Detroit — Despite what they said is a promise by Major League Soccer to award Detroit a franchise if they replace the roof of Ford Field with a retractable covering, bidders for expanding MLS have decided constructing one is not feasible.
But, pressing their initiative to obtain a team, the bidders propose developing a new youth soccer training facility and a dozen new soccer parks with more than 100 pitches to benefit 150,000 youths in the city.
In a letter, dated Sept. 24 and obtained by The Detroit News, the bidders said they would also make significant changes to Ford Field.
They vowed to establish optimum sightlines, “first-class MLS team locker rooms and related spaces,” a flexible capacity from 26,000 to 64,000 seats and increased signage for sponsors.
They also pledged to develop the training facility and academy at the corner of Woodward and Seven Mile Road and the soccer parks over the next three years.
“We appreciate that you and the MLS Expansion Committee have been impressed with our vision, the strength of our ownership group and the appeal of Detroit as an MLS market,” businessman Dan Gilbert and Arn Tellem, who is representing Pistons owner Tom Gores, wrote to MLS Commissioner Don Garber and President Mark Abbott. “We agree with your assessment that our bid is unrivaled in each of these critical respects.
“Based on that assessment, you told me last April that MLS would grant us an expansion team if we agreed to put a retractable roof on Ford Field.
“After careful study and analysis, however, we have determined not to move forward with this proposed retrofit, because the risks that would inhere to such an undertaking would substantially outweigh its rewards.”
But, they made clear they are not going away.
“We understand and respect the MLS expansion process and your preference for soccer-specific stadium,” Gilbert and Tellem wrote. “But in view of the strength of our bid and the commitments we are prepared to make to MLS, the presence or absence of a retractable roof should not be a dispositive factor.”
Gilbert and Tellem could not be reached for comment. MLS officials did not return phone calls.
Kevin Grigg, a spokesman for the bidding group, which includes Gilbert, Gores and members of the Ford family, confirmed a letter was sent.
The proposal for Ford Field remained on the table for several months recently, while MLS waited for Nashville and Cincinnati to complete their bids, which included soccer-specific stadiums.
Nashville and Cincinnati received franchises.
Austin, St. Louis and Sacramento are among the cities that will compete with Detroit for two new franchises, which MLS originally said would be awarded in 2018.
All three proposals include stadiums designed specifically for soccer.
With owners of the NFL's Cleveland Browns announcing last week that they will provide ownership support for the Columbus Crew, MLS is unlikely to move the Ohio franchise to Austin.
MLS officials have said that likely means Austin will receive one of the two planned expansion franchises.
Among the problems with a retractable roof are the potential for water damage, and the need to weatherize significant portions of the interior of the stadium, the bidders said.
Two MLS stadiums, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and BC Place in Vancouver, “continue to experience significant operational issues with their retractable roofs,” Gilbert and Tellem assert in the four-page letter.
“We also learned that, to the knowledge of our experts, the type of structural roof modification that you are asking us to execute has never been accomplished at this scale in any venue in the world.”
After consulting with the Detroit-based architectural firm Rossetti, the structural engineers and architects Walter P. Moore and Company and the construction firm Barton Malow, the bidders said the work would be onerous.
The seismic load, wind flow and accumulating snow “require the strengthening of columns, foundations and bridging trusses; and pressurize the inside of the building, affecting glass enclosures, cladding, walls and other interior elements,” Gilbert and Tellem say in the letter.
“In addition to these considerations, opening the roof to the weather exposes the field, seating bowl, and other interior spaces to a host of new issues, including waterproofing, drainage, and thermal issues, and requiring modifications to these interior elements.
“Finally, our professionals estimate a 14-month construction schedule, which would cause significant interruption and inconvenience to Ford Field’s calendar of events, to the Detroit Lions, and to the building’s other tenants.
“On balance, we concluded that the theoretical enhancement that a retractable roof could provide pales in comparison to the concerns that the retrofit would raise. And we remain confident in our ability to build a successful MLS team without it.”
MLS officials repeatedly have made clear they prefer bids from rich owners with previous sports experience, in walkable downtown areas, in major media markets, in stadiums specifically designed as venues for soccer.
With billionaire business owners Gilbert, Gores and the Fords — owners of the Cavaliers, Pistons and Lions, respectively — seeking to bring an MLS team to downtown Detroit, and the internationally recognized, burgeoning redevelopment, the Detroit bid appears to satisfy many of the requirements other than the stadium.
Gilbert originally proposed building a soccer-specific stadium on the site of the troubled Wayne County jail project, near Gratiot and Broadway.
Garber has said the Detroit bid, with the jail site as the venue, was “the front runner.”
But the switch “set them back,” Garber said.