Gores, Gilbert team up for Detroit MLS franchise

John Niyo, and Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News
Tom Gores

Is Detroit ready for a fifth professional sports team?

Tom Gores and Dan Gilbert, two billionaire NBA owners with a huge stake in Detroit’s urban revitalization, are banking on it, teaming up to try to bring Major League Soccer to Detroit.

After playfully dropping hints on social media, they made it official Tuesday afternoon, issuing a joint press release between the Gores-owned Platinum Equity and Gilbert-owned Rock Ventures describing their plans to add a Detroit franchise to the 20-team pro league.

And after months of negotiations involving the two rival sports owners — Gilbert’s Cleveland Cavaliers just completed a first-round playoff sweep of Gores’ Pistons at The Palace on Sunday — they’ll expand on those plans at a 1:30 p.m. news conference Wednesday. MLS commissioner Don Garber also will be on hand as he’s in town to discuss their proposal, including real-estate options for a new soccer-specific stadium the group intends to build downtown using Detroit-based architectural firm Rossetti.

“Detroit is rising and we know firsthand the power of sports to lift a community and drive a civic renaissance,” the owners — both graduates of Michigan State — said in a joint statement. “We are very excited about the prospect of bringing Major League Soccer to Detroit and building an ownership group that represents a cross-section of investors.”

No final decisions have been made about potential stadium sites, but Tuesday’s announcement highlighted the downtown proximity, touting the fact Detroit, if it lands an MLS expansion team, “would become the most dense urban sports and entertainment district city in America with four major professional sports stadiums within a 10-15 minute walk: Ford Field, Comerica Park, the new Detroit Red Wings arena and the new MLS stadium.”

“Soccer is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world with a passionate fan base and global reach,” Gilbert said. “Bringing a team downtown will also further energize Detroit’s urban core, which is critical to the entire city’s overall health and vibrancy.”

It’s unclear exactly how this collaborative effort will look, but it has taken shape in recent months as Gores, the Flint native who bought the Pistons in 2011, has accelerated efforts to invest in Detroit. Renowned sports agent Arn Tellem, hired by Gores as Palace Sports & Entertainment vice chairman last year, has taken the lead role in that, including negotiations with Gilbert and his Rock Ventures group.

“I’ve always believed a sports franchise is a community asset with the power to unite and inspire people,” Gores said. “I’m excited to partner with Dan and help in Detroit’s resurgence. Together we have all the tools we need to make a new team successful.”

Dan Gilbert

Last week, Garber identified Detroit as a top candidate for future expansion, with the 20-team league — founded in late 1993 as part of a successful U.S. bid to host the 1994 World Cup — growing to 24 teams by 2020, and 28 after that.

Atlanta, Minnesota, Los Angeles (a second team) and Miami are slated to join in the next few years. Garber, speaking at an Associated Press Sports Editors meeting in New York, labeled St. Louis and Sacramento, California, as “front-runners” for the next wave. But he listed Detroit as the leading contender beyond that, ahead of San Diego, two Texas cities (San Antonio and Austin) and Cincinnati. Detroit is one of the three largest media markets without an MLS franchise.

The 20-year-old league, buoyed by rising attendance figures and solid TV ratings, boasts an average franchise value of $157 million, according to Forbes’ 2015 valuations. But it also has seen expansion fees rise to more than $100 million, one reason among many for the stalled — or failed — attempts to bring the MLS to Detroit over the years.

In 2013, a Toronto-based real-estate company that also bought the Pontiac Silverdome, proposed a $1 billion development that would’ve included an MLS stadium for the county jail site.

“I’ve been pushing for a Major League Soccer team to come to Detroit for some time,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement Tuesday, citing the growth in the city’s youth-soccer participation numbers. “I look forward to working with anyone who is committed to making the idea of an MLS franchise in Detroit a reality.”

Dan Duggan, the mayor’s brother, has been beating that drum since he founded the Mid-Michigan Bucks in Saginaw in 1995. That team — now based in Pontiac — has been one of the most successful amateur teams in the country the last two decades, playing in the Premier Development League, a fourth-tier division in the U.S. soccer system.

And last spring, Duggan, who declined comment when reached by phone prior to Tuesday’s announcement — he was boarding a flight for Spain — talked optimistically about plans to build a 10,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium in the city. His initial proposal also called for a youth training academy as part of the proposed complex.

Meanwhile, a handful of young entrepreneurs in the city started a minor-league team of their own — Detroit City FC in 2012 — that has been wildly successful. So much so, in fact, that the club outgrew its original 4,000-seat home at Cass Tech and, thanks to a $750,000 community-investment fundraising campaign last winter, is completing the first phase of a renovation of historic Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck.

The club, which has met with Tellem and MLS officials, will open its first season in Hamtramck next month. And it’s loyal fan base certainly will have something to say about pro soccer’s future in Detroit. But Alex Wright, one of the team’s owners, said the DCFC group is excited to hear more about what, if any, role they might play in future plans.

Both amateur clubs — the two most prominent locally — have discussed making the jump to one of two U.S. second-tier pro leagues that are used as a de facto MLS farm system in some cases.

“I think the most hopeful thing about this newest development is we’re talking about two owners that get it,” Wright said. “Obviously, they know how to run pro teams. What we’re extremely interested in finding out is what the vision is for not only what kind of team this is going to be but what happens in the meantime.

“It’s a very good thing for soccer in our city and our state, assuming the team is grown in a way that’s mindful of what it takes to have a successful soccer team in America and in a city that has already four pro sports teams.”

And five stadiums? That’s another critical question that will have to be addressed. But finding a home shouldn’t be a problem. Gilbert, through various entities, rivals General Motors as the largest private land owner in downtown Detroit. His Bedrock Detroit real estate firm controls more than 90 properties, the vast majority downtown, that amounts to 14 million square feet of space.

A Gilbert-affiliated entity holds development rights for a pair of two-acre downtown sites owned by the city. Both sites are empty or virtually empty and are prime locations amid new restaurants, restored historic skyscrapers and rejuvenated public spaces like Campus Martius park.

There is no current public plan for the site called the Monroe Block, between Campus Martius and Greektown, which is home to the casino-hotel owned by Gilbert. The southwest edge of the Monroe Block is across the street from the former Compuware building, now called One Campus Martius. Gilbert and Quicken Loans Inc. executives have their offices in the building.

The borders of Monroe Block are Monroe to the west, Bates to the east, Farmer to the south and Randolph to the north.

The other empty site controlled by Gilbert is the site of the former Hudson’s department store on Woodward. It’s bordered by Woodward to the west, Farmer to the east, East Grand River to the north and Gratiot to the south. Preliminary plans are known for that site and they don’t include a stadium.

Gilbert has been trying to buy the 15.5-acre jail site from Wayne County since 2013. The site is at Gratiot near Interstate 375 where a half-built Wayne County jail stands next to the current jail. The county ran out of money to finish the project. Three years ago, Gilbert offered the county $50 million for the unfinished jail, the current jail and the adjacent juvenile detention center, the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. County officials say the Gilbert offer isn’t enough money to cover the taxpayers’ losses.

When asked if the failed Wayne County Jail site could be considered for a soccer stadium downtown, James Canning, a spokesman for Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, said the administration does not comment on rumors or speculation.


Eastern Conference: Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando City, Toronto FC, New England, New York City FC, Chicago, D.C. United, Columbus, New York

Western Conference: FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, Colorado, Sporting Kansas City, Los Angeles, San Jose, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Houston