State of the Club 2017

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Note: I wrote this piece to be published on another site, but that fell through. Since it covers basically everything I intended to include in my annual State of the Club, I’m posting it here now.

Previously:   SOTC 2014   SOTC 2015   SOTC 2016

The first five years of Detroit City FC’s existence were defined by rapid growth, not only in the club’s popularity, but in match attendance and revenue as well. The greater City’s reputation has become, the more speculation has arisen over its potential jump to a professional league. With the struggles of the NASL and the U.S. Soccer Federation’s decision concerning Division II league sanctioning, that speculation has only intensified.

Up until the league’s recent brush with death, I’d preferred the NASL as Detroit City’s destination if and when the time came for the club to move up to the pro level. There was a lot to like about the league, namely its hands-off approach to its member clubs, which stands in stark contrast to the tightly-controlled single-entity model of MLS. In my view a jump to the NASL represented a happy medium in that City would be able to compete at a higher tier and raise its profile, and at the same time maintain the culture and identity that made the club special in the first place.

In light of the events of the past two months, though, I’ve changed my position. NASL’s instability, demonstrated primarily by the near collapse of its flagship franchise, the New York Cosmos, as well as the exodus or uncertain future of several other clubs, makes it clear to me that the league should no longer be seriously considered in Detroit City’s future plans. Despite rumors coming out of the NASL meetings in December that Detroit was in advanced talks to join the league beginning in 2018, DCFC co-owner Sean Mann denied any involvement other than some general discussions. Thanks to the USSF’s January 7th decision not to revoke NASL’s Division II sanctioning, the league may be able to stabilize and recover, but in the short-term it appears to be too risky an option for an up-and-coming club to join.

The other result of that January 7th meeting was the conferring of Division II status on USL, allowing it to move up from its de facto Division III position to become essentially equal to NASL. While USL’s reputation has grown in recent years thanks to the great success of clubs such as Sacramento and Cincinnati, the major sticking point for me and many other Detroit City supporters is that the inclusion of MLS reserve sides and affiliates in the league gives it a distinct “minor league”/“little brother of MLS” type of feel. Were a true MLS reserve league to form and allow the independent USL clubs to split into a separate division, that would make it a much more attractive option for City, but until then it’s difficult to see supporters showing much interest in USL as currently constituted.

Continue reading “State of the Club 2017”

State of the Club 2016

Previously:   SOTC 2014   SOTC 2015

About this time each year I like to take a big-picture look DCFC as a whole and the direction in which it’s headed. This year is a little different because, rather than just general thoughts and speculation, I have some actual hard numbers on which to base my opinions.

I’m speaking of course about the recent news that the Keyworth investment campaign drew pledges from 527 individuals totalling $741,250. From everyone I’ve talked to, I believe it’s safe to say that this number exceeded most peoples’ greatest expectations. Personally, I was elated when the $400k minimum was met, but to come within a hair of the upper goal of $750k is an absolute triumph.

The overwhelming success of the campaign is not only a testament to the incredible supporter base that the club has built over the past four years, I think it’s also a sign of its growing clout as an organization. A little less than a year ago, following the 3-0 Open Cup drubbing at the hands of the Bucks, one of the main points of discussion was how City had the fans and passion, but Dan Duggan had the investors and money.

With last year’s signing of Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers as the club’s first ever title sponsor and now this year’s wildly successful stadium investment campaign, however, we have some strong data points that suggest that City now has some financial muscle to go along with its rabid support.

If you divide the investment total of $741,250 by the number of investors (527), the average individual pledge comes out to a little over $1406. According to Alex Wright, there were even several five-figure investments made. It’s a far cry from the patronage of an Illitch or Gilbert, but it’s definite proof that not all of City’s supporters are broke 20 and 30-somethings as is often portrayed.

“I have a diverse and robust portfolio, including holdings in several Asian markets wooooo!!!”
“I have a diverse and robust portfolio, including holdings in several Asian markets wooooo!!!”

