Even as it tries to expand on its foothold in the U.S., the beautiful game sparks complicated debates among its supporters, and this week’s revelation that billionaires Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores are prepared to spend $1 billion on a new Major League Soccer franchise, stadium and entertainment district in Detroit is already creating fault lines among local diehard fans.
The initial announcement Tuesday already raised questions about the future of Detroit City FC, the semi-pro team that has ridden grassroots support and $741,000 from a recent investment fundraising campaign to the cusp of a fifth season in its new home at historic Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck. Wednesday’s followup news conference, featuring Gilbert, Gores and MLS Commissioner Don Garber, only served to shake up a hornet’s nest among some of City’s most rabid supporters, who liken the push to a naked money grab and corporate carpetbagging.
For help sifting through it all, I turned to Fletcher Sharpe, a local soccer journalist and one-half of the duo behind The Outer Drive, a locally produced podcast about all things soccer and Detroit. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Obviously Tom Gores and Dan Gilbert been working behind the scenes for a while now, but were you surprised by how quickly this has come about?
Yeah. Typically they’re like, oh they’re going to bring MLS to Detroit, they’ve done that like five or six times and people are like, OK, whatever. They’ll draw a mock stadium (rendering) and then they’ll just be quiet. This is the first time they’ve done all that at once and then followed it with a press conference from people who actually mattered. They’re like, we have graphs of what the stadium could look like. We also have the commissioner of the league. And also, now we have Detroit City FC commenting on the matter, whereas before, whenever there was an MLS Detroit thing, they were very quiet, there was nothing they had to say about it, which I thought spoke volumes about how there’s nothing going on.
There’s a club here — although it’s not a professional club, there’s a club here. Now there’s rumors about (MLS), and they’re like, maybe we should say something. Which lets me know now this is probably something they’re going to try and push for.
You mean that Gilbert and Gores and going to push for?
Yeah, they’re really going to try to push for it. If DCFC said, we need to say something, they really didn’t need to say anything. Their comment on the subject, they didn’t say much except, we know about this. Yeah, cool. We all know about it now.
What struck me about their statement was some of the coded language, like we know what it truly means to build fan support over time. I feel like that was kind of the subtle message behind it.
Are you familiar with what happened with the Cincinnati Saints and FC Cincinnati?
Cincinnati Saints were an NPSL team. I’m not saying they were great, but they were the kings of Cincinnati for six or seven years, maybe longer. And all of a sudden, someone proposed FC Cincinnati for the (higher division) USL. Then it became a real thing: FC Cincinnati came to Cincinnati, came with a bunch of corporate sponsors and corporate-founded supporter sections and supporter groups. They were drawing so much attraction away from the Cincinnati base that they had to leave Cincinnati and move to Dayton and now they’re the Dayton Dynamo. They literally came in and got rid of a team.
Some of the worry with Detroit City FC is that MLS, USL, etcetera coming to the city while DCFC is here will only hurt DCFC. Even though people are like yeah, you know, we’re going to bring a real team here, we’re going to bring a real club. Because in my honest opinion, most players in NPSL (where City plays), unless they’re younger players, really are playing in NPSL because they need something to do. They’re not doing it for the exposure. The people who play of a year or two and leave, they’re trying to go somewhere. If you play in the NPSL for four, five, six years, you have a real job and you’re just trying to do something for the summer. There’s nothing wrong with that.
When people are like, DCFC can make the (second-tier) NASL or even MLS with these players, no they cannot. Right now they have two players on their roster who might be OK at a level up, and that’s really it. So I think this comment about building real support is a jab at, they’ll bring people here, but it’ll be plastic support. It’ll bring people who are like, I just want an MLS Detroit team just to have a team. I’ve been seeing comments about it on Twitter.
My main problem is you want to build a team just to build a team. So you want to have an awful team. I’d much rather have a team that competes.
To be fair, I haven’t heard Gilbert or Gores saying they plan to seek taxpayer financing. That may well happen, but they haven’t said that yet. Also, aren’t you taking a leap in saying it’s going to be a bad team?
What I’m saying is if they’re going to make a team, I want the team to be good. I’m not saying it’s going to be bad. I’m saying if you’re going to recruit players off the street, like hey, we have pro players in the state of Michigan, that’s not going to turn out well at all.
There are other MLS teams that have been built in one season out of nothing. New York City FC comes to mind as the most recent example. They weren’t great last year, but they weren’t terrible, either.
