Detroit makes sense for MLS expansion, but does MLS make sense for Detroit?

On its face, it seems like a no-brainer. Detroit should become a Major League Soccer town.

Onetime NBA super agent Arn Tellem is now the vice chairman of Palace Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Detroit Pistons. In that capacity, he is one of the key players in bringing MLS to Detroit with a joint-bid by Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who has extensive business interests in Detroit, including Quicken Loans. Tellem calls the multibillionaires a “dream team of owners” for MLS.

“I think between their combined resources,” he told Yahoo Sports, “there is no ownership group anywhere that can compete with the two of them.”

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“We feel very, very strongly it’s the best sports city,” Tellem said. “It has a tremendous fan base that supports enthusiastically, year in, year out, all these teams. It’s the 11th-largest media market in the country. There’s a very strong corporate base here. We have the largest millennial population [of the cities bidding], which has been critical to the success of the MLS. With Detroit’s revitalization and rebirth, there has been a real surge of young people moving back into the city.”

Tom Gores and Dan Gilbert
Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert would be a powerful 1-2 punch in MLS. (Getty Images)

Tellem argues an MLS team would create “a community asset that’s going to enhance the quality of life in the city,” one that would serve as a catalyst to push Detroit further along in its recovery. “You can’t put a value on that. The value is almost priceless,” he said.

But would it further Detroit’s rebirth? And is it really priceless?

A dozen cities are jostling for one of the four expansion teams that MLS will sell in the coming years. Bids from Tampa to Sacramento and from San Diego to Indianapolis are positioning themselves to pay at least $150 million and become the 23rd through 26th franchises in North America’s top soccer division.

An MLS team makes sense for almost all of those cities, with pro soccer enriching the local entertainment offerings and providing a rallying point for civic pride. Never mind that the cost would be public funding of at least part of a new stadium.

Most of those cities can fairly well afford to put up tens of millions in subsidies, tax breaks, land grants or tax revenues. There is always an argument to be had about a better expenditure of that cash, but at least the outlay isn’t crippling in those places.

But Detroit is one of those cities that is not like the others.

The reason for doubt

Between the Motor City’s unprecedented depression, its unlikely revival, a cluttered sporting landscape, owners of questionable pro soccer knowhow, a complicated and dubious stadium deal proposal and a thriving minor league soccer team, some Detroiters question the bid for an MLS expansion team made by a pair of billionaires on behalf of their city.

While there is an easy argument to be made that Detroit makes sense for MLS, the doubters wonder whether MLS makes sense for Detroit.

Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013, $20 billion in the red which was an American municipal record by a factor of more than four. At one time, urban flight got so bad that people routinely set fire to their house in order to collect the insurance because they had no hope of selling. But a recovery is happening, and one of the things it has spawned is a downtown National Premier League Soccer team – Detroit City FC – that has had astonishing success for an unpaid fourth-tier team with an average attendance of more than 5,000.

In the expansionist sweep of American pro sports, the hunger for more is insatiable. But in Detroit, it’s worth questioning the received wisdoms. Urban revitalization, after all, is a precarious thing – especially there. A few wrong decisions and the whole thing can be undone. And with a stadium proposal as inscrutable as this one, wrapped up in so many other development projects, it’s worth pausing for deep consideration.

Detroit City FC
Detroit City FC’s grassroots effort has seen impressive growth. (Detroit City FC)

Because the assumption that bigger is better, and that big league necessarily trumps minor league (or semi-pro) doesn’t necessarily hold up. The argument from proponents is that Detroit is a “big league town,” but this has obviously already been debunked by a team of amateurs nevertheless capable of bringing in crowds of more than 7,000 – a number limited by stadium capacity, rather than interest.

There is simply no debate to be had that MLS could provide a superior playing product than an NPSL team, no matter how successful. And whatever stadium the new team’s rich owners should finagle would surely be fine. But if DCFC draws in the droves in spite of the modest playing level of the fourth tier and pulls in those fans even though it plays in a once-dilapidated, 80-year-old stadium that it’s upgrading on the $750,000 it crowdfunded and will repay with interest, does that make the MLS matter moot?

If Detroit City FC is satisfying an apparent demand and interest in spite of the limitations of its circumstances, can we state categorically that there is a need for an MLS franchise?