Success on the business side of things inevitably leads to the subject of jumping to a professional league. Whereas the big question a couple years ago was “If?” it’s evolved into a matter of “When?” and “Where?” Using all the information available to me, I’m ready to stick my neck out and make a prediction:

Year: 2020

League: NASL

I’ve long thought NASL would be the most logical next step for City, and I think it would take something significant to change that path. As I’ve mentioned before, the league seems to be the preference of a majority of supporters because it would provide us with the best balance of being on a bigger stage while allowing us to maintain our underdog, small-club ethos.

The USL is rapidly becoming a de facto MLS reserve league (if it isn’t already), and the issues with its parent organization are well-documented. Those issues aside, the amount of money needed to put a new team into MLS is staggering, and even if a sugar daddy/mama  could be found, there remains the hurdle of new stadium construction (see: Beckham, Miami). Putting THOSE issues aside, one should look at this week’s debacle concerning the re-branding of Minnesota United as a cautionary tale of how the league dictates to its members. I can only speak for myself, but playing at the “top level” is in no way worth it if you have to sell your soul and identity to get there.

Getting back to the matter at hand, there are two big developments to watch for in the near future. The first is stadium expansion. This year’s renovations to Keyworth and next year’s presumed installation of a new playing surface are obviously first on the docket, but if attendance continues to rise at its current rate, ownership may choose to augment the stadium and bring it to its maximum size of 10,000. This would give the club a plausibly-sized home ground in the event of a move up – the current average NASL stadium capacity is a tad over 13,000.

Second is the shift to full semi-pro status via the playing of players. This would end City’s reliance on college talent and serve as a stepping stone on the path to full professionalization. This isn’t a requirement to joining a pro league, but I think it would be a wise move as it would help to attract and identify players that could form part of that first pro squad and ease the transition between the NPSL and a higher division.

There are also two major prerequisites that are beyond the club’s immediate control. One is the USSF stipulation that all Division II clubs have an owner who is worth at least $20 million and controls at least a 35% stake. Second, and this isn’t by any means a given, the league has to actually want you. The current focus of the NASL appears to be the establishment of a west coast presence, but with one of its marquee clubs – the aforementioned Minnesota United – set to depart for MLS in the near future, there will be a Midwest void to fill. Detroit would be a logical replacement, but logic and American soccer don’t always go hand in hand.

In any case, what matters most is continuing to do what we do – creating our unique home atmosphere, bringing it to away matches, representing and supporting City in every strange and creative way possible. The success of the Keyworth investment campaign is just the latest in a long line of accomplishments that are the results of hard work and dedication. We’ve built the club we want, and the only thing to do is to keep building.

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State of the Club 2015

I posted last year’s SOTC in early January and planned on doing the same this year, but once the front office Q&A session (click to listen) was announced, I decided to hold off. Judging from the amount of information divulged, that turned out to be a good decision.

While any news is welcome news during the NPSL’s death march of an offseason, I was most interested in the big picture, long-term stuff: our future league situation and the search for a new stadium.

LEAGUE

Co-owner Sean Mann confirmed last month’s report that DCFC ownership made a trip out to Indianapolis last summer and met with Indy Eleven president Peter Wilt. He also mentioned that meetings took place with officials from Minnesota United and Columbus Crew.

It’s clear that City has just about outgrown the NPSL and that its owners are very interested in moving up to a professional league. What remains is to find the best, most financially-feasible situation, one that will allow the club to continue growing while maintaining its community-based/grassroots/”No One Likes Us” status. In my opinion, the NASL is the league that best meets those requirements, and I think it’s the most likely destination whenever the club eventually makes its jump.

