By Paul Ruth
With officials choosing a proposal to build a 25,000-seat soccer stadium as one of three finalists to replace the half-built Wayne County jail, some might argue that a Major League Soccer team in Detroit is only a matter of time.
Boosters recently started a Facebook page to promote the idea, and it already has more than 23,000 "likes." According to Crain's Detroit Business, the MLS is monitoring the debate over a stadium in Detroit. The bidder, Toronto-based Triple Properties, had already purchased the Silverdome with the intention of bringing in a team, but believes a stadium downtown would be better choice for securing a team.
All the talk of a stadium, bidding, and the growth of downtown sort of avoids the real question: Should Detroit have a professional soccer team?
"Professional" as a designation is important because the Detroit area already has amateur soccer teams such as FC Sparta, Detroit FC and the Michigan Bucks. The Michigan Bucks are a development squad for the Columbus Crew, a MLS team that has found success in a market that is a smaller than Detroit. At the same time, a professional soccer team would have to compete for attention and dollars with four prominent Detroit sports teams, plus football and basketball teams at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University that have wide followings in metro Detroit.
This competition is an assumption that soccer fans are the same as other sports fans, forgetting that some sports fans may be soccer fans first.
The Michigan soccer grassroots includes slightly under 90,000 youth soccer players, according to the U.S. Youth Soccer Association. The Detroit City Futbol League provides competition for 32 neighborhood teams in the city, and this doesn't include the Metro Detroit Soccer League. The metro area also contains collegiate soccer programs at eight colleges and universities.
The point: a professional team would not be bringing soccer to Detroit. It would be bringing out fans to a team. At the same time, a new stadium could have multiple soccer purposes, bringing together a soccer community that seems to be as spread out as the population.
A professional soccer team also would further Detroit's standing as an international city. Detroit is already known outside the country for cars, music, and bankruptcy. Soccer is a world sport, and in 1994 the World Cup was hosted by the United States, with one of the locations being the Silverdome. Just last year the U.S. Women's team played China, just a few blocks away from the proposed stadium site, at Ford Field. Detroit is a border city that plays a key role in the most prosperous trade alliance in the world, and investments from a Toronto-based firm only demonstrate that the city has capabilities that reach beyond a tri-county area.
Apprehension about bringing a MLS team to Detroit has the same concerns investors have heard for years.
Is Detroit really a place that will grow, and where investment should be risked? A number of other entities seem to think so, and a soccer team shouldn't be any different. Detroit has always been a wonderful city for athletics, from team sports to motor sports, yet to assume the market is dried up runs counter to the number of people who have taken to soccer despite the lack of a professional team to cheer for. Whether there is a team or not, soccer will still be played at schools, in clubs, and pick-up games all over the metro area.
Why not invest in a game that has taken hold of the world? Why not invest in ourselves?
Paul Ruth is a Deadline Detroit reader who teaches high school English.