"Soccertown? Detroit City FC becoming a Midtown sensation"

Originally appeared in The Detroit News on June 25, 2013


By Josh Katzenstein

When Detroit City FC has a home soccer game, Midtown comes to life in a way that can only be rivaled by the city’s major sports teams.

With 1,500 or so fans each match, the semi-pro soccer team doesn’t draw a crowd nearly as big as the Lions, Tigers or Red Wings, but the passion that fills the area can’t be beat.

Instead of foam fingers and pom-poms, Detroit City fans light smoke bombs and wave flags big enough to cover a car. Instead of lovebirds proposing on a Jumbotron, the fans will simply wed on the field, as a couple did at Sunday’s game.

As the team’s second season nears its end, the crowd continues to grow and exceed the five-man ownership group’s expectations, but when the owners look ahead, they see something that can only continue to bring life to a downtrodden city.

“This is the ultimate soccer experience you can have,” owner Sean Mann said. “It’s a good environment with real fans. It’s not stale. This is the kind of atmosphere that’s going to get you interested in soccer or it’s going to renew your interest in soccer, but you’re not going to walk away from it with kind of a blasé.”

And that atmosphere is what gives the owners and fans hope that the club, which is only in its second season in the National Premier Soccer League’s Great Lakes Division, will only continue to grow. A 9-0 start this year doesn’t hurt either.

“If we keep winning, fans will keep coming,” said coach Ben Pirmann, who’s also a Michigan State men’s soccer assistant coach.

Rapid growth

Detroit City FC began after five friends who knew each other through a recreational soccer league in Detroit decided the city had an untapped demand for a soccer team.

Although they all come from different backgrounds — among them a lawyer, a teacher and a media producer — their passion for both soccer and Detroit led them to fund an expansion team in what’s considered a fourth-tier professional league.

The possibility of owning a lucrative sports team was hardly a driving motivation, plainly evident since the team didn’t make a profit last year. Instead, the owners wanted to give soccer fans all over metro Detroit an avenue to cheer for a sport that continues to grow in popularity across the U.S.

For the inaugural season, the owners said they budgeted for crowds of only about 300 each game at the Cass Tech High football stadium, but after only a couple months of season tickets being available online, they met that goal.

“We knew we were on to something,” owner Todd Kropp said.

Before the season even began, the team had two grassroots fan groups — Northern Guard Supporters and Le Rouge (the team’s nickname) Supporters — and the endorsement of Motor City Supporters, metro Detroit’s soccer fan group.

And in May 2012 when the club hosted its first game, more than 1,000 fans filed into the stadium after marching from Harry’s Detroit Bar two blocks away.

“It was kind of empty when we first started warming up,” said former Michigan State defenseman Josh Rogers, recalling the first home game in 2012. “Then they started marching in and they were singing and drumming, and it was pretty incredible. I’ve played in a lot of great college soccer atmospheres, but nothing like this.”

The crowd continued to grow and one game drew more than 1,600 people in 2012. In the second season, Detroit City FC has had an even more reliable fan presence, including one game with more than 1,800 in attendance, with the hooligans on one side and families on the other.

“I think it’s tremendous,” said Mike Bosnic, 44, of Clawson, who brought his father and 12-year-old son to a game last Tuesday.

Positive exposure

While the bigger crowds are a good sign for the owners, they aren’t counting their chickens just yet. Tickets sales and merchandise are the primary means by which the team can make money — local sponsorships also help a little — and with $5 tickets, there’s a low ceiling for profits. The ownership has to pay for all travel expenses and field costs for the three-month season that runs May to July, and if the team makes a run in the postseason, it will cut into the profit margin even more.

Fortunately for the owners, the club is hosting the Great Lakes Division tournament in July, which will keep the cost down, but again, money isn’t the No. 1 issue even though this is effectively a second full-time job for the owners.

In addition to providing an exhilarating fan experience for the community, the team is helping further the careers of local soccer players.

In the NPSL, teams can choose to pay players or use college athletes and maintain amateur status. Detroit City FC’s 40-man roster is filled with current college athletes who either go to Michigan colleges — with the exception of current Spartans since Pirmann is the coach — or grew up in the area. There are also several former local players who want to continue playing, including owner Dave Dwaihy.

“We’re trying to help grow soccer by giving these kids, who are awesome local players, a place to play in front of their friends and family and it turns out there was a real need and interest in having a team that does that,” owner Alex Wright said.

The growth, Wright hopes, can be cyclical. The club participates in community outreach programs with local youth soccer groups in hopes of drawing more families to the games, and Wright thinks that could also help grow the sport in the area.

The other bonus of having a team this popular in the city is that it brings people from all over to see what’s possible in Detroit.

“This is one of the Detroit success stories that people want to tell,” Wright said. “When people come down here they see this, and they see an example of people living the kind of life downtown that a lot of people think is impossible.

“A lot of people don’t think you can enjoy a soccer game in Detroit and then go get a beer and have a burger down the street.”

Photo Credit: Pam Moody/ISNSoccer.com