Detroit City FC has serious concerns about MLS proposal

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Fan support has boosted Detroit City Football Club’s profile over the years.

Detroit — The rumblings of Major League Soccer coming to Detroit aren't anything new.

"We've come to expect it," said Drew Gentry, co-founder of Detroit City FC's uber-passionate, fan-support group, "and have grown a bit numb to it."

But now, the idea seems as serious as ever, especially with two billionaire sports giants, Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner and one of Detroit's biggest ambassadors, Dan Gilbert, serving as pitchmen for the project this week.

MLS is looking to expand beyond its current 20 teams, and Detroit always was among the early targets -- but might now be going to the head of the class with the Gores-Gilbert involvement.

And the stunning success of Detroit City FC, a semi-professional club team founded in 2012 that last season averaged more than 3,500 fans a game and once topped 3,800, might just be behind the ramped-up interest in MLS coming to Detroit.

"Ask me that question after we find out what kind of team they're gonna make it," said Alex Wright, one of Detroit City FC's five owners.
"I would like to say, 'Yes,' our success and the way we built this team has led directly to these new developments.

"But let's wait and see."

Wright admittedly was careful with his words when talking to The Detroit News and other media outlets Thursday afternoon.

Detroit City FC, which plays in the National Premier Soccer League, doesn't have a legit competitor for customers right now, leading to the theory that there is animosity and tension between the folks at Detroit City FC and those behind the MLS plans.

Wright, though, said there are simply questions — questions beyond just where the MLS stadium would be built if the failed-jail site can't be bought.

"We're honestly taking a lot of that in still," Wright said. "We're still sort of wrapping our head around it.

"MLS has been looking for a way to get a team into Detroit for a couple decades now, and with this alignment, with this new allegiance with Gilbert and Gores, it looks like they've found their match.

"Because of our organization being very grassroots and very community-focused, a lot of our interest is what kind of team is this gonna be? What kind of culture is it gonna support? What sort of value is it gonna have?

Detroit FC supporters Drew Gentry, front, aka Sgt. Scary, and Amy Michelle, aka Banshee, get the crowd going.

"I don't think it's tension. I think it's passion.

"I think a lot of people are misinterpreting anger for passion."

In essence, Wright and Detroit City FC's other owners — Dave Dwaihy, Todd Kropp, Sean Mann and Ben Steffans — are proud of how Detroit City FC has become a major part of the Detroit and Metro community.

Detroit City FC's players aren't paid; many are 9-to-5ers, living in the area. The owners have days jobs in the area. The game experience is affordable, with tickets at $10 and beer, to be sold for the first time this season, going for $5 or less (though probably not much lower, as the crowds already are rowdy enough).

Owners and investors have put around $750,000 into renovations for their new home, historic Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, a project that also will benefit the Hamtramck High School football and soccer teams. Detroit City FC is involved with the Police Athletic League. It even prints door-hanging promotional flyers in at least four different languages, including Ukrainian and Bengali, in an attempt to tap into all segments of the community.

While MLS is considered the better soccer — in baseball terms, Wright likened Detroit City FC to independent ball or rookie ball, while MLS  is undoubtedly made up of the best talent in the United States — it'd also be the fourth professional team within the city limits, and fifth in the area.

The competition for customer dollars here already is serious, and the cheapest MLS tickets typically are twice as much as Detroit City FC — and many sections cost considerably more. While some MLS teams have no problem garnering interest — the Seattle Sounders, for one — others have a tougher time, especially ones from cities that house several other big-time pro teams, like New York, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

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While soccer is among the most popular sports in the United States, and always growing, many of the more serious soccer fans often are drawn more to what's happening in the Premier League in Britain than MLS. Would Detroit soccer fans consistently fill up a 25,000-seat arena? At least Detroit City FC has the benefit of a local roster that local fans have an easy time embracing.

That's why community relations are so important, Wright said, and why there are so many questions.

"There's teams that have moved to MLS that have remained community-focused and they've found success, and there's teams that have moved to MLS and the opposite has happened," Wright said. "What we would like to see is the MLS team that comes to Detroit take on that path of success, especially when we're talking about a development that's going to be massive.

"Our concern is as much for the future of the city than it is for the future of the sport."

When Gores and Gilbert held their press conference earlier this week, nobody from Detroit City FC — fans or owners — was invited to attend.

While Wright downplays the aforementioned "tension," fans of Detroit City FC do not.

And some fans consider that press-conference snub a possible red flag. (Ironically, some with Detroit City FC expect Gores and Gilbert underlings to scout several of its games this season.)

"We saw the press conference not as something big for the soccer community of Detroit, but something big for a couple billionaires looking to capitalize on the next thing," said Dion DeGennaro, of Detroit City FC's Northern Guard Supporters.

"The fact that we have been completely overlooked shows they have no interest in reaching out to the existing soccer fans in Detroit."

Detroit City FC has done a remarkable job drumming up interest in their amateur product over the years, despite the financial limitations — unbelievably severe when contrasted to what's at the disposal of Gilbert and Gores, worth, combined, nearly $8 billion. Its games are rowdy and electric, and usually packed with fans, many ages 18 to 40 from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, many with families attending together, too.

Local sponsorships continue to swell. New ones will be introduced at a kickoff party, dubbed "Soccer Prom," on May 5 at the Majestic Theatre.

The MLS news, while not met with anywhere close to total glee from Detroit City FC, has actually created more buzz for the club, which this week reached its initial cap of 2,000 season tickets sold. Owners decided to open up another 200 tickets for the season, which begins Saturday, May 7, against the Muskegon Risers at Hurley Field in Berkley. The Keyworth Stadium debut is Friday, May 20, against AFC Ann Arbor.

One of Detroit City FC's fans recently bought the domain, which directs browsers to Detroit City FC's home page. There are rumors of fans of Detroit City FC starting an MLS T-shirt protest, though nothing has been confirmed.

So, you can see the passion that Wright was talking about.

Would MLS bring the same level of enthusiasm? Well, that's one of those questions Wright was talking about.

"Just because it's the 'top' league doesn't mean it's actually worthwhile, and settling for MLS because you think it's the best you can get just means you'll never get anything better," said Gentry, of the Northern Guard Supporters. "I will credit the individuals behind this current pitch, though, as they've made the biggest spectacle of it by far in the four years I've personally been around to have it happen.

"I will also give them credit, too, for re-energizing Detroit City FC's fan base to become even more loyal to the club than they already have been."

Twitter: tonypaul1984