Detroit throws wrinkle into MLS expansion process

For the last year -- several years for Sacramento -- groups interested in being awarded an MLS expansion team have been scrambling to meet the league's requirement that they have a finalized plan for a soccer-specific stadium.

That quest has derailed or stalled most the 12 bidders. In recent months, MLS commissioner Don Garber's comments have suggested that Sacramento, Cincinnati, Detroit and Nashville lead the pack in the race for the first two of four bids scheduled to be awarded in December.

Only in Sacramento is the MLS bidder ready to begin digging on its soccer-specific stadium. (Indeed, Sacramento has already begun digging with pre-construction work at its downtown railyard site.)

Detroit's plan was centered on a complicated real-estate deal -- actually two deals -- that involved billionaire developer Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures building a 23,000-seat stadium as part of a $1 billion development on the 15-acre site of an unfinished jail in the downtown area and building the jail as part of a new criminal justice complex at a different location.

But at the last minute, the Detroit bidders -- Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Tom Gores, owner of the Detroit Pistons -- have switched gears. Instead, they propose playing at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions, and partnering with the Ford family that owns the NFL team.

Rossetti Rendering

So much for the soccer-specific stadium in Greektown, dropped from the plans for the development Rock Ventures intends to go forward with.

Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem: "Partnering with the Ford family bolsters our powerhouse group and provides a perfect stadium solution in the heart of Detroit's central business and sports and entertainment districts. Over the last two years, we have invested significant time, effort and resources into our bid to bring MLS to Detroit. 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. We also saw additional evidence that multi-use stadiums can be very successful in the right situation and we believe our new proposal is superior for the city and for MLS in every way."

MLS's statement: "Although MLS has tremendous respect for the all of the owners involved in the Detroit bid, we have not had an opportunity to evaluate the amended application and it would be premature for MLS to offer a specific comment on it. MLS continues to prioritize soccer-specific stadiums as a criteria for the selection of MLS expansion markets."

Atlanta effect. First-year Atlanta United set a U.S. pro soccer record, averaging 48,200 fans a game and finishing the season at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where it set regular-season and playoff attendance records for single games.

That success has made some question the wisdom of operating a soccer stadium in the range of 18,000-25,000 seats like at most MLS facilities.

Can Detroit duplicate MBS's success at Ford Field? It would depend on lots of things, but a key distinction in Atlanta United's success was its owner, Arthur Blank, who treated his expansion MLS team as an equal of his NFL Falcons. Also, Atlanta United moved into the $1.6 billion stadium at the same time as the Falcons. Ford Field opened in 2002.

Elsewhere. MLS's statement that is "continues to prioritize soccer-specific stadiums" leaves open the question whether it will consider Detroit's bid with Ford Field at all.

Cincinnati officials had pushed back on the notion that FC Cincinnati, which has shattered USL and Open Cup attendance records at downtown Nippert Stadium, home of the University of Cincinnati's football team, needs a stadium of its own.

FC Cincinnati has been looking at three potential sites in Cincinnati and nearby Newport, Ky., but is pushing for special financing options to help fund its stadium.

In Nashville, the group bidding for an MLS team has a key vote on Tuesday.  Metro Council is scheduled to vote on a $275 million revenue bond package that would fund a 27,500-seat soccer stadium at Nashville's fairgrounds.

One of the critics of the stadium project -- at-large council member John Cooper -- recently questioned the need for "a specialty fourth stadium" when "two of our three stadiums can accommodate soccer."

MLS2Nashville spokesman Clint Brewer told the Tennessean that the Nashville MLS group's understanding "from the league [was] that this requirement [of a soccer-specific stadium] has not changed."

One distinction between Atlanta and Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati and Nashville's other stadiums is that the Blank, the MLS owner, controls Mercedes-Benz Stadium's playing dates and most important, its revenue streams.

NYCFC example. Detroit's plan is more along the lines of what City Football Group did when it partnered with the New York Yankees on forming New York City FC and moved into Yankee Stadium when it became clear a soccer-specific stadium was not in the offing.

7 comments about "Detroit throws wrinkle into MLS expansion process".
  1. R2 Dad, November 3, 2017 at 2:53 a.m.

    Soccer-specific--no requirement for grass instead of turf? If "even" the USWNT didn't want to play on artificial turf, why isn't grass a requirement for "the men"? Even my NASL team plays on grass. Oh, that's right, Garber & Sunil only care about the business side of the game. BTW, all these soccer specific stadiums that have artificial turf aren't going to qualify for any WC matches, nor those big buck club friendlies during the summer. This is a 2nd Division specification, artificial turf.

  2. Ron Frechette, November 3, 2017 at 6:16 a.m.

    Being a season ticket holder at an NFL stadium for MLS soccer (Revolution) I can tell you that the seating is nice and the boxes/luxury areas are used (read $$'s), but the stadium lacks a real soccer atmosphere. When there is over 40k worth of fans the place can rock, but with 20k it feels dead. Some of the larger places (Vancouver – BC Place) have ways to hold in the sound with overhead removable curtains. The issue will be to use Ford field correctly they will need to help on days when there is only 20 to 25k fans showing up.

    As to the use of Turf – MLS is not going to look at keeping the product (players) healthy and happy by mandating Grass surfaces to play on. This is all about money/costs to operate the stadiums and Turf is the only way to manage this for many locations. See Seattle, Atlanta, Vancouver where multi used facilities can’t use Grass due to the weather, lack of sun light, and over use… Turf is here to stay but is not something that really does not support good Soccer.

  3. Goal Goal, November 3, 2017 at 10:04 a.m.

    If I were the MLS I would stay as far away as possible from having any type of releationship with the NFL.

  4. beautiful game, November 3, 2017 at 10:12 a.m.

    Grass fields and no NFL investors whose primary interest is the football team; i.e., Mr. Kraft.

  5. frank schoon, November 3, 2017 at 10:17 a.m.

    This league is growing and therefore is should reflect the best we have to offer for soccer.....NO ASTRO TURF. Astro-turf should be banned in pro-soccer and used only for practice fields. The stipulation in order to join the MLS is that you have a grass field....PERIOD....

  6. Chuck Adams, November 3, 2017 at 10:28 a.m.

    Look at John coopers comments n the mess that is in c/bus when ya wanna build a soccer specific facility 

  7. :: SilverRey ::, November 3, 2017 at 10:45 a.m.

    No more shortcuts!!!
    Get real grass!
    Get a real soccer stadium!
    Get real soccer owners!

    I can't wait until we bypass the "NFL Era" of MLS...

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