MLS Can’t “Save” Detroit

Guest Post From Magda Pecsenye

To recap: last week the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Within minutes, a zillion people–mostly people who have never been to Detroit–commented on that publicly. Then it came out that public money will be spent on a new hockey arena despite the bankruptcy. A few days after that, the Toronto-owned group that erected the Pontiac Silverdome, Triple Properties, released a billion-dollar plan to construct an MLS stadium in downtown Detroit on the site of an old prison, with a claim that MLS soccer could save Detroit.

The first three sentences of the previous paragraph are rage-inducing. It’s the last sentence that I’m going to talk about here, though.

Full disclosure: I am a supporter of Detroit City Football Club, an NPSL (fourth-tier league) soccer team owner by Detroiters that plays in downtown Detroit. We just finished our second season, and were undefeated for the regular season. We get 1,500 fans at each match and have a loyal (to say the least) supporter group and a team of hard-working, talented guys. Also, I grew up in Toledo (50 miles south of Detroit) and live in Ann Arbor, 40 miles from Detroit. I neither grew up in, nor live in, Detroit. But I come to Detroit 2-6 times a month for fun and/or soccer.

The instant, gut-level reaction of most of the people online in the #DCFC supporter social media world was that this new MLS proposal was ridiculous, bordering on a hoax. Considering the proposed owners’ record of screwing things up (Exhibit A: the Silverdome), how could this possibly actually come to fruition, let alone survive and thrive? Let alone “save Detroit”?

Let us note that the claim that any one building or franchise or institution can “save Detroit” (or “save” Detroit) is at best naïve and at worst provocative. First of all, Detroit is a huge city full of diverse groups of people, so no one thing can touch the entire city (except perhaps a funded 911 system that would actually come help people). Second, if a sports team had the power to save Detroit, wouldn’t the Tigers already have done it? Third, the claim that any one thing can save Detroit is as dopey as any of the multitude of claims that any one thing “ruined” Detroit. Yes, we just declared bankruptcy under the ministrations of one ill-intentioned nerd, but this was a long time coming with a complex ecosystem of causes and precipitating factors. (If you’ve been reading about it at all, I know you’ve been warned to look at your own city because the perfect storm of factors is coming at you, too. I’ll repeat that warning.)

So that premise is wrong from the get-go. But that shouldn’t overshadow the weirdness of the proposal. First of all, am I the only one who thinks it sounds like someone in Toronto was reading all the ire about the publicly-funded hockey arena and thought, “If we announce that we’re using private money to build a soccer stadium everyone will LOVE us!”? It’s just a little suspicious, the timing of the announcement.

Second, the Silverdome project has been a disaster, and hasn’t done much for Pontiac. So I’d be very dubious that this organization can get it together to do something with a sport they aren’t already invested in, because we know they don’t execute well.

Third, there’s soccer culture already in Detroit. Along with the Detroit City Futbol League, a league of neighborhood teams that play against each other all summer long, there’s DCFC, which has grown attendance astronomically and will only grow more. Part of that is that our team and coaching are so great, and part of that is that we have dedicated, almost rabid supporters lead by three serious supporters groups. You’d think that any organization wanting to bring an MLS team to Detroit would be integrated with–or at the very least interested in–that team and the supporters. But no one from Triple Properties has been to a single DCFC match. Not one. We asked them, and they couldn’t answer us. (And don’t tell me that Toronto’s too far to come, because I meet people from Toronto at every match.)

So they think they’re bringing in a professional soccer team without those of us who are serious enough fans to pay for tickets (and some who drive in from the suburbs or even Lansing) for matches. Interesting. If they can capture the attention of the MLS then they may not need fans. But.

I don’t think Shawn Francis is the only MLS insider who thought, “For real though, you have a billion dollars at your disposal and you’re going to invest it in soccer in Detroit?” He’s just the one who said it on Twitter. Now, I’m guessing that Francis hasn’t been to Detroit in awhile. I’d like to invite him to visit and come to a #DCFC match with us. Coneys, sliders, Detroit-style pizza, and CITY beer (the official beer made especially for the #DCFC) is all on me. But he has a point, which is that the MLS doesn’t seem interested in Detroit because they don’t see potential in Detroit. They keep putting franchises in Florida and out west. So Triple Properties can make all the proposals they want to but that doesn’t mean the MLS is going to take them seriously.

