Can Passion for Soccer Scale in Detroit?

Proposed Detroit MLS stadium

As Tom Gores and Dan Gilbert continue their pursuit of a new Detroit MLS team and stadium, the best model to make pro soccer work in the Motor City may be right in their back yard – in the form of Detroit City FC.

Gore and Gilbert are NBA team owners – Gore in Detroit, Gilbert in Cleveland –but they also control more than that: Gilbert’s Quicken Loans has been a big part of Detroit’s central-city renaissance in recent years, and Gore heads Palace Sports & Entertainment, which runs the Palace of Auburn Hills as well as other Detroit venues. They are pitching a new stadium as a welcoming gateway to downtown Detroit, with a facility potentially located on Gratiot near Interstate 375. There are some issues, of course: the land is controlled by Wayne County, and officials there don’t seem to eager to part with the land parcel. There is also the issue of whether a city that has seen three new sports facilities open in the last 16 years, including a new Detroit Red Wings arena set to debut in the 2017-2018 season, can afford one more stadium.

But there is undeniable interest in a new Detroit MLS team, and there may be a great model for Gore and Gilbert: Detroit City FC of the National Premier Soccer League, which has turned soccer from a sport with narrow interest to an event, with the Northern Guard marching to games, drums pounding and voices raised. After outgrowing 3,100-seat Cass Tech stadium, DCFC owners turned to fans to raise over $700,000 to renovate 6,000-seat Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, a facility owned by the local school district. The school district is financially strapped, so it welcomed the investments made under the MILE (Michigan Invests Locally Exemption) Act.

The move worked: the team drew 7,410 fans for its Keyworth Stadium debut, a regular-season record. For DCFC, the game was that combination of passion and local pride that every minor-league soccer operator wants to harness – and every MLS owner as well. When you look at the most successful MLS teams, they combine a passionate core base with more casual fans wanting to be part of that unique fan experience.

If Gore and Gilbert continue their pursuit of a new Detroit MLS team (and we’ve seen no indications they are not), the best chance for success is to build on that Detroit City FC passion. But does passion scale? We will see.

This article first appeared in the weekly Soccer Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? Sign up here for your free subscription!

RELATED STORIES: Gores, Gilbert Pitch New Detroit MLS Stadium, Expansion Team

Images courtesy Rossetti.

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