Soccer is Booming in Detroit — But Who Will Benefit?

Proposed Detroit MLS stadium

After years of hard work, Detroit City FC has created a thriving soccer community in the Motor City. But with an MLS group seeking a new downtown stadium and promoting the game on a much grander scale, can that sense of community be maintained?

There’s no doubt Detroit City FC is one of the big success stories in minor-league soccer. After years of steady growth, interest in Detroit City FC has exploded in the last few seasons, culminating by attendance this season at 5,000 or so and a fan fundraising effort that financed upgrades to Keyworth Stadium. With plenty of fan participation, a rowdy Northern Guard fan club and plenty of pregame theatrics, a Detroit City FC game isn’t just a soccer match — it’s an event.

Detroit City FC

But catering to this fan passion isn’t unique to Detroit City FC — indeed, MLS’s business model assumes that a core, passionate fan club deserves its own sets of perks and rewards, including fan-only entrances, lounges and seating areas. Attend an MLS game in Kansas City and you’ll see that passion at play. But Detroit City FC certainly has a good thing going, and the notion that coexistence with MLS is possible is certainly not a given from the Northern Guard Supporters fan club. From AP:

Fans go because of the atmosphere and the excitement of being part of something that they’re all helping build.

“In a more professional, traditional American setting, I think the mentality is you have to be something for everyone,” said Alex Wright, one of DCFC’s five owners. “I think what soccer is proving is that while that is true — that is one way to do it — that’s not the only way to do it. To be something real for some people, is also another way to go, because we’re not trying to fill a 65,000-seat stadium and we don’t have 162 games a year.”…

There’s some skepticism among the DCFC die-hards. The Northern Guard website includes a list of lyrics to various fan chants, and one of them aims its profanity-laced hostilities directly at Gilbert, Gores and MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

“It’s really important that everyone understand how much time and effort the supporters put into what they do,” Wright said. “If you don’t understand that, it’s really hard to understand where they’re coming from when you read what they write online or on social media. It’s not vitriol if you’ve been spending so much of your time building something up and you’re worried that it’s going to be forgotten.”

The thing is: talk to Tom Gores, one of the principals behind the MLS bid, and he probably won’t make a financial argument as to why he’s working toward a new downtown stadium: he, too, is a passionate fan, a former player whose family is immersed in soccer. From the Detroit Free Press:

“Today, people love soccer, and it’s really become almost a bit of America’s sport in a way,” Gores told the Free Press recently. “You see all the kids on the soccer fields. They run around and the parents are grabbing their (water) bottles, their picnic baskets. It’s really become a very familial (sport), a family environment sport.

“It’s not the most popular, but it’s really good for families. I don’t know if it’s the big field, not a lot of scoring, there’s something that kids are loving about soccer, and there’s something families are loving about soccer.”…

Gores, who played midfielder and right wing, recalled tryouts at venerable Atwood Stadium in Flint when he was successful in making a team of players from the Midwest that faced a team from Canada.

“Being a soccer player helped me in my other sports, and a lot of it has to do with footwork,” Gores said. “To this day, I love to play. There’s something about being on a big field, kicking the ball, passing. There’s something about that, that’s really, really nice so I think the sport does have a special place in my heart.”

Wright and Gores do have differing versions of the future of soccer in Detroit, but here’s the thing: they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and the market isn’t necessarily a zero-sum play. There are plenty of sporting environments where the large, established organization and the scrappy upstart coexist quite nicely (see: Minnesota Twins and St. Paul Saints). Yeah, demonizing the big, bad MLS is a good marketing move for the grassroots FC fans, but no one should take such talk seriously. Soccer is on the rise both in Detroit across the country — and there surely is room for two different approaches in the Motor City.

RELATED STORIES: Detroit City FC Gearing Up for 2017; Detroit MLS Organizers Open to Other Sites; Detroit MLS Organizers: We’re Ready to RollCan Passion for Soccer Scale in Detroit?; Gores, Gilbert Pitch New Detroit MLS Stadium, Expansion Team

Top image courtesy Rosetti; bottom image courtesy Detroit City FC.

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