Soccer is coming. Soccer is coming. (Sorry, lame references). I have been intrigued by the news of Major League Soccer coming to Detroit. Given the big news the past couple of days, watching how it unfolded so far, and will continue to unfold, has had my mind thinking in various different directions.
For background, I played soccer as a youth. Actually, it was the only team sport I did play, for one year, and it was essentially in the immediate aftermath of my parents’ divorce. Once we moved, one of many, it was basically backyard and streets for other games like baseball, basketball and football. My personal intersection with soccer happened 22 years ago when my uncle took my brother and me to one of the World Cup soccer games at the Pontiac Silverdome. It was Sweden vs. Russia, I believe. Back then, the MLS was coming into fruition, but of all the World Cup sites, Michigan wouldn’t receive a team. Other places, like Columbus and Kansas City received teams instead.
In those intervening years since the World Cup and the start of MLS play 20 years ago, soccer at the youth levels has grown incredibly — and without a true top team to watch here. I recall the Michigan Bucks getting their start in Saginaw in what looks to be described as a much more sanitary setting. Now they’re in suburban Detroit. I’ve read about Detroit City FC, and based on the fervor and growth it has demonstrated, I’m thinking I need to take in a game. And, I truly want to see what the club has done in getting Keyworth Stadium improved, the support the team enjoys and basically to see what all the fuss is about.
As the hours ahead of the MLS announcement by a pair of NBA owners and Michigan natives, Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, ticked down, it was becoming apparent that not only would the Gores-Gilbert combo have to court both the followers of the Bucks and DCFC, but they’d also need to begin to reach out to the youth soccer communities and the adult recreation communities in the future. There’s a lot of time for that to happen.
This new Detroit MLS team will need to build up the fandom for its club. In my discussions with soccer fans over the past few years, they don’t pay much attention to MLS. They watch the English Premier League or the UEFA Champions League. So, the fans of teams such as DCFC need to be courted and embraced. The MLS soccer matches need to be an event in Detroit that can’t be missed. How DCFC has built their fan base can’t be denied. Why fight it?
I’m writing this now in the wake of what is essentially a power play by the Gores-Gilbert alliance, with the MLS commissioner, for the site of the still unfinished Wayne County Jail. Another area of interest for me is the business of sports, and with that, the construction of a soccer-specific stadium to host a MLS team. Wayne County is being adamant early on that it intends to complete the vastly over-budget jail. Some media outlets speculated a stadium could be built on the site of the old Hudson’s department store on Woodward Avenue (it won’t – Gilbert has plans going through the city right now for that block) and the Monroe Block.
The Monroe Block could work, but two obstacles are standing: the Albert Kahn-designed National Theater on Monroe near Farmer and Cadillac Tower, on the corner of Cadillac Square and Bates Street. Before talk of the jail site came up, I thought maybe both buildings could be incorporated into the design of the new MLS soccer stadium. It’s across the street from Quicken Loans’ headquarters and right on Campus Martius with the M1 light rail right there and the People Mover a block away.
I tried to think of alternative sites, too. Western downtown Detroit is owned heavily by the Illitches. Brush Park is being redeveloped into housing, and it appears the site of the Brewster Douglass Project is also going residential. Having a soccer stadium across from Comerica Park would sandwich housing between the soccer stadium and the hockey arena. That isn’t ideal, either. Talk has also shifted to the riverfront, but I-375’s outlet toward Woodward doesn’t seem like a good idea.
Gilbert has been after the Wayne County Jail site for a few years now, and again took his plea to the public. It’s a continuation of what the Canadian developer who bought the Pontiac Silverdome wanted to do at the exact same place. The argument is to have something attractive as an entrance to downtown Detroit. I’ve got very, very different idea.
Perhaps Gilbert, Gores and the state could work together to build the new soccer stadium over I-375. I don’t say close I-375 as some have suggested. I say build the new stadium on top of I-375. The freeway would run under the stadium. The freeway is a little more than a mile long, and I would envision the stadium sandwiched between the Greektown parking deck and the Woodward Academy, a school, over a small section. It would be north of Monroe as it is the relief for traffic out of Greektown. Because the Woodward Academy is a K-8 public school academy, run by company and not a school board, perhaps a new site nearby can be found to build a new Woodward Academy. The service drive for the freeway could be moved to accommodate the stadium. Immediately north of the school is an abandoned high rise building. Parking, perhaps?
Sandwiching the stadium on top of I-375 next door to the Greektown parking deck leads to a lot of imaginative thoughts. If designed right, you could see the stadium on the freeway as you pass under it from the north after passing under Gratiot. If you’re taking the freeway north and away from the RenCen, you’d see another vista view of the stadium before passing under it. Putting a stadium on top of the freeway wouldn’t be foreign for Detroit either. I’ve long been impressed with the view of Cobo Center as I drive on the Lodge away from downtown Detroit. The view into downtown from the Lodge isn’t quite as impressive, save for the Red Wings’ Joe Louis Arena. So, make it appealing, and it allows for Wayne County to wrap up its project.
They’re calling for a 25,000-seat facility, too, but I’d much rather see something in the 15-20,000 seat range. Looking at MLS stadiums, the best range is around 20,000 seats. And considering the Red Wings, with the following they have, are building an arena of just more than 20,000 seats, how in the world will a new MLS team fill 25,000 seats? Yes, the average attendance is climbing beyond 20,000. But that’s for the league, not considering the markets.
And that’s where we are back to: the Detroit market. For MLS to work, they’re going to need to work with what’s here already in terms of nurturing supporters, fans, players, families and fans. As others have said before, just because Motown is getting a team, it’s not going to be just a build it and they will come.