Detroit makes 'best pitch' for MLS expansion team

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

New York — The final case was made, and now, for soccer fans in Metro Detroit, the waiting game begins.

Led by Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert, the Detroit group pushing for one of two MLS expansion franchises to be awarded in a couple of weeks made its final presentation at league headquarters in Manhattan on Wednesday in an effort to bring professional soccer to downtown Detroit.

“It will be very important for the city of Detroit to land an MLS franchise,” said Mayor Mike Duggan, who was part of the group making the final demonstration. “We made our best pitch and we’re gonna see what happens.”

In addition to Gilbert and Duggan, Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem and Lions president Rod Wood were on hand to present the final effort from the Detroit group. It was one that initially included Gilbert and Pistons owner Tom Gores with plans to build a soccer-specific stadium on the site of what was to be the Wayne County Jail.

Arn Tellem and Detroit mayor Mike Duggan arrive at MLS headquarters on Wednesday.

But last month, that plan was scrapped when the Lions and the Ford family joined the group and offered Ford Field as a site for the expansion franchise to play home games. The idea of using a 65,000-seat football stadium doesn’t align with what MLS typically looks for, but the Atlanta franchise had great success in its debut season this year playing in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the regular home of the NFL’s Falcons.

That building seats more than 80,000 for football games, but seats are moved back for soccer and curtains cover the upper deck to create a more intimate feel.

“We did a lot of research and the key thing was that location was paramount to an MLS team’s success,” Tellem said. “That was the first and most important thing. The second thing is that it has walkability, it’s accessible to everyone in the city, whether it’s by public transportation or walking from all parts. The other thing is it’s adaptable. We saw the success in Atlanta, which really had a significant impact on our decision (to settle on Ford Field).

“The average downtown stadium in the MLS draws 30,000. The one thing we didn’t want to do was build a soccer stadium for 20,000 and all of a sudden have fan interest of 30,000 or 40,000, so Ford Field is adaptable. And that was another key point for us. It could adapt to any size of crowd and we believe we’re gonna be like Atlanta. We believe there is such strong interest in Detroit and the region that we’re gonna be able to support crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 once we have an MLS team.”

Adaptability was a clear talking point during the two-hour presentation. Most MLS franchises play in soccer specific stadiums that seat 20,000-30,000 fans. That’s what was being pitched by the three other finalists – Nashville, Sacramento and Cincinnati.

Each of those cities has plans in place to build a soccer-specific stadium, however, none have the financial clout the Detroit group has. Each team must pay a $150 million expansion fee to MLS.

It’s three billionaire backers – Gilbert, Gores and the Ford family – provide more than any of the other franchises can offer, and that, along with the unique ability of Ford Field to adapt, is what the group is banking on when the MLS makes its final decision after meeting next week.

“It’s the maximum flexibility and adaptability and the league’s gonna have to decide whether flexibility, adaptability and location (matter),” said Duggan, who added there have been no discussions about public money being used to build a practice facility. “And I’m pretty sure I’m the only mayor here that had the ownership groups of three different professional teams coming along, so whether this group outweighs the soccer-specific stadium, we’re gonna find out in a couple of weeks.”

More:Detroit's MLS bid banking on strength of ownership, community

The late addition of the Ford family and the use of Ford Field has changed things up late in the game. Many believed Detroit had a strong case, but that might have taken a hit with the shift to using the larger football stadium.

However, the group is convinced its plans for the stadium and the addition of the Fords will only help.

“I think it’s huge,” Gilbert said. “Ford — the brand name and family name — is probably most aligned with Detroit than any name. So, to have that kind of credibility (helps) and they’ve always run a first-class operation. … it’s another feather in our cap having the Fords involved and we’re very, very excited about that.”

The group says there will be no issue fitting the soccer pitch into the existing footprint while making it a comfortable experience for fans, another key priority. It was noted that Ford Field is already considered an intimate setting for football and would fit inside of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert arrives at MLS headquarters Wednesday.

There have been discussions with Detroit-based Rossetti, an architectural firm noted for its work on stadiums throughout the nation, in an effort to turn Ford Field into a venue that feels more like a soccer stadium.

“We’ve hosted other soccer events there so we’re accustomed to it,” Wood said. “And with the plans, if we get the team, that Rosetti has worked on it will accommodate the size of the field, it will accommodate smaller crowds with the adaptability to grow to larger crowds. We have plenty of time to get all that done. If we get a franchise, we’ll have a couple of years to work on it. We’ve sent teams to Atlanta to look at how Atlanta is doing it in a very similar situation. We’ve learned a lot from that.”

The two selected franchises will begin play in 2020 while the two that miss out will be put back in the pool with the other eight cities originally considered for another shot at two more franchises next year.

MLS owners will meet on Dec. 14 and a decision is expected by Dec. 20, though that timetable could change. Until then, all four groups wait.

“No one can predict whether we’re gonna get a team,” Tellem said. “I think all four cities are gonna make strong cases and I think we made a very good case and a compelling one why we should be chosen. I think we were able to answer all their questions as to why Ford Field makes perfect sense and is a great location for an MLS team to play.”