Does DCFC represent a demand already met adequately? Or is it a proof of concept that suggests a market not yet fully tapped?

Detroiters’ dilemma

In 2010, lobbyist Sean Mann founded a city-wide recreation soccer league made up of neighborhood teams to help publicize and build communities in Detroit. Today, 34 neighborhoods have a team, with about 1,000 residents participating. In 2012, DCFC was born from this league when Mann started it with four cofounders.

Attending games has become a popular pastime for the new generation of young people moving back into Detroit. The team is so popular that it had to leave its downtown high school stadium for a bigger, abandoned and derelict one that it had to fix up in Hamtramck – a small enclave in the heart of the city – where it drew an average attendance of 5,200 last year. The money DCFC raised made it the largest community investment campaign in Michigan history, Mann says.

But for all of the glorified amateur club’s success – because in the NPSL, very few players are actually paid, even though it’s referred to as semi-pro – its co-owners maintain that Detroit is a treacherously tricky soccer market. Consider, after all, that it already has four incredibly well-established major league teams – the youngest of which, the Pistons of the NBA, is 76 years old.

Still, Alex Wright, a TV producer and one of the co-owners, thinks there is room for soccer to get bigger. He thinks Detroit could be “the Portland of the Midwest” – referring to the enormous following the Timbers have developed in MLS. And he’s aware that in order to keep growing, DCFC will have to join one of the pro leagues at some point – most likely the second-tier North American Soccer League or United Soccer League.

MLS could fill a gap. But it isn’t, Wright argues, as straightforward as starting a team and waiting for fans to show up.

“Detroit has potential to be the premier soccer market in America,” he said. “I also think that in order for that to happen it can’t lose its connection to grassroots supporter culture and community commitment. In this market, if you’re doing it wrong it’s the difference between success and failure; not [between] breaking even and doing a little better than breaking even. How does [the mooted owners’] expertise translate to soccer, which is a very different sport?”

“There’s opportunity for MLS to succeed in Detroit and to have that kind of following that you see in Portland,” Mann echoed. “Frankly, we have that. It’s just on a smaller scale. Instead of 18,000 a game, we get 5,000 or 6,000 a game. But it has to be navigated in the right way. You have to embrace the culture that’s already growing here.”

Rather than a downtown approach, it has to be grassroots and community-based. That’s how you make inroads in the new Detroit when you’re competing with sports institutions of the old Detroit. But the DCFC leaders say contact with the prospective MLS ownership group has been sporadic, even though they hold the key to making a new team work.

“It’s a tough sports landscape, and unless it’s approached the right way – coming from the bottom-up, focusing on the supporters and the community – I don’t think it’s going to reach its full potential,” Mann said. “I’m not opposed to it [MLS]. My concern is you get one crack at it and I want to make sure it’s done right. And today, I haven’t seen that.

“If you just treat it like a normal consumer-sports business approach to owning a sports team, then I think you’re missing the potential of what soccer can be and the differentiator with the other pro teams in the [Detroit] landscape.”

But the big elephant in the room is the stadium deal. No MLS venue has been built without significant public money, and your own stadium – or a fully financed stadium plan – is a requirement for a new team in markets outside of New York and Los Angeles.

And here’s where the whole thing gets iffy. Because Detroit’s proposed MLS stadium deal is so complex that it’s hard to know what to make of it.

The real deal?

The stadium plan revolves around a major piece of downtown real estate, adjacent to the NFL Lions’ Ford Field and the MLB Tigers’ Comerica Park, where a new jail has been half-built and abandoned because of cost overruns. What Gilbert and Gores basically propose – in the second draft of their offer – is to build a new jail elsewhere in the city, along with a new courthouse, for the $300 million the proposal estimates it would have cost to finish the original jail. They say the complex would be worth $420 million.

In return, they would also like a cut of the operational savings for the city and, crucially, the downtown lot in order to develop a billion dollars’ worth of offices, hotel, condominiums and parking – and an MLS stadium.

They argue that, by offloading construction of the jail project, the city curbs its risk. And that by giving away the premium downtown land, there will be a windfall in jobs, economic impact and tax revenue.

Detroit MLS stadium plan
Artist rendering of the proposed soccer stadium in downtown Detroit.