The difference is, they have a huge parent club in Manchester City who can help them set things up properly. If they just build a club out of nowhere, like we’re going to build a team, no parent club, just two owners of something, and they were decent, they made the playoffs, got eliminated in the first round, that’s something to hang your hat on. But I see NYCFC as a failure to a degree because they had a huge parent club, they had all the stars, they had all the right coaching, they even tried to recruit some of the best talent, albeit old talent, and it blew up in their faces. And their best star ended up being some no name player they picked up from Atlanta, who ended up becoming something of a household name in (Kwadwo) Poku. And I’m happy for him. But you expected so much more out of them, and right now they’re a mid-table team. That’s really kind of jarring to see that happen.
If they make this Detroit team and it becomes a middling team, I’m OK with that. That’s fine. There’s Detroit City FC, there’s the Michigan Bucks in the area. There’s no real existing pro-level team. Like with the Portland Timbers, the Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, even the (Seattle) Sounders, they were all old, old NASL teams or USL pro teams back when there was a pro division and a semipro division. They were still professional level players. When they brought themselves into the (MLS), they still brought along half the roster. Same thing with Orlando City SC. They can bring players up. I don’t know of any players off the top of my head who played in the state of Michigan right now who can actually do that with.
A lot of skeptics question whether there’s really fan support here to support MLS, and the commissioner even made a comment about that, that demonstrating fan support was going to be key to winning a franchise.
There are people who will be fans of professional soccer in Detroit. I say that because, just watching people from (City supporters group) Northern Guard. Almost every day there are four or five tweets that go across my timeline, someone will say, “I like watching MLS. I hope Michigan gets a team one day so I can root for them.” The Northern Guard people will just crap all over them.
There are enough people who will support an MLS team. Just like with Detroit City FC, most of the crowd there knows soccer but maybe doesn’t know it well. A decent amount of the crowd there knows soccer really well. Then you have the Northern Guard. And you have the section of people who are just there for the party atmosphere. It grows for a sport, just like for football and basketball, there are people who don’t know the sport who are fans nonetheless, who will show up. You have some people who won’t root for DCFC one, because they’re small and two, because of the Northern Guard.
Really, because they don’t like the Northern Guard, you mean?
Yes. There are people who have openly said, some journalists, some just regular people — one guy who went right from Chicago was like they’re a model club, the owners are pretty nice people, but I cannot support a club that has supporters like Northern Guard. Because all Northern Guard does is crap on every other thing that’s not their team, which is fine. But the way they do it is, it’s not like burning a bridge, it’s like nuking a bridge and then nuking it again after it’s been destroyed.
We have watched & supported others b4 us in the grassroots fight.
The fight is at our gate.
Now the soccer WORLD will fight with us.#DCTID
— Sarge (@SergeantScary) April 27, 2016
If an MLS team opens in Detroit, you’ll have fans who actually understand soccer, you’ll have fans who just want to go to the new thing and see what’s up, and honestly? Honestly, I think you’ll have a lot of hockey fans who’ll be fans of the soccer because a lot of the hockey people typically come from backgrounds where soccer is a more popular sport than a lot of things. I’m sure you’ll have a lot of Red Wings players and maybe fans at games trying to support them.
But you see this as being pretty detrimental for City and the Bucks, too?
Yeah. The Bucks not as much just because they’re in Pontiac. And honestly, the Bucks, Dan (Duggan) has made it clear, I’ve asked him about this in interviews multiple times, so has my cohost. Dan Duggan does not care about people showing up to his games. Dan Duggan’s average ticket gate per game is like 47 or 48. It’s like the lowest in the entire league but his team is usually the best. The reason why he doesn’t care is his team is talented, I’m here to upgrade these players, make them better players. I’m not here for the fans. If the fans want to watch, they’ll come watch.
When he has an U.S. Open Cup match and big teams coming into play, then he’ll start worrying about PR. If the Chicago Fire or New England Revolution come in to play, he’ll worry then. If it’s DCFC, he’ll worry then. So it doesn’t affect them as much.
Whereas Detroit City FC, it’ll be crushing, just because DCFC also have some pro aspirations, they’re trying to get to the tops and get to NASL at some time. You cannot have a market where you have two teams running successfully on different levels, unless they’re like senior teams. And DCFC and their owners, while they’re nice, they don’t strike me as people who want to have a parent club, like whatever this Detroit major league team is going to be. So I don’t think it’s going to do well for them.