Dan Gilbert’s proposal to build a new soccer stadium downtown must take into local voices that feel ownership of his project.
The Ford family is adding its weight behind Detroit’s bid to land a Major League Soccer franchise.
And Ford Field would be the venue to host the team if the bid is successful.
The Ford family will join the Dan Gilbert-Tom Gores backed effort to bring the MLS to downtown Detroit, two people with firsthand knowledge told the Free Press. The formal announcement of the move is expected to come later today.
The partnership signals the end of plans to build a 23,000-seat stadium on the Gratiot Avenue jail site. The stadium was part of a development project that was estimated to cost $1 billion.
With three wealthy families – all veteran owners of professional sports teams – backing the effort, the Detroit market should have bolstered its chances to land a franchise when the MLS reveals its next two expansion cities for 2020 in December. The MLS also plans to add two more teams in 2022.
It wasn’t immediately clear level of investment to come from the Fords.
But they would manage the site with 17 home matches for a regular season that goes from March to October. A site examination by architecture firm, Rosetti, concludes that Ford Field, with its 65,000-seat capacity, can easily be modified for MLS specifications.
It’s not clear who will pay for the seasonal stadium adjustment.
Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert, who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers, made Detroit one of many cities to submit expansion bids to join MLS in 2020.
The venture between the two billionaires was announced in April 2016 with Gilbert overseeing site acquisition and stadium construction for the project
Gores would operate day-to-day functions of the franchise, but with the Ford Field development, Gilbert likely will play a role as a primary investor.
MLS is seeking an expansion fee of $150 million for each of the franchises awarded expansion teams in 2020. The league hasn’t announced the expansion fee it will seek for 2022, but it’s expected to be more than $150 million.
Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem, who is coordinating the ownership group’s contact with MLS officials, has said in the past the Detroit bid is shooting for 2020. Tellem said recently he hopes for an on-site visit from MLS officials soon and a decision is expected before the end of the year.
Given the financial backing of three billionaires with experience running professional franchises, the city’s bid appears to be good shape.
With Los Angeles on board and Miami expected, the league will grow from 22 to 28 franchises after the next wave of expansion.
MLS commissioner Don Garber fielded questions in Chicago before the league’s All-Star game in July and said four cities stood out.
“Cincinnati and Nashville, and Sacramento and Detroit — just to name four where we’ve been to recently. Man, the energy there is off the charts,” Garber said, according to The Tennessean.
The other cities that submitted expansion bids were Charlotte, N.C., Indianapolis, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, N.C., St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa/St. Petersburg.
After the presentation, the bid goes to the league’s expansion committee and the hope is for 2020 expansion bids to be approved by the end of the year.
The Free Press spoke with Garber at the first game of the season for Orlando City Soccer Club in May when he seemed to indicate there were two downtown sites under consideration — although the official application only listed the unfinished Gratiot jail site. The application was supplemented within the past few days with Rosseti’s planning study.
“I’ve been there twice,” Garber said of Detroit. “I like both locations, but I really like the jail site. If I were a resident of Detroit, I would probably rather have a soccer stadium as the gateway to my city, rather than a jail. I hope they continue to make progress with that concept.”
It’s not clear if Garber was referring to Ford Field.
Last month, after months of negotiations, a tentative deal between Wayne County and the City of Detroit appeared to clear the way for the soccer venture on Gratiot.
But Ford Field changes the equation.
The MLS prefers more intimate stadiums and moved to the smaller stadium concept because empty seats in cavernous football stadiums were bad optics when the league began.
But the success of the first-year Atlanta United Football Club franchise could help make MLS amenable to the adjustment.
In September, the franchise attracted 70,425 to Mercedes-Benz Stadium – the most-attended domestic game in the U.S. since the 70s.
Ford Field recently underwent $100 million in renovations.
The bid cites Detroit and Michigan being the home base on 21 Fortune 500 companies – as well as private enterprises such as Ilitch Holdings and Gilbert’s Rock Ventures.
A successful bid would make Detroit the only market with all five major professional sports leagues based within walking distance of each other.
Follow Vince Ellis on Twitter @vincent_ellis56.