It was a celebration that was years in the making, and one that was shared across three time zones and multiple generations.
On Feb. 28, Sean Mann, founder and co-owner of Detroit City FC, was out in Los Angeles watching his soccer club make its long-awaited professional debut, while back in Detroit his four fellow owners were part of a noisy crowd at the bar inside the club-owned City Fieldhouse for a 10 p.m. ET kickoff.
“The place was packed, the excitement was palpable,” said Alex Wright, one of the handful of entrepreneurs who started DCFC with a used riding mower and a $5,000 league fee back in 2012. “And there was this beautiful scene right at the end of the match when one of our players scored to ice it.”
It was Roddy Green’s goal in the 93rd minute that sealed the 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Force, and amid the euphoria at the City Clubhouse there also was some poetry, it seemed. Green, a 22-year-old from Commerce Township, is in his fourth season playing for Le Rouge, and his parents, Roderic and Tammy, were at the Fieldhouse for the watch party. When their son scored, nearly everyone in the place came over to offer their congratulations.
“It was this incredible moment where all of us as a group felt like we had moved to this pro level together,” Wright said. “And we were so looking forward to the future as a group, knowing how much we’d accomplished.”
And yet only a couple weeks later, all that momentum came to an abrupt halt, like nearly everything else in a nation that’s now paralyzed by the coronavirus pandemic.
On March 12, the National Independent Soccer Association — an eight-team league that also includes the Pontiac-based Michigan Stars — announced it would suspend play for 30 days due to COVID-19 concerns. The league later extended that suspension until May 10 in compliance with CDC guidelines, which means nine of Detroit City's 13 remaining league matches — and five of their seven home dates — already have been postponed.
“This has been a wild ride, from where this all started almost a decade ago,” said Mann, 39, a former community activist and legislative policy advisor who lives in southwest Detroit. “The twists and turns, starts and stops … finally getting approved by U.S. Soccer to be a professional club, building out a roster, bringing pro soccer back to Detroit for the first time in generations. And then this happens. …
“This is kind of a perfect storm for our organization. It’s not an easy time to be in the business of gathering large groups of people together on a regular basis.”
Particularly not in a fledgling soccer league where members are still heavily reliant on gameday revenue to stay afloat. And for Detroit City FC, a grassroots club that long ago outgrew its abbreviated summer season in the semipro National Premier Soccer League — with a nearly $2 million budget for the team alone in 2019 — this was supposed to be another banner year in that regard.
Ownership was projecting 25-35 percent growth in revenue in 2020, fueled by an extended season — NISA has spring and fall schedules — and the passionate fan base that crowds into Hamtramck’s Keyworth Stadium and has made DCFC a model franchise in the sport.
But that growth was needed to offset the cost of going pro — average payrolls in the NISA range from $400,000 to $800,000 — as well as the addition of a Detroit City women’s side this spring.
Last month, the club announced it had finished paying off investors — two years ahead of schedule — in a $725,000 revenue-sharing agreement that funded renovations to Keyworth, which is owned by the city of Hamtramck, back in 2016. Detroit City FC also owns a 75,000-square-foot indoor facility that opened in October 2018 and serves as the club’s headquarters — and houses the City Clubhouse bar and restaurant — in addition to hosting adult and youth leagues.
“Those were always supposed to be revenue sources that kind of insulated us from bad weather,” Mann said.
But now it’s all temporarily closed, and with roughly half the club’s sponsorship revenue “still out the door,” ownership finds itself back where it started, in some respects, filling out loan applications only weeks after paying off its largest debt.
The club has just over 50 employees — just more than half are full-time — and Mann says last week the entire front-office staff was put into the state’s Work Share program, reducing their hours and allowing them to receive unemployment benefits in lieu of layoffs.
Player contracts remain in place for the calendar year, though four players on loan for the spring season were returned to the New York Cosmos after the clubs reached an agreement. And much of the roster has scattered to wait out the shutdown at home.
“As soon as our season got suspended, seeing how this was heading, we basically told the guys, ‘Be where you want to be,’” Mann said.
Of course, no one can be where they really want to be at the moment. That includes everyone from the owners and players to the idled hourly workers and matchday crew of more than 100 staffers and contractors, not to mention the diehard supporters who regularly fill the stands at Keyworth, dedicated in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of the first Works Project Administration projects in Michigan.
That was in the midst of the Great Depression, and this is not yet that. But the economic uncertainty is real and already painful. All sports leagues are suffering, but as Mann joked in a half-hour conversation earlier this week, “Martha Ford’s not pulling all-nighters filling out SBA loan documents and hustling down sponsorship checks.”
In European soccer leagues, there's rampant speculation about lower-tier clubs folding. And even if Detroit City, which just announced a new three-year sponsorship deal with Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers, is on firmer ground than some clubs in a third-tier U.S. league that began play in 2018, the bottom line remains the same.
“Frankly, we need money coming in the door,” Mann said. “A typical home game represents a $100,000 in revenue for us, so there’s just not enough gift cards or T-shirts that we can sell to make up for that loss.”
Hopefully, he says, it’s just a postponement. And while no one can say with any certainty when social-distancing restrictions might be lifted — Mann is leading daily conference calls with NISA owners to talk through contingency plans — the league remains optimistic about returning to action this year. The spring season was to end in mid-June, but a scheduled break from then until the fall season starts in August offers a chance to reschedule lost games, perhaps.
In the meantime, teams like Detroit City, which also added a broadcast deal with WMYD-TV20 in February, are trying to find creative ways to stay visible, through social media and sponsor activations with the likes of Stroh’s and Faygo.
They even took all the schedule posters that were going to be plastered around town and had the entire roster autograph them to sell to fans, using the proceeds to help subsidize the DCFC-Detroit PAL youth program. (Normally, the club uses the proceeds from alcohol sales at games to fund those teams.) And throughout the next month, players from NISA clubs will compete against each other in FIFA 20 games on Twitch.
Meanwhile, the club’s supporters — led by the Northern Guard — have been busy as well, promoting fundraisers to help service industry workers, filling new merchandise orders and staging virtual happy hours in the absence of regular social gatherings at Keyworth.
Few organizations are as intertwined with Detroit’s growing small-business community as DCFC, and among other events that have gone missing are the 4 p.m. Wednesday pick-up soccer games with local business owners that Mann calls “the highlight of my week.”
But even that loss serves as a subtle reminder of what's looming behind the crushing human toll of the health crisis, which last week claimed the life of State Rep. Isaac Robinson, who served the Hamtramck district that Detroit City FC calls home.
“It hits hard, it puts things back in perspective and reminds you that we’re not alone in this,” Mann said. “I think we’ve always envisioned ourselves as being kind of the sporting embodiment of this moment in Detroit. We’re a small business, and our group of friends are small business owners. They’re all shutting down their businesses and a good number of them aren’t going to reopen. And that’s really sobering.
“Seeing all this happen in the last 10 years in Detroit and now, in a matter of a few weeks, to see it kind of being eroded is … is pretty startling, it’s shocking.”
Those shockwaves will be felt for weeks and months to come, everyone understands. But eventually, Mann says, this storm will pass and the club will get back to doing what it does best: Bringing people together.
“And when we get through this and get back to Keyworth,” he said, “it’s gonna be a hell of a party.”