Last August, the new owners of the Lions’ old hunting grounds turned heads with a radical proposal: tear the roof off the Silverdome, build a field at the club level, and convert the upper deck into a world-class open-air soccer facility. This would provide the dedicated stadium required to lure the MLS to Detroit. The proposal created a lot of buzz, as did the “Match of the Titans” exhibition between top European club teams AC Milan and Panathinaikos F.C.
Recently, GQ UK wrote about the Sons of Ben, the Philadelphia Union supporters group who basically willed their MLS franchise into existence. The article wasn’t particularly flattering, which is why GQ UK invited Match Fit USA’s Jason Davis to respond. