Niyo: Detroit City FC constrained by its semi-pro soccer status

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Hamtramck — Sean Mann figured the time was right last August. He and his wife were expecting their first child, and his hobby — as founder and co-owner of Detroit City FC, the wildly popular semi-pro soccer team in Hamtramck — had long ago “run amok,” as he puts it.

So Mann finally quit his job as a lobbyist in Lansing to become a full-time CEO for the club, bracing for its next big step: turning professional and joining the North American Soccer League in 2018. But on his last day at work — Sept. 1 — the phone rang with some troubling news. The U.S. Soccer Federation’s board of directors had blindsided NASL leadership with a decision to revoke their status as a second-division league just below Major League Soccer in the four-tiered U.S. soccer pyramid.

“And all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a (fight) between billionaires,” said Mann, 38, one of a handful of young entrepreneurs who started DCFC seven years ago with a $5,000 entry fee for the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League and now boast a $1.5 million annual operating budget, not to mention a measure of worldwide prominence in the sport.

Instead of turning pro — and capitalizing on the success of last season’s playoff run to the national semifinals in the NPSL — the club owners were forced to turn themselves into amateur experts on anti-trust lawsuits and state nonprofit acts last fall, all while going back to the drawing board to piece together another profitable season in 2018.

Holding pattern

“It was frustrating: Why are there so many obstacles?” Mann said. “We’re not zealots. We’re not crusaders to reform American soccer. We just want to play at a higher level. We want to naturally grow. And U.S. soccer doesn’t allow that.

Well, it does and it doesn’t. The problem for Detroit City FC is that its success has been built on a different premise than the one that has a stranglehold on soccer in this country, one that starts at the top with the single-entity structure of MLS, where all the teams are owned by the league and run by investor-operators.

It’s a premise that runs even deeper than that, though, with the for-profit marketing arm of MLS — Soccer United Marketing — also an exclusive partner with U.S. Soccer, handling sponsorship deals and bundling the TV rights fees for both, which has been a point of contention for critics. It’s also at the heart of the antitrust lawsuit filed last fall by the NASL against the USSF — later amended to include MLS — citing conflicts of interest and anti-competitive standards, including preferential treatment for the other second-division league, the United Soccer League, which includes MLS reserve teams.

Things only grew more contentious last month after the federation denied a $500 million proposal made by Rocco Commisso, the NASL chairman and owner of the New York Cosmos, that sought to buy a 10-year window for a revamped league — one that would’ve included Detroit City FC — to regain its standing.

“While we understand that this timing may not be what the NASL desires," USSF CEO Dan Flynn wrote in a letter to Commisso in late May, "the board does not see a compelling reason to deviate from the annual sanctioning process."

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All of which leaves DCFC in the lurch, even as it seeks to capitalize on a window of opportunity its own soccer market, with Detroit’s MLS bid — championed by billionaires Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, and with the Ford family now in tow — stuck in limbo as well.

Le Rouge, as they’re known to their passionate fans, long ago outgrew the NPSL, a league that features mostly college players on summer break and is limited to a 12-game regular season schedule. (By comparison, the USL schedule includes a 32-game league slate that begins in late March with the playoffs running through early November.)

The club has seen attendance rise each season, averaging nearly 5,500 fans for home matches this spring at historic Keyworth Stadium, far outpacing their NPSL peers, not to mention three-quarters of the 33 franchises in the second-division USL, where the average crowd is just under 5,000 in 2018.

International intrigue

Detroit City FC has augmented its home schedule with a series of exhibitions and international friendlies, including one this week against Club Necaxa — a popular first-division Mexican club — that drew a season-high crowd of 7,449 on Tuesday night.

“But how sustainable is that?” Mann said. “We just have to get more games to be viable and to be more relevant.”

But how? That’s the abbreviated question, and the larger challenge for Detroit City FC — “There’s a lot of things outside our control that are affecting our reality,” co-owner Alex Wright says — though they remain optimistic they’ll be making a professional debut next spring.

“Conversations are taking place every day now,” Mann said. “There’s certainly interest to pick up where the NASL left off. But I can’t put any timeline on it. The goal is to have that in place by 2019, but all I can say is we’re working daily to play a longer season next year.”

Mann declined to offer any other specifics on possible plans or conversations with potential investors. U.S. Soccer requires teams to have a principal owner (35-percent stake) with a $20 million net worth for second-division teams, or $10 million in the third division. But ownership appears to be focusing on alternatives other than a move to the USL, with its more restrictive rules covering everything from player movement to trademarks and intellectual property.

Building a league outside the constraints of U.S. Soccer’s “Professional League Standards” could be one option for remaining NASL owners — New York, Miami and Jacksonville — and NPSL teams that are looking to grow pro. Detroit City FC was one of at least a half-dozen NPSL teams — clubs from Boston, Phoenix, Virginia Beach and Boca Raton, Fla. among them — poised to join the NASL with letters of intent last fall. But whatever path a new league pursues, it’ll require strength in numbers — at least 10 or 12 teams — and a geography that makes sense.

“I think with any type of new venture, it’s such an interesting array,” Mann said. “Everyone’s coming from a different angle, but you all have to be able to take a leap together. That’s the kind of conversations you have to have.”

In the meantime, they’re happy to talk all the things they can control, most notably their new Detroit City Fieldhouse, a 75,000-square foot facility — formerly the City Sports Center ice rink on the near east side — that they’re renovating with help from a $40,000 Motor City Match grant award.

Scheduled to open in late September, it’ll provide indoor soccer fields for recreational leagues, a new DCFC youth program and eventually serve as the training facility for the pro club. It’ll also be another marketing space, with a bar and restaurant for fans to gather year-round.

“It really becomes a hub for all our activity,” Mann said. “And that’s when it gets exciting for us, becoming a full-fledged business where all these different components we’re building up complement each other.”

There are other items on the offseason to-do list, but chief among them is installing a new turf at Keyworth, DCFC’s home since it underwent a $750,000 supporter-funded renovation. A new pitch could cost nearly that much, and Mann says the club is working with corporate partners to fund other infrastructure improvements as well.

“I think we can really make it the coolest soccer venue in the country,” he said.

Filling it for a few months each spring hasn’t been a problem. The dilemma now is to extend that calendar, a task that is trying their patience in a landscape where innovators and entrepreneurs aren’t always rewarded for their effort.

 “We need to do what we do and cultivate these other teams — this short list of teams that are sort of in our boat — and keep turning heads,” Wright said. “It’s gotta be a long play. I think that’s one thing that we’re wrapping our heads around. … There’s no doubt this is a long play. Because part of the soccer world has to catch up, and the other half has to start playing the same game.”