Is being the coolest team in amateur soccer enough? Detroit City FC explores going pro

Sean Mann expected around 300 people for Detroit City FC's first ever game in 2012 against AFC Cleveland. Instead, over 1,000 people showed up for the 1-1 tie with the eventual playoff champions. 

Mann and his fellow co-founders knew they had something special. "It was obvious right away that there was interest in soccer in the city," says Mann. 

And since then, things have only gotten better. With the team about to enter its sixth year, Detroit City FC (alternatively, DCFC or City or Le Rouge) has improved in basically every metric. In attendance, for example, the team has grown every year—in 2016, the team averaged over 5,000 fans per home game. It renovated and relocated to a bigger stadium. Its operations have continued to become more seasoned. Its fans have gotten more sophisticated in their show of support. And it's accomplished this all while maintaining the club's distinctive culture and voice. 

DCFC has been one of the great American success stories in both amateur sports and soccer. Now they're exploring a jump to professional status. 

A professional team in amateur clothes

In many respects, DCFC is already run like a professional team. 

The aforementioned attendance numbers would place it near the top of all non-Major League Soccer professional teams. There's a polish to the team's brand and merchandise—an image of the Spirit of Detroit with fleur-de-lis background in maroon and gold. It even opened a retail store last year in Hamtramck. All home games are even live-streamed with announcers.

A couple years ago, DCFC was hitting max capacity at Cass Tech High School, its home field. So the club organized a community fundraising campaign thanks to legislation passed in 2014 called the MILE Act, which allows Michigan small businesses to many, smaller investments, much like a crowdfunding campaign. The team raised $750,000 from over 500 people who will receive 35 percent interest on their investment. 

That money went towards renovations of the 80-year-old Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, DCFC's new home field. The team replaced the bleachers and upgraded the locker rooms, restrooms, and lighting. 

View of Keyworth Stadium during their game against AFC Ann Arbor

Everyone associated with the club seems to be passionately in favor of the move. 

"Conventional wisdom says this is not the place to relocate," says Mann, citing the lack of parking and surrounding residential community. "But we thought that was all positive. … It reminds me of being in England, getting off the tube and not knowing where the stadium is except for following the mass of people."

As the attendance numbers attest, DCFC has a loyal and growing fanbase. Beyond just attending the game, however, its fans are known for their enthusiastic support. The most intense faction of the fanbase, called the "Northern Guard," ignites smoke bombs, bangs on bass drums, and chants all game long.

Dean Simmer is a capo for the Northern Guard, or someone who helps lead chants from a ladder facing the crowd. "Northern Guard is just a group of people that supports City 'til we die," he says. "If you're on the other team throwing in a ball in front of our section, we want you to think you've made a poor choice in life. Our job is to give City every advantage they can in their home stadium—and then go on road and provide it there too."

Fans of Detroit City FC

"Away teams are blown away by our fan base," says co-founder Alex Wright. "There's only a couple soccer teams in America whose gameday atmosphere comes close to what we have."

That enthusiasm has been earned. DCFC owners listen to feedback from fans, which has allowed the rowdier home atmosphere to develop. The club also promotes causes like when, in 2014, players wore LGBT-awareness jerseys. Every year a percentage of ticket and jersey sales from a match goes towards a charity—for 2017, it will be Alternatives For Girls, which supports at-risk young women. 

"The organizations they've supported over the years has really resonated with me," says Simmer. "Even how they've chosen sponsors—it's not Anheuser-Busch, but more thoughtful and localized. All of that has been really profound in how I care about where I live and seeing how the club mirrors those values."

Advantages of professional status

The club has a model that other cities want to emulate. So much so that, according to Wright, DCFC "became a victim of our own success." In the Midwest Division of the National Premier Soccer League in which the team competes, six of the other seven teams were founded after DCFC. "All of a sudden, the competition got a lot more intense," says Wright.

Amateur teams recruit from the same limited pool of talent, mainly collegiate soccer players who want to stay fresh during the offseason. This also results in high personnel turnover and swings in record from year-to-year. 

Promotion to professional status would mean salaries for players, greater personnel stability, and more games per season. "We deserve to be a pro club," says DCFC head coach Ben Pirmann. "We're basically operating as one already in an amateuer league."

Coach Ben Pirmann huddles with this players

But jumping up in divisions isn't a simple matter. According to bylaws set forth by the United States Soccer Federation, professional soccer's governing body, Division II teams need a principal investor worth over $20 million dollars who owns at least 35 percent of the team. Finding that angel investor has been a challenge. Not only because of the financial investment required, but also because there needs to be a cultural fit. 

"As important as our identity and story and values are to our success, that would demand a very specific kind of partner," says Wright. "They'd have to appreciate Detroit, understand the landscape and what we want to accomplish, and allow us to stay as actively engaged as possible. The Venn diagram there gets tighter and tighter."

Mann adds that investing in a Division II team doesn't provide big annual returns and is a little riskier. 

Another complicating factor is the prospect of a Major League Soccer team in Detroit. Tom Gores, owner of the Detroit Pistons, and Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, have expressed interest in partnering to bring an MLS team to Detroit. The two have an estimated combined net worth of over $9 billion.

Nothing has materialized yet, but that prospect has cooled the interest of potential DCFC investors. 

"Yes, we have one of the best stories in amateur sports, but we also have the most potent professional bid group in the same town," says Wright. 

Whether or not DCFC becomes a professional club, it's going to continue doing what it does—be Detroit's soccer team, own its values, and create an unrivaled game day experience. 

"We're prepared to be the coolest amateur team in soccer for the next 20 years if we have to," says Wright. 

Detroit City FC's season begins Saturday, May 6 at Keyworth Stadium. Find information about tickets here
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Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.