“The proposed new developments will create an estimated $2.39 billion of economic impact, support over 32,000 construction jobs, create over 2,100 new permanent jobs [and] produce tens of millions of dollars in property and income taxes for the city, county and state that will continue for decades,” Gilbert said in a press release when the new proposal was made.

That claim has been supported by a more recent economic impact study from the University of Michigan. Gilbert also hailed the plans as an “exciting gateway to downtown.”

What makes the MLS-to-Detroit deal so tough to scrutinize is that the lynchpin – the stadium – is but one of many pieces in a vast urban redevelopment deal. A cynic might even say that it’s a pawn on a much bigger chessboard.

And when it’s impossible to extrapolate, exactly, how much of the money potentially given to Gilbert and Gores by the county to build all those things – both directly, in the form of $300 million, and indirectly through free land – is for the soccer stadium, you also can’t tell if the taxpayers are getting a fair price for a soccer team.

“It’s hard to evaluate because of how complicated it is, but it looks pretty bad,” said Neil deMause, an expert in public stadium deals and co-author of the seminal book “Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit.”

“Gilbert would be getting $300 million plus free land plus an undefined ‘credit’; the county would be giving up all that while saving itself the $171 million it would cost to finish its new jail, which sounds like a pretty lousy exchange. I’d like to see more financial details, but on the surface it looks like it could be one of the larger MLS stadium subsidies.”

This is where some Detroiters take issue.

Does it really make sense to further burden the taxpayer – even if it’s hard to tell by how much – in a place that has other issues to address? And considering the success of Detroit City FC, is the added value of being an MLS market really sufficient to justify such an expenditure?

Different opinions

There will probably be no chance to defeat the stadium deal at the polls. Mann, the lobbyist, points out that Michigan laws allow politicians to sign off on major public subsidies for projects like stadiums without voter approval.

Most new stadiums in Detroit were built without the proposal passing through the ballot. So it’s unlikely that taxpayers will get the chance to stage a revolt like in St. Louis last month, when a ballot measure for stadium funding was voted down to essentially kill the city’s hopes of landing an MLS team.

Such a deal simply doesn’t sit well with everybody.

“I have my reservations about whether that’s the best use of public dollars,” Mann said.

Gene Butcher is one of the cofounders of the Northern Guard, DCFC’s supporters group, which doesn’t keep count of its members but could well be several thousand strong. He’s a firefighter who recently moved out of the city.

“Detroit can ill afford bilking the taxpayers for more publicly funded stadiums that they can’t afford to actually go to,” Butcher said. “We have schools in Detroit that can’t afford their water bills, or to fix a roof, or replace a desk, or help students buy books. But people want to turn around and spend a crap-ton of taxpayer money. The average citizen in Detroit can’t afford to pay. One game, for one ticket [to an MLS game], is basically the cost of a season ticket to Detroit City FC.”

This resonates with Butcher’s brother Ken, a fellow cofounder and a restaurant manager who also recently moved out of the city.

“The way that the landscape is, there has to be value there,” said Ken, who mentions that you can take a family of five to DCFC for less than $50 with free parking and cheap meals at food trucks. “A way to take your whole family to a sporting event for under what you’re sometimes paying just to park at Comerica and Ford Field.”

Even though they obviously have a dog in the fight, most of the people involved with DCFC wouldn’t begrudge the arrival of an MLS team, even though Gores and Gilbert have shown no previous interest in soccer whatsoever. While MLS expansion might undercut their club, even if Detroit City FC ascended into one of the pro leagues, they’re on board if it’s good for Detroit. Such is the spirit of those who never abandoned and care deeply about the place.

“I’ve lived in Detroit all my life,” Wright said. “I’ve seen an empty city for most of it. So I’m as excited about living in a vibrant, exciting, safe, creative community as any Detroiter. But I also want to make sure we do it right and we do it responsibly.”

And considering the existence of a thriving minor league soccer team, the competition from other major league teams, the owners and possibly the burden on taxpayers, there’s no way of saying conclusively that this MLS bid, in its current form, makes sense for Detroit.

“I think we’ll get a team,” said Mann, the DCFC founder. “The owners have too much worth and too many resources at their disposal that I think it’ll be hard for MLS to pass that up. But getting an MLS franchise is different from getting an MLS franchise to succeed in the community. And I think that’s the question that we have different opinions on.”

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.