Niyo: MLS bid overdue – now Detroit must do it right

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Roger Faulkner has been at this for nearly a half-century, a British-born Detroiter who has passionately made his pitch for top-tier professional soccer in this area again and again.

So it was with a bright-eyed smile, and more than a few hearty laughs, the 77-year-old Faulkner watched Wednesday’s elaborate kickoff of this latest bid — the biggest and best to date, without question — to bring Major League Soccer to Detroit.

“It’s phenomenal,” said Faulkner, who has been promoting soccer events in the area since the late-1960s and spearheaded Detroit’s successful bid to host the 1994 World Cup at the Pontiac Silverdome. “I mean, this is really the vision. I just couldn’t articulate it like this.”

No one could, until now, apparently. And this joint proposal unveiled Wednesday — backed by billionaire NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, and endorsed by MLS commissioner Don Garber — is chock full of promise: an estimated $1-billion mixed-use development at the stalled Wayne County jail site downtown that includes a 24,000-seat soccer stadium, as well as commercial and residential towers, a hotel, restaurants and other add-ons.

It’s also based on the premise Gilbert & Co. can reach an agreement with government officials to use the land, of course. And soon, because time is money, and the county is running out of both, while this new ownership group has “a lot of work to do,” Garber said, to land one of the last seats on the MLS bandwagon.

The league is set to expand from 20 to 24 teams in the next few years, and the goal is to add four more teams after that, though MLS officials haven’t set a timeline for that next phase.

“And it’s important that we don’t,” Garber said Wednesday, speaking after the hourlong presentation at the offices of the Rossetti architecture firm that’s designing this latest grand plan downtown. “Because we have to get this right. We’re going through what will likely be the last round of expansion in our league’s history. And these next four or five teams are really important.”

And just as Gilbert, the largest private land owner in Detroit, talked about all the grappling over the Gratiot site — “We’re at the fork in the road: This is a big decision for downtown,” he said, applying leverage the way only he can — with huge ramifications for the next 20 or 30 years, Garber did his part, too.

“For us, it’s similar,” Garber said. “Because we’re getting to the point where we’ll be fully expanded. And we need to have great owners, we need to have great buildings, we need to have great markets, and you need to recognize that it’s a generational plan.”

Desired location

For MLS, the lure of Detroit is obvious, even beyond the geographical footprint it fills. Along with Phoenix, it’s the largest media market without a franchise. And of the seven other cities believed to be in the running for the final four teams up for grabs, it’s the only one with this kind of ownership commitment. Garber called the Gores-Gilbert union “almost unprecedented Wednesday, and it is.

But it’s also a market with an eager — and thriving — fan base, something Faulkner, among others, has been telling people for decades.

Failed jail project eyed for site of Detroit MLS team

It was Faulkner who helped start the last outdoor pro team in this area — the short-lived Detroit Express, which actually played indoors in the late 1970s. He also chaired Detroit’s failed bid for one of the original MLS franchises following that ’94 World Cup. There have been other proposed ventures since, but nothing like this.

“You need some deep pockets,” Faulkner said. “And we just didn’t have it. Nobody stepped up. … We talked to people like Bill Davidson, and we talked to the Ilitches and we talked to Billy Ford, and other people like that, but you have to have the chemistry, you have to have people that want to do it.”

And you have to have a little patience, obviously. But after attending the inaugural MLS game in San Jose in 1996, and wondering what might’ve been, Faulkner now jokes that it’ll be a “photo finish” to see if he’s there for Detroit’s debut, if — or when — that finally happens in 2020 or ’21 or ’22.

What’s no longer up for debate, he says, is whether this market is ready to support professional soccer.

He points to the “extraordinary” grassroots efforts of the Detroit City FC owners, who’ve turned a profit while turning minor-league soccer on its ear here in the last few years, playing to standing-room-only crowds and now renovating Hamtramck’s historic Keyworth Stadium in order to pack in even bigger ones this spring.

He also points to that record-setting crowd that filled Michigan Stadium two summers ago for an international friendly between Manchester United and Real Madrid. And more specifically, the demographics of that crowd.

“If you went to that Ann Arbor game, and you looked down, these were all millennials,” he said. “I argued for years that the ticket-buying unit was two parents and two soccer-playing kids. And it isn’t. It’s these millennials. That crowd was all age 18 to 30, which augers tremendously well for the future, because they’re going to be with it for their life.”

About Detroit City FC

Yet, Faulkner, who has devoted so much of his life to this chase, has one more bit of advice for the folks who aim to finally get it done.

And it’s something that only got lip service Wednesday, with Garber — who’ll find few supporters among the groups that pack the stands for Detroit City FC matches — talking about trying to “integrate” the local clubs into a new “soccer pyramid” here. Arn Tellem, Gores’ top lieutenant who already has met with DCFC owners, and Gilbert both said they understand the need to tend to the grassroots foundation – “those fans are going to have to be nurtured a little bit,” Faulkner said — even as they build something much, much bigger with broader appeal.

Many rooting for soccer in Detroit

“But the issue that Detroit City FC has been dealing with for years now is the perception among many that a professional soccer team is a birthright,” said Alex Wright, one of the club’s owners. “That we’re owed something because we’re big, and we’re one of the best sports towns in America, and that if you plant a seed it’s just gonna grow. The reason so many of these endeavors so far have failed is in part because of that mentality.”

This one seems too big to fail, quite frankly. But the principals behind this billion-dollar idea best keep that in mind.

“It’s going to work,” Faulkner told me, sipping a cup of coffee as he marveled at the show Wednesday. “But you have to do it right. People don’t go to a game on Saturday afternoon to read a balance sheet.”