Even as cities like Sacramento, Nashville, Cincinnati and Raleigh made progress on their MLS expansion bids, the prospect of a glittering, $1 billion downtown stadium and commercial complex backed by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert ensured the league always had one eye on Detroit.
It’s a crowded sports market, but it’s also the USA's 13th largest. And Gilbert and his partner, Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, are multi-billionaires who appeared willing to make the sort of commitment MLS covets.
That all changed Tuesday and as a result, the MLS expansion race—which will see two teams awarded in mid-December, according to the league—is in upheaval once again. Early favorites like St. Louis and San Diego already have seen plans thwarted. Now Gilbert and Gores have altered their bid significantly, aligning with the Ford family and announcing Thursday that instead of a potential new stadium built southeast of Ford Field, an MLS expansion team would share the Detroit Lions’ digs permanently.
The Ford family, headed by Lions chairwoman Martha Firestone Ford, would have “an opportunity to potentially take a future equity stake in the [MLS] franchise as part of the Gores-Gilbert ownership group,” Thursday's announcement said.
“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,” said expansion bid point man Arn Tellem, who works for Pistons ownership. “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 likely won’t feel that way. The league has made exceptions, certainly. In some cases because it was hasty or backed into a corner (New York City FC), and in the case of Atlanta United and owner Arthur Blank, because of a long relationship with an owner eager to join the league, and who promised to design and build a new, large venue with soccer very much in mind. Blank was awarded the team well before Atlanta broke attendance records because MLS approved his stadium plan from the ground up.
If the crowds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium have convinced Gilbert, Gores and the Fords that a similar venue will work in Detroit, they may be ignoring the fact that Ford Field (15 years old and recently renovated) isn’t a similar venue. And they need only to look west to Minnesota, where the Vikings owners saw their MLS bid and NFL stadium rejected in favor of one that promised an outdoor soccer facility (Minnesota United).
MLS released a statement Thursday reading, in part, “Although MLS has tremendous respect for 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.”
Gilbert’s original plan was to build a 23,000-seat stadium just across Gratiot Avenue from Ford Field at a site that’s now home to an unfinished jail. The Motor City native owns a lot of property in his hometown and was hoping to engineer a complicated land swap that would see his company finance a new jail and justice center elsewhere in exchange for the Gratiot site. That plan had been hung up for months, but on Oct. 5 the Detroit Free Press reported that a tentative agreement had been reached on an early but important part of the arrangement.
“The deal [granting Gilbert access to the land on which he’d built the new justice center] also pushes forward an effort by a group led by Gilbert and Pistons owner Tom Gores to build a 23,000-seat stadium on the unfinished Gratiot jail site to host a Major League Soccer team,” the paper said. “The investment has been estimated at $1 billion. The application for an expansion team filed in January listed only the jail site as a location.”
Less than a month later, the stadium part of that plan appears to be dead.
“From the time we started working on the Gratiot site, we have always been focused on the importance of a great mixed-use development at the gateway to downtown Detroit. Soccer was just a potential component of our vision,” said Matt Cullen, an executive with Gilbert’s Rock Ventures. “But once we better understood Ford Field’s unique attributes, including the recent renovations and a bowl design that is perfectly suited for soccer, we decided to change course. We have made clear to the County that we are still fully committed to moving forward with our proposal to build out a new criminal justice complex. … We are also fully committed to a mixed-use development on the Gratiot site.”
Detroit’s bid group touted Ford Field as an improvement to the potential Gratiot stadium, citing the NFL venue’s location, size and recent $100 million refurbishment. The group said it is working with Detroit architectural firm Rossetti, which has been involved in designing several MLS stadiums, to turn Ford Field into “a state-of-the-art soccer facility.”
Ford Field hosted a doubleheader during the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, including USA-Canada, and has been the site of three U.S. women’s national team friendlies (most recently in 2015). It is also among the stadiums that could be a 2026 World Cup venue, if the USA-Canada-Mexico bid is successful.
MLS still may be swayed by Detroit’s size, its proven support for soccer, Ford Field’s location and potential, and the wealth of Gilbert, Gores and the Fords. Detroit is far from out of the race. But make no mistake—the abandonment of the Gratiot stadium plan is a curveball that won’t thrill the league. MLS prefers soccer-specific stadiums and if anything, it regards Atlanta as an exception rather than a trend-setter. Ultimately, it wants club-controlled soccer stadiums that represent a commitment to the league and sport.
For those handicapping the MLS expansion race, Detroit now takes a step back. Among the 12 that started out, there aren’t many in great shape as the December deadline for teams No. 25 and 26 approaches. The Sacramento Republic have begun basic infrastructure work at their stadium site, and Nashville could get the green light for its stadium plan at a Metro Council vote next Tuesday. They’re now in the lead. FC Cincinnati, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Phoenix Rising and North Carolina FC (Raleigh) are still working and certainly could catch up. St. Louis, San Diego, San Antonio (see Precourt, Anthony), Indianapolis and Charlotte all suffered setbacks that likely knock them out for December’s round, if not permanently. And then there’s Detroit, which will have to hope MLS is willing to settle for less than the originally-promised ideal.