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Detroit’s MLS bid banking on strength of ownership, market

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Detroit's bid has proposed having a Major League Soccer team play at Ford Field.

Detroit — Detroit is one of four finalists for two Major League Soccer franchises to be awarded in December, competing with three bids offering what the league seeks: new stadiums controlled by the prospective teams and designed specifically for soccer.

The venue in the local bid is Ford Field.

While there currently is no MLS team playing indoors under an unretractable roof, the league nonetheless declared Detroit a finalist, along with Cincinnati, Nashville and Sacramento.

“We have been greatly encouraged by the progress that all four of these groups have made and we are looking forward to their presentations.” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.

The two cities not selected will remain in competition for two more MLS expansion franchises to be awarded in 2018. They and the eight cities not declared finalists for 2017 are the only eligible bidders.

The bid in Nashville includes local approval for an outdoor stadium designed specifically for soccer that would be owned by the team, all priorities set by MLS officials for the most desirable new venues.

In Cincinnati, the Metro Council granted preliminary approval to a financial package for infrastructure Monday. Final approval is expected this week, clearing the way for a so-called soccer-specific stadium owned by the team.

Tom Gores

In Sacramento, all approvals and financing are in place. Site preparation work is already underway for a soccer stadium owned by the prospective expansion team.

But the local bid, spearheaded by the billionaire businessmen Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, which includes Martha Firestone Ford, fulfills some other criteria set by Garber and other MLS officials.

Despite the shift from a new, outdoor soccer stadium that would have been built downtown, southeast of Gratiot on the current site of a county jail project halted in 2013 amid $100 million in cost overruns, to Ford Field, people involved with the bid remain confident.

And, by declaring Detroit a finalist, MLS indicated it is not unalterably opposed to playing indoors, in an NFL stadium.

MLS officials visited Ford Field earlier this month.

More: Tellem makes case for MLS franchise in Lions stadium

“Over the last two years, we have invested significant time, effort and resources into our bid to bring MLS soccer to Detroit,” said Arn Tellem, vice chairman of the Pistons, who is working for Gores on the bid.

“After careful study and analysis, we concluded that the downtown location of an MLS stadium is paramount to an MLS team’s success. And no MLS stadium sits in a better downtown location than Ford Field.

“That, combined with the unrivaled strength and commitment of our ownership group and the strength of Detroit as an MLS market, is our case to MLS.”

The four bidders will make presentations to MLS officials Dec. 6 in New York.

The board of governors of the league will discuss expansion with all the current teams on Dec. 14. Garber has said the announcement is likely around Dec. 19 or 20.

“The leaders of the Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento MLS expansion ownership groups have bold visions and innovative plans for their clubs, stadiums and their involvement in their respective communities,” Garber said Wednesday.

“We are pleased these highly respected business and sports leaders have been so determined to bring Major League Soccer to their cities.”

The other eight markets are Charlotte, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa/St. Petersburg.

None have secured stadium sites, although a few have plans in place and are seeking approval. Others have yet to lineup financing.

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Dan Gilbert

MLS officials have said they are seeking owners with comparatively more money than some of the earlier and current owners, as well as experience owning sports franchises.

The league also seeks a critical mass of large companies in the expansion markets to finance sponsorships, advertising, ticket sales and promotions. It also wants clear evidence of support for soccer.

The last major criterion is the stadium. The league’s preference is for one designed specifically for soccer, owned or at least, in the case of municipal ownership, for example, controlled by the ownership of the team.

Four of MLS franchises compete in large, mixed-use stadiums in Atlanta, Foxboro, New York City and Seattle.

In each case, however, the stadium is outdoors, or the roof retractable.

Earlier this month, Tellem said that the expansion group in Detroit hired Rosetti, an architectural firm with international experience designing soccer stadiums, to develop a plan for playing soccer at Ford Field.

The bidders will take that plan to New York.

“I think we have as intimate an atmosphere and good sight lines that are probably superior to any of the other multipurpose stadiums in MLS,” Tellem said, after the announcement of the abandonment of plans for a new stadium on the jail site.

Ford Field, he said, “has the perfect dimensions for the pitch.”

When Arthur Blank, the founder of Home Depot and owner of the Falcons and Atlanta United, approached MLS to offer his new NFL venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as a soccer venue, he obtained approval.

Garber said the league is happy with the results

“We really wanted a soccer stadium here, and Arthur said, ‘Hey, this stadium I’m going to build is going to be the best in the world, it’s going to be world class, we’re going to fill it up.’ And he did,” Garber said, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel in September.

“So, I don’t know that that changes our point of view in any other market. But certainly, when I see what’s happening here and in Seattle I’m happy that we have stadiums that can have 70,000 people in them.”

Meet the finalists

Major League Soccer Wednesday announced four finalists for its two 2017 expansion franchises, Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento.

The two cities that are not chosen in December will remain candidates for the two 2018 expansion franchises, along with eight cities that applied for the four expansion slots and were not designated finalists.

Detroit among 4 finalists for MLS team

Based on the criteria for expansion set out by MLS officials, and developments in the cities that are finalists, some observers assert that Nashville and Sacramento are likely favored for selection. Cincinnati is considered the third strongest with Detroit, largely because an indoor, multiple-use stadium, Ford Field, would be the venue, trailing.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber and others MLS officials have said the bids are judged on three major criteria:

■ strength of ownership group, including financially and experience in running major sports franchises.

■ strength of market, including the presence of large corporations and demonstrated support for soccer

■ venue, including a preference for so-called soccer-specific stadiums controlled by the ownership of the franchise.


Billionaire owner Carl H. Lindner III is chief executive officer of American Financial Group, a Fortune 500 company. He also owns FC Cincinnati, a successful United Soccer League franchise.

The market supports both the Major League Baseball and the NFL, and has seven Fortune 500 companies, including Kroger and Fifth-Third Bank. The Cincinnati club draws large crowds at Nippert Stadium.

A privately financed stadium, specifically for soccer, owned by Lindner and others garnered preliminary approval from the City Council Monday for $36 million in road, utility and other public works improvements. Final approval, pending this week, would likely clear the way for construction.


Billionaire owners Dan Gilbert, Tom Gores and Martha Firestone Ford would form one of the richest ownership groups in MLS, and all have considerable experience in major sports, owning the Cavaliers and Pistons of the NBA, and the Lions, respectively.

The market supports long-standing franchises in the four major sports and there are 10 Fortune 500 companies in Metro Detroit. Detroit City FC draws well in the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League, and international exhibition games are attended by more than 100,000 in Michigan Stadium.

The proposed ownership group is offering Ford Field, which they say can easily accommodate soccer. But it would be the first unretractable domed stadium in MLS.


Leonard, Zygmunt and Mark Wilf are billionaire real estate developers who own the Minnesota Vikings, are part of the ownership group, along with local businessman John Ingram.

The market supports franchises in the NFL and NHL, and here are six Fortune 500 companies. A recent Gold Cup game drew 47,000 fans, and the Nashville SC is well-supported in the USL.

The city Metro Council approved a $275 million stadium project this month, which includes $225 million in financing from revenue bonds. The proposed owners, who would control the soccer-specific stadium, are committed to finance and cost overruns for the construction or infrastructure.


The ownership group includes Meg Whitman, of HP; Jed York, an owner of the 49ers and several of the owner of the Kings.

The market supports the NBA franchise and is generally seen as under-represented in major sports leagues. There are three Fortune 500 companies in the area. Sacramento Republic FC is a major success.

Although the franchise has not been awarded, work has begun on a new soccer-specific stadium, downtown.