Decision on retractable roof for Ford Field coming soon

By Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
The Detroit ownership group is convinced that Ford Field is the best option for an MLS franchise.

Detroit – The decision on whether to pursue a retractable roof for Ford Field, as part of a bid for expansion in Major League Soccer, could be made within two weeks, and the cost will be considerable.

“It’s a big number,” said Lions President Ron Wood, on WJR-AM on Monday. “I have not seen the final numbers, yet. But it’s significant.”

A spokesman for the Lions told The Detroit News that Wood estimated the cost at tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The owner of the Lions, Martha Firestone Ford, is working with Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavaliers, and Tom Gores, the owner of the Pistons in a combined bid for an MLS franchise.

MLS officials said the decision to switch from an outdoor soccer stadium on the site of the abandoned Wayne County jail construction near Greektown to proposing Ford Field as the venue hurt the initiative.

Wood said a meeting this week is part of the process of considering a new roof for the 16-year-old NFL stadium.

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The retractable roof would allow the Lions to play home games outdoors for the first time since they left Tiger Stadium, where they played from 1938 to 1974.

“I think we’ll figure out who’s going to pay for it after we figure out how much it’s going to cost,” Wood said. “And then, we’ll go from there.”

Arn Tellem, the vice-chairman of the Pistons, who has been leading the pursuit of an MLS franchise, has said the process of considering how best to stage professional soccer in Ford Field is part of ongoing discussions with the league.

“It’s been an interesting process working with Dan and Tom Gores and his team,” Wood said on WJR's "Frank Beckmann Show.”

“I think it would be great for Detroit, great for downtown, to have another sports franchise. We’d have, what? Five teams within a par-5 of one another playing.

“And, building another stadium makes no sense with the three that we have.

“And so, we’ll continue to work with MLS to see if we have a solution. But retractable roofs are expensive, and so we’ll see what the cost comes in at, and then we’ll look at it.”

Martha Ford and Rod Wood

The consideration of the retractable roof was first reported by Street & Smith’s Sport Business Daily.

The proposal from Gilbert, Gores and Ford to play at Ford Field has been before MLS since November; since then the league has awarded a franchise to Nashville, and seven months later Cincinnati.

The stadiums in Nashville and Cincinnati are to be designed specifically for soccer.

Among the potential competitors with Detroit for two other expansion franchises, all are planning smaller, outdoors stadiums, designed specifically for soccer.

But the Detroit bidders believe their proposal has other attractive options, including the deep pockets of all three potential owners and the potential of a venue at the heart of a city, with other sports and entertainment and residences within walking distance.

Gilbert said he believes the retractable roof would help close the deal with MLS.

Wood said he is not certain it would put the Detroit bid over the top.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I think that there’s a purist wing within the MLS, and they like to play on grass, they like to play outside.

“They have preferred smaller stadiums, although the two most successful franchises play in football stadiums in Atlanta and Seattle. And, they regularly draw 40,000, 50,000, 60,000 fans.

“I think we might have a shot at doing the same thing in downtown, with all the vibrancy downtown,” said Wood, who, like Tellem in an interview three weeks ago, said the proposed ownership group remains excited about the possibility of the best professional soccer league in North America playing in the burgeoning sports and entertainment district.

“All the young people now working downtown that love soccer, and coming off the World Cup, where everybody was very interested in what was going on, it would be great to have that downtown,” he said.

Wood said it is unclear whether natural grass would become a consideration, too.

“I don’t know if we’d go that far,” he said. “We’ll have to figure it out, as we’ll see what the cost is, and the cost of grass, and you have a lot of tangential issues.

“When you open it up, you’ve got weather and humidity inside of the building, which we’ve never really had because it’s been a dome since we opened.

“So, it’s not just one decision. It’s a series of decisions we’re going to have to evaluate,” Wood said.

“I think within the next couple weeks, we’ll know whether or not we’re going to consider a retractable roof on that facility. And, if it doesn’t work, we’ll continue to pursue the idea of MLS at Ford Field, with the roof.

“With or without the roof, it’s the right venue.”