There are many competing forces in the Detroit soccer scene. There are a handful of amateur clubs on one side. Headlining the lot are Detroit City FC of the NPSL, who are breaking barriers every season by making national headlines with their dedicated supporters and grassroots foundation that have built the club into an amateur soccer behemoth. They have always had their eyes on the professional ranks, but haven’t been able to make the jump quite yet.
Detroit City FC and the Detroit MLS Expansion Bid Can Work Together
There is also an MLS expansion bid spearheaded by local billionaires Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores. They announced their intentions to bid for an expansion team in spring of 2016 and formally filed their application in January. The main obstacle in their way is a stadium site, and the fierce anti-MLS shouts from the area’s most hard core soccer fans.
Detroit City Lacks Capital for Pro Soccer
Detroit City FC eventually needs to turn pro. The club is rapidly outgrowing its confines in the semi-pro National Premier Soccer League as they set new attendance records every year and continue to renovate and expand their Keyworth Stadium home.
Turning pro takes a ton of money, however. Even entering the second tier NASL or USL takes multiple millions of dollars up front in addition to the added expenses. Paying the players is the obvious addition to the budget, but there would be increased travel and more home matches to pay for while, hopefully, earning more revenue. Detroit City FC, who’s operating budget is hitting a relatively scant $1 million for the first time in 2017, doesn’t have the capital to make the jump without significant help.
Their supporters have come up for them in the past. They banded together and invested nearly $750,000 to renovate Keyworth in time to play there a year ago. I highly doubt they can call on them once again to raise ten times that amount or more.
Detroit MLS Bid Has the Cash
The city’s MLS expansion bid overshadows any of DCFC’s efforts to grow. The bid, backed Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who also founded Quicken Loans in Detroit, and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores does not include the amatuer club in any way. They are still early in the process of competing for one of the four MLS expansion slots, which means there is a lot of uncertainty around them.
They still need to secure a stadium site. A long battle with Wayne County over an unfinished jail in downtown Detroit is almost over. If the Gilbert and Gores win that site, they will instantly shoot up the MLS expansion line. They have the money and the sports ownership background in the largest market in the country without pro soccer. All they need is a place to play. I doubt MLS will be able to look away for too long should they find one.
Detroit City’s five owners will need to proceed with caution while the Detroit MLS bid develops. They can’t turn pro by entering one of the NASL or USL and subsequently get whittled out of business if/when MLS comes to town. I feel they could co-exist with a top level franchise, but maybe not at the pro level. Enough current supporters of the club aren’t against MLS and would support both teams. I just doubt there would be enough to maintain professional status and they might have to call the NPSL their permanent home.
Can the Two Work Together?
Now comes the part many Detroit City supporters won’t like. The club and the Gilbert-Gores MLS expansion efforts might be a great fit. The club has ambitions of going professional, but need the capital to do so. Gilbert and Gores have the money, the clout, and the political sway to bring a professional franchise to the city, but they don’t have any sort of soccer related brand recognition to build the foundations of a team on.
I read an article about Detroit City’s professional ambitions on Crain’s Detroit Business. There’s a good chunk of interesting information in there, but one line really got me thinking:
“If the Gores-Gilbert syndicate offered DCFC’s five owners millions of dollars to buy the club, it’s something they would consider, [DCFC co-owner and COO Todd] Kropp said, but only if the deal preserved what they’ve built since 2012 with fan support.”
Before I read this I never would have thought cooperation between the MLS bid and Detroit City was possible. I figured there was too much on an ideological gap between the two. Gilbert and Gores were all about the money and the DCFC quintuplet was about the organic development of a team through its community with supporters who are hardline against MLS. But who’s to say they can’t all get together and give both sides what they want?
How It Could Work
Gores and Gilbert would have to offer the current owners of Detroit City a hefty sum of money up front to get anything started. They would have to promise to maintain the community focused nature of the club, which can’t be too much to ask. They’d have to be able to let the supporters do their thing since they are a massive reason for DCFC’s growth and the club would be nothing without them. The same would have to be said for the MLS club. In fact, a constant open channel with the supporters would have to exist. The current club owners are in regular contact with the supporters group right now, and Gilbert and Gores would have to promise to keep that going. An excellent model already exists in MLS between the Portland Timbers and the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, and the Detroit MLS club and supporters could take a similar approach.
It’s a major long shot, and the MLS group would have to concede a lot in order to satisfy the demands of Detroit City’s dedicated supporters, so much so that it may not even be possible. However, if Gilbert and Gores provide the cash, remain on as principal owners, and maintain the current group of DCFC owners while maintaining the focus on the community and a healthy supporter culture, who’s to say it can’t happen?
A partnership between Detroit City FC and the Gilbert-Gores backs MLS expansion bid could give both sides exactly what they need if executed properly. It would fulfill the professional ambitions of the most famous amateur club in the country while adding a lot of power to the city’s MLS efforts. The two sets of owners, and the city’s soccer fans, would just have to work very, very hard to get it done.