(Francis has another point, which is the billion dollars part. If I had a billion dollars I could put in an MLS franchise that worked with the #DCFC and supporters, along with three or four other major projects to cover a lot more interests and neighborhoods in Detroit. It seems like a bizarre amount of money to invest in just that one thing.)

Bottom line: I don’t think this proposal is in earnest. And I think even if it was, it’ll never come to fruition. If we do get an MLS team in Detroit it’ll be something that comes out of the DCFC ownership and fans. But honestly, we don’t need an MLS team. Detroit isn’t going to be “saved” by one big group. It’s in the process of being “saved” right now by hundreds of groups of people bringing in the things they themselves love to do. DCFC is part of that. I’m honored to be a supporter of the team, just as everyone involved in Detroit is honored to be part of it in whatever capacity they’re participating.

The next DCFC season starts next May, and I’ll be happy to see you at Harry’s two hours before the first home match. You’ll be able to buy your season ticket at http://www.detcityfc.com/ in December. If you’d like to get caught up on the first two seasons, read http://boysinrouge.wordpress.com/. And if you’re on Twitter, follow @DetroitCityFC (official team account) and @NorthernGuard1 (biggest supporter group account).

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Magda Pecsenye writes about being happy being a parent at AskMoxie.org, being happy being divorced at Huffington Post Divorce, and being cranky on Twitter at @AskMoxie. You can find her on hashtags #DCFC and #CTID talking about Detroit City Football Club all year.

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12 thoughts on “MLS Can’t “Save” Detroit”

  1. No one thing can “save” Detroit. Hell, no one thing could “save” soccer in Detroit. But I remain firmly unconvinced that Detroit’s on MLS’s radar right now. Yeah, they’re noticing DCFC and NGS. But there’s a long, long way between drawing 2,000 and drawing 20,000 and they’re going to want to see a few more seasons of success even at the NPSL level before starting to take Detroit seriously as a soccer town. Remember, before DCFC soccer in Detroit was a barren wasteland drawing (maybe) 200 fans a game.

    I also continue to caution people against taking anything this potential ownership group says at face value, based on my experiences with them.

  2. Can we get confirmation from the Author of this article that they never actually read the bid before writing this article?

    1. Hi Anonymous. I’m the Author, my name is Magda, and I did not read a word of the actual bid. (Although I did read what turned out to be too many articles about it.) The entire point of this piece is that there are so many problems even with the very idea of the proposal that it doesn’t make sense to consider it. The actual bid itself is immaterial.

  3. What if the author did? And what if the author did not? The main point seems to be that saying an MLS franchise can “save” Detroit is ludicrous at best and a blatant lie at worst. Also, the same group that brought you the beauty and architectural wonder that is the Silverdome (Tractor pulls anyone?) is behind this. Seems pretty logical to question their ability to deliver simply based on past experience without ever reading a thing (which I have not).

    Would the MLS be good for Detroit? Maybe. It has been an unbridled success here in Columbus with the team, the players and the supporter groups very active in the community and not just on game days. But to sell it as saving a city all by itself is ridiculous. It makes me think of the classic “Simpsons” episode with the monorail. The Red Wings, Tigers and Lions are all more popular than any MLS franchise in Detroit (or indeed America) probably ever will be. They aren’t saving the city. How can soccer? Regardless of what a proposal says.

  4. Good stuff…apart from “MLS doesn’t seem interested in Detroit because they don’t see potential in Detroit. They keep putting franchises in Florida”.

    MLS hasn’t put a franchise in Florida in 15 years, but it did contract two a decade ago. Of course, that may well change (Beckham seems to want to own in Miami and Orlando City want in) but you state it as fact, when nothing concrete exists.

  5. Well put. Let me add my two cents.

    I completely agree that MLS will not save Detroit. That’s just puffery on a part of the spokespersons and media. So many things are the cause of the City’s bankruptcy, and it’s going to take so many different things to fix. But realize, it is the City government that is bankrupt, not the citizens and suburbanites that love the City.

    As far as MLS is concerned, Detroit has been on the radar since its inception. In a recent interview I heard, Roger Faulkner – former owner of the Detroit Express – said MLS was very interested in putting a team in Detroit. The problem? No place to play. The Silverdome was too big, and there was no plan for a soccer specific stadium in the works.

