As you may (or may not) be aware, I recently wrote a piece for STAND, a UK fanzine, and it’s just been published. Print copies are available HERE and digital copies are available HERE. A slightly “Britishized” version has been posted at The Set Pieces, and the full original text follows below.
Summer In Detroit
By Andrew Goode
May 28th, 2016 marked the occurrence of one of the most significant matches in modern football history. I’m not speaking of the Champions League final. Indeed, now that the celebrations of Real Madrid’s 11th European Cup win have died down, their newest trophy will surely fade into the background with all the rest of them, just one more coin in their Scrooge McDuckian vault.
For those of us with an interest in grassroots, supporter-based football, the true match of the day took place thousands of miles from Milan, across the Atlantic in Hamtramck, Michigan. On a sweltering day in the small enclave located within the City of Detroit, FC United of Manchester made their first ever trip to the United States to meet Detroit City FC.
Dubbed “The Derby of the People” by prominent DCFC supporter Drew Gentry, the match was a showcase of two clubs built on the principles of community engagement, financial sustainability, and putting fans before profits. The 6245 people in attendance, including around 100 FCUM supporters who made the trip from England, Germany, and elsewhere, were treated to an back-and-forth, entertaining afternoon in which the home side equalized in second-half stoppage time to earn a 3-3 draw.
While the story of FC United is well-known to many who follow football – formed in protest to the Glazers’ takeover of Manchester United and the subsequent runaway corporatization of the club, including exorbitant ticket pricing – Detroit City FC is a relative newcomer to the scene, and its location in a country perceived as a footballing backwater has only served to further obscure its rise.
DCFC has its origins in the Detroit City Futbol League, a co-ed recreational league in which each team is made up of players representing their particular neighborhood of residence in Detroit. The DCFL was founded by Sean Mann, and, after witnessing its rapid growth in participation and popularity, he and four other men who had become acquainted through the league decided to form a club to tap into the fervor.
Not only did they succeed, but that fervor grew and mutated into something wholly unanticipated, embodied by the club’s primary supporter group, the Northern Guard.
Competing in the de facto 4th tier of U.S. Soccer on a shoestring budget – Mann himself cut the grass before the club’s inaugural match using a beat-up riding mower purchased on Craigslist – average attendance at DCFC matches increased from around 1300 in 2012 (the club’s first season), to over 3500 in 2015. While the success answered most of the questions about the club’s sustainability, it created a new problem: consistent sellouts meant potential customers were being turned away at the gate. City had outgrown its cradle, Cass Tech High School Stadium, affectionately known as, “Estadio Casstecha,” and a new home would have to be found.
After years of persistent rumors, Detroit City’s ownership decided to move the club to Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck for the 2016 season. A Depression-era stadium built as a WPA project, it opened in 1936 with a campaign speech from Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later served as the site for a similar appearance by John F. Kennedy.
Given its age and the poor economic conditions that have plagued Detroit and many neighboring municipalities for decades, Keyworth had fallen into disrepair. The wooden benches were warped and broken, concrete was crumbling in many sections, and the field turf was long past its expiration date.
Rather than lobby the local government for taxpayer money to fund the renovation project, DCFC’s owners launched a community investment campaign in October 2015, the first of its kind anywhere in the United States. They based it on newly-passed legislation that allowed individuals to make small-scale investments in local businesses and start-ups. Much different than simply donating money, investors would earn back their initial contribution plus interest over the course of several years; i.e. if someone invested $1000 they could expect a return of about $1300 when all was said and done.
In their New York Times bestselling Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that the Nick Hornby model of fandom, in which a person falls in love with one club and supports it for their entire life, is largely a “fantasy.” While bandwagoners may be more common, I see the success of the Keyworth investment campaign as a counterpoint to this view. In just 3 ½ months, over $740,000 was raised to restore Keyworth to its former glory. An additional note of interest: Szymanski, a professor at the University of Michigan, was among the more than 500 individuals who made investments.
This spring, with the necessary funds in hand and stadium renovations well under way, all focus should’ve been on the upcoming season, set to begin in early May with a first-round U.S. Open Cup match. Instead, Detroit City and its backers were blindsided on April 26th with the news that billionaire NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores were teaming up to bring an MLS franchise to Detroit within the next 4-6 years.
While the announcement was welcomed by some, the vast majority of DCFC supporters were far more skeptical. The Northern Guard’s response (excerpt below) elucidated the major points of contention.
What we are completely against is getting pro soccer in Detroit at the expense of everything we’ve worked hard on creating over these last 4-5 years. Right now our team has been focusing on the Keyworth project and growing the interest in soccer across the state of Michigan, any plan involving a pro soccer team in Detroit, currently, does not include our beloved DCFC. Why bring in something new when we already have something amazing happening and growing here?
We do not want an outside ownership group coming in looking only to profit off of the supporters and who don’t give a damn about the community. We don’t want a taxpayer funded stadium in the heart of downtown that is going to require the destruction of historic buildings to complete. Right now the current Red Wings arena being built costs $627 MILLION and taxpayers are on the hook for $450 MILLION of it. We don’t see how large projects like this are good for the fans, the community, or the city. And we believe that kind of money is best spent elsewhere in the city.
We aren’t interested in joining a league that will use our image in multimillion dollar marketing campaigns but on the other side of it, ban our supporters for doing the very things they market. MLS has a history of being not supporter friendly, banning fans for up to a year for simply lighting a smoke bomb or throwing streamers.
To their credit, City supporters used the suddenly-bright media spotlight to raise awareness of their own club, which resulted in a noticeable increase in coverage of DCFC by local TV, newspapers, and radio. Thanks in part to the extra exposure, the home opener at Keyworth Stadium on May 20th was a standing-room only sellout, and the crowd of 7410 set a new U.S. record for attendance at a 4th tier league match.
With at least 4 years until a hypothetical MLS team begins play, Detroit City FC has a decent-sized window of opportunity to capture as many hearts and minds as possible. If its current growth trends continue and the Gilbert-Gores plan comes to fruition, a situation unique in the history of American football would arise. In no other instance has MLS attempted to plant a franchise in a city with a club as fervently-supported as DCFC. If they insist on doing so, the year 2020 may mark the next big showdown between American corporate and supporter-built football.
In the immediate future, though, the Northern Guard and fellow supporters will continue doing what they do best: creating a match atmosphere in which their Boys in Rouge thrive and opponents wilt. The battle against those who would stomp on their club in the name of business interests will continue, but for now there are more important things to do.
It’s another hot, humid summer in Detroit, and City season is here.