Without even going into the political and lobbying aspect of MLS expansion, the sheer amount of money needed to join the league makes this a non-starter. As for USL Pro, there are three strikes against it as a viable option:

  1. The ever-present, kinda/sorta/not officially confirmed report that Michigan Bucks owner Dan Duggan has first dibs on a USL Pro franchise in southeastern Michigan if he chooses to pursue it.
  1. The league’s partnership with MLS. One easy way to kill City’s thriving independent status that I mentioned earlier: make it a farm club for the Crew or the Fire or Toronto.
  1. Assuming for a moment that Duggan doesn’t have exclusive rights and that City would not be required to become affiliated with an MLS club, one last question remains: At this point, is USL Pro really enough of a step up from the NPSL? I don’t think it is. That may sound a little brash but the fact is Detroit outdrew more than half of the teams in USL Pro last season while playing at a lower level. Given a larger stadium, City’s attendance would surely surpass everyone except Sacramento within a year or two.

For a while, I’ve preferred the NASL as City’s hypothetical next step, and I’ve now become even more firmly entrenched in that position. I truly believe it would give the club plenty of room to further develop its fanbase and revenue streams while staying true to its roots and allowing die-hard supporters to maintain their freedom of expression, something that should not be taken for granted.

Other benefits would include annual automatic qualification for the US Open Cup, strong local competition from two of the country’s best-supported clubs – Minnesota United and Indy Eleven – and little restriction on building a roster (free agency, no salary cap, ability to sell players without the league taking a large portion of the profits as occurs in MLS). The last point is key, as the development and sale of just a few key prospects could help offset a number of expenses, among them player salaries, increased marketing, and stadium expansion/construction.

One potential roadblock: USSF standards require each NASL franchise to have at least one owner worth $20 million who controls at least a 35% stake in the club.

STADIUM

I was initially skeptical of Keyworth Stadium as a future home, but the more I consider it, the more I’m warming to the idea. Its size – around 8000, expandable to over 9000 – is comparable to the NASL’s average stadium size of 11,500, and it would provide ample room for crowds to grow, probably the club’s most pressing issue at this time. The reported $1 million it would take to renovate the stadium is much less than the cost of new stadium construction, and the turnaround time to make the facility ready is much shorter as well.

The location isn’t perfect – we’d be losing the backdrop of the city skyline – but it seems to be the best option out there at present. If Keyworth is selling out within a few years, the increased revenue and exposure will only make the construction of a new permanent home that much more possible.

MISCELLANEOUS

Most notably, it’s been confirmed that all of City’s NPSL home games will be streamed this season. To paraphrase what was said at the Q&A: “More people watching equals greater reach. Greater reach equals more fans and more interest from potential sponsors.”

The club’s growing reputation extends to potential players as well, the prime example being the four former Quad City players who drove 14 hours from Iowa to try out for the team last week. Whether they make it or not, it shows that players from all over the Midwest want to come play in Detroit. If and when the jump to the pro level happens, I doubt there will be much difficulty in recruiting a team.

Last but not least, DCFC’s community involvement has continued unabated, from last fall’s DPS Showcase, to the club’s involvement in the launch of the Goal Detroit youth soccer league. At the very least, initiatives like these help to expose more and more young people to the game of soccer, creating potential fans and maybe even a homegrown player or two down the road. The location and level at which our hypothetical DCFC Academy graduate will play will very likely be determined sometime in the next few years. Judging by the club’s growth to this point, my money is on sooner rather than later.

fdleoa

State of the Club 2014

[Note: I totally started writing this before the governor’s SOTS address. I will now await his public apology for taking my awesome idea.]

As I’m writing this, it’s the dead of winter and we’re right in the middle of the epoch-long NPSL offseason. In other words, it’s a perfect time to step back and look at the big picture – where we’ve been and where we’re headed.

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Cass Tech’s field prior to the inaugural 2012 season.

Two years ago, Detroit City FC was just a name and a crest, still months away from filling its roster and sending those players out on the field. The owners were optimistic enough to hope for an initial crowd of around 500 with numbers hopefully improving with each following game.

Fast forwarding to today, it’s evident that DCFC has been a greater success than anyone could have predicted back in January of 2012. The team has not only been competitive, but has quickly established itself as one of the elite sides in the NPSL, finishing a close 2nd in its division in 2012 and running away with 1st place in 2013 before being upset in the playoffs. Game attendance, including friendlies, has never dipped below the 1000 mark and has swelled to the point that selling out the ~3000 seat Cass Tech H.S. Stadium this season is a very real possibility. On top of that is the passionate, organic support that has drawn considerable attention to the club and has become well-known to many who follow soccer in America.

