNT has played a couple well attended friendlies there in recent years. All three of those were at Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions.

Other Contributing Factors

The single biggest factor working in Detroit’s favor is it’s market size. It is the largest market in the United States without any professional team. Only Phoenix has a larger metropolitan area among the twelve applicants. They also have many large corporations in and around the downtown area, including three Fortune 500 companies. Gilbert’s Quicken Loans is very visible in the area. The “Big Three” automakers of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are all headquartered downtown or in the surrounding suburbs. Despite Detroit’s reputation as a financially troubled community, it actually has a lot of money in the private sector.

Somewhat paradoxically, their successful NPSL team is also working against their chances. The Northern Guard Supporters, Detroit City’s prominent supporters group, is hardline against an MLS team coming to the city. Their “supporter built” mentality certainly flies in the face of just about everything the heavily corporatized MLS represents. They have put blood sweat and tears into Detroit City FC and literally built their stadium for them, both financially and physically. The fact that there is no connection between City’s five founders and the MLS group means DCFC is not going to be the MLS franchise, and that could hurt an MLS team’s overall fan support.

In the grand scheme of things, NGS is but a small cross section of soccer fans in Detroit. Many people who attend DCFC matches are in favor of MLS expansion to the city. They just aren’t as vocal about it. Many more soccer fans are in the area, but have never attended a DCFC match. I have spoken with many people saying they don’t go to games “because it’s a minor league.” The hunger for MLS is there, even if there is a loud group of diehard supporters trying to convince us otherwise. The fact that 5,000+ show up for an amateur team proves there is an appetite for the game.

One other thing working against their chances is the congested sports scene. Detroit has a team in each of the “big four” American sports already and, starting this fall, all four will play within a one mile radius of each other. The county jail site that Gores and Gilbert want to build on is but a short walk away from that existing stadium district.

Directly conflicting with MLS would be the very popular Detroit Tigers, who pull in over 40,000 fans for most weekend games. It’s a small problem, MLS is in plenty of other markets with four or more other pro teams, but it’s also a problem that cannot be ignored.

Overall Chances

Detroit stands a strong chance of getting a team as long as their stadium situation comes together. They have the market size, the potential fanbase, and the corporate presence to support a team. My initial MLS expansion rankings had them as the fourth most likely to get a team. I don’t think they get in as one of the first two, but I do believe they stand a good chance to get one of the second pair of expansion teams and begin play around 2022.

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