DETROIT- Charlie Stillitano, chairman of Relevant Sports, sees something in the Detroit soccer scene.
Relevant has held the International Champions Cup every summer since 2013. It has hosted international friendlies featuring the world’s largest clubs in the United States, China, Australia, and several European countries. The American leg of the 2017 edition kicked off in Detroit when 36,289 fans came to Comerica Park to watch Paris Saint-Germain defeat AS Roma in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw.
The match was a roaring success for Relevant Sports and the ICC, but it also showed a huge appetite for soccer in the Motor City.
Detroit is one of 12 markets competing for four MLS expansion slots. Their bid is fronted by two billionaire basketball owners, Tom Gores of the Detroit Pistons and Dan Gilbert of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Deep pockets among potential owners certainly aren’t an issue, and neither is the desire for professional soccer in the city, according to Stillitano.
The biggest club in the city is Detroit City FC of the amateur NPSL. They regularly draw over 5,000 fans to their small stadium in Hamtramck, a small multi-ethnic community encircled by Detroit. They are known for their rabid fans and electric matchday atmosphere.
The most vocal of the club’s supporters aren’t thrilled by the prospect of MLS coming to town. They penned an open letter to Gilbert and Gores professing their love for Detroit City FC and nothing else, vowing never to abandon their club just because the top league moves in.
Stillitano doesn’t think that hurts the city’s chances of landing a team.
“They’re a group of people that’s supporting their team. They want to support it on their terms,” he said. “They don’t want me involved. They don’t even want the teams involved a lot of times.”
He thinks MLS will look past that opposition and see the large crowd from Wednesday night, and the previous ICC stops in Michigan, as a big reason Detroit should get a team.
The last two ICC matches in the area were in Ann Arbor’s Michigan Stadium and both featured crowds of over 100,000. Those matches featured three of the most popular clubs in the world. Real Madrid played Manchester United in 2014 in front of an American soccer record crowd of 109,39. The Spanish giants played Chelsea last summer in front of a marginally smaller crowd of about 105,000.
“I think MLS would look at Detroit and say in three games we’ve had 250,000 people, so that’s not bad,” he said after the match. “I think it would be a great market.”
Wednesday night’s clubs didn’t have the global star power of the first two, which played into the decision to play the game at a baseball stadium in downtown Detroit. When looking at hosts for a match featuring two clubs with smaller American fanbases, Stillitano said, “We wanted to find a city that would embrace the game itself… We needed a venue that wanted to see a good soccer game and be part of an event.”
Well, over 36,000 Detroiters embraced the game last night, and perhaps, they are willing to embrace it in the future at the MLS level.
Stillitano is used to seeing MLS franchises follow big international friendlies. Europe’s most popular clubs have come to Seattle, Toronto, Minnesota, and Yankee Stadium before MLS decided to expand to those markets. If Wednesday night is any indication, Detroit could be next on that list.