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Because of this success, more than a few people (supporters as well as outside observers) have raised the possibility of the club moving up to one of US Soccer’s professional divisions – USL PRO, NASL, or MLS. DCFC’s owners have repeatedly stated that the club is essentially a break-even enterprise and that they would not be able to finance a professional side, but let’s just pretend that money is not an issue and speculate for a bit.

MLS:

Despite the best efforts of a number of local groups, it seems doubtful that Detroit will be getting an MLS franchise in the current round of expansion. There is an unrequited love between the MLS-to-Detroit backers and commissioner Don Garber, who to my knowledge has never spoken of Detroit as a serious expansion contender and appears to be looking mainly to Southern markets to award teams #22, 23, and 24. Disregarding all other factors (ownership and financing, stadium, entry fee), the opportunity for DCFC or another Detroit team to join MLS will probably not arise until the next round of expansion, if there is one (2020’s ?).

NASL (2nd Division):

For those hoping to see DCFC play at the professional level at some point in the near future, NASL may be the most realistic option. The league is expanding from 8 to 10 teams this year, adding an additional 3 in 2015, and looking for more.

Former commissioner David Downs (emphasis mine):

In general with expansion, we hope to have 18 to 20 teams by 2018. We’re looking to push farther out west and maybe a couple of cities in the Midwest. There are a number of top-25 markets in the United States that aren’t represented by a professional soccer team.

We believe it’s an obvious marriage to join the N.A.S.L., especially as the price is going up and the number of opportunities getting more and more limited to joining M.L.S. Not every market can afford to support a team at the level of economics of M.L.S. which at the moment is higher than ours.

The current commissioner, Bill Peterson, echoed those statements:

We look at a vision for 2018 with 18-20 teams by then, we see a mix of being in some of the larger metropolitan markets, maybe four to six out of 18 teams, and the rest of the league being in places like Carolina, Indianapolis, or wherever [Ed: mid-level markets]. It’s going to be a mix.

On the downside, joining the NASL would require DCFC to, among other things, secure much larger sources of funding than it currently enjoys, revamp its roster with paid professionals, and find/build a larger stadium with a regulation-sized field. None of these tasks are impossible, but each one is a potential roadblock.

USL PRO (3rd Division):

Due to the murky rules and regulations of lower-division American soccer, I haven’t been able to verify this, but the general consensus of the Detroit area soccer Twitterati is that Michigan Bucks owner Dan Duggan has exclusive rights to put a USL PRO franchise in Southeastern Michigan if he ever chooses to do so. This would exclude DCFC from playing in this division unless Mr. Duggan somehow became the owner of the club through an incredibly bizarre and unfortunate series of events. If this is false, then the same issues with jumping to the NASL would apply here as well. In addition to those, City would run the risk of becoming an MLS farm team thanks to the recently implemented partnership between the two leagues.

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For the time being, the NPSL will remain Detroit City’s home. For all of its drawbacks – different playoff formats across divisions, some clubs paying players while others do not, a “Throw it Against the Wall and See If it Sticks” expansion policy – the league provides excellent opportunities for 2000 players and helps spread the game to under-served areas of the country.

I’ve made my position clear: I’ve found my club and I’ll follow it wherever it goes, whether it remains in the NPSL forever or climbs the ladder up to a professional division. Whatever happens, my foremost concern is that we maintain the enjoyment and sense of belonging we currently experience on gamedays. I’d gladly take a season of 8 home games with a raucous atmosphere over one with 20 or 30 where standing and smokebombs are prohibited.

As the reputation and fanbase of DCFC continues to grow, it may eventually attract larger sponsors and investment. At that point, the most important issue will become the balancing of necessary business (marketing, prices, salaries, etc.) with what made the club a success in the first place: the name/crest/colors, the play on the field, the stadium atmosphere, and the feeling of community.

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