    Personally, I’d love to see MLS here. I would hope, though, that it was done right.

    From what I’ve observed, there is division within the soccer community in the Metro Detroit area. The folks from Canada who bought the Silverdome were able to put 30,000 people in the seats for only one game. There was a tournament in February, 2012 which included Hungarian teams Ferencvariosi FC and Vasas FC, Argentina’s River Plate reserves, and Mexico’s Pumas reserves which was poorly marketed and consequently poorly attended (I think there were more fans in the stands at the NPSL semi-finals at Cass). The Michigan Bucks have a long-standing organization that has been a success on the pitch, however their focus seems more on player development and not marketing and creating a fan base, despite an ownership which failed in its pitch to bring MLS to Detroit in the early part of this century, As for DCFC, this ownership group knows how to market and create a fan base while putting a decent product on the field, from a grass roots perspective. I just don’t see either the Silverdome group or the Bucks coming to DCFC ownership in partnership to bring MLS to Detroit. And unless one of the five owners (or one of us supporters) hits the Mega-Million jackpot, I don’t see a DCFC MLS team on the horizon.

    Since 2002 I’ve made the trek to Columbus at least once a year and have become a Crew fan. It makes for a nice summer time getaway where I can take in the Columbus Zoo and dine upon some Skyline Chili. And I love my DCFC! Been to every game at Cass and on our “road trip” to Sparta. I’d love to see MLS here, but I don’t need it to be here to enjoy the beautiful game. If, by chance, Detroit was awarded a team, I’d support it, just like I’d continue supporting DCFC (I’d have to cut the heartstrings to the Crew, though. The longer Detroit goes without an MLS team, the harder it will be for me to do.).

    1. If you want an MLS franchise, don’t support another one. Boycott MLS and stick with DCFC.

  6. Much as I’d like to see the MLS here (especially downtown), I don’t see this happening. A soccer stadium across the street from Recorders Court and the Wayne County Jail would certainly add to the gritty vibe a Detroit team could build on. But, I don’t think Detroit can fill a 55 floor office tower anywhere, much less at that location. Tenants may merely be coming from current towers downtown. It’s also possible that renovation projects of currently vacant “vintage” buildings closer to Woodward would halt. Maybe we could turn all of them into residential lofts.

    The absence of excitement from the rapidly growing local soccer community tells me there is not much credibility to the soccer part of this plan, either. I have supported the Bucks ever since they moved from Saginaw, and I have seen nearly every DCFC game. I don’t hear, see, read anything (yet) coming from those organizations.

    Where does Sparta FC stand on this (humor alert).

    Would that this dream could become reality. I don’t think so.

  7. Spoiler alert, This will piss some of you off. I’m not from Michigan or Detroit originally. Houston, TX born and raised. Now I call Saginaw home. and have since 94. I started going to Detroit was because of DCFC. In between Houston and Saginaw, the Navy travel plan took me to Singapore, Hong Kong, Perth Australia, London, Japan and Mombasa Kenya. I have found that the gritty in your face attitude of Detroit suits my personality. The building. The People. The energy.

    But. At this point Detroit is not a major city for a new sports team. Yes there are 5 million in the Metroplex. Soccer is huge in the outlying cities. Those are the same people that think Detroit”s best days are behind it. The Perfect Storm of factors for failure. With the influx of young professionals, artists, Compuserve and the longtime residents taking ownership when the city can’t will start the turn around. That is still fragile. In the next decade it won’t be. The hunger for Soccer is greatest among the newest residents of a 312 year old city.

    The owners have always said another ownership group will have to take DCFC to next level. The NASL is logical option. The knock is always we are a major market. Yes for other Detroit team it is. Depth of fan base and timing of the leagues did that. Time can not be over stated in the discussion. Winning in the first season is critical. The growth of the Front office and support organization is more critical than the product on the field. Detroit has hit absolute rock bottom. The only way is up. The city is an massive experiment in rebirth for an urban center. So was the Cleveland water front development. Sports will not be the point of growth. A professional soccer team will be part of the puzzle.

    Has an outsider my point of view is unique and one that will piss Detroiters off. How fast does the suburban crowd get out of Detroit after a Tigers or Lions game? That is the problem. Until and if that is solved, Detroit is not ready for a MLS team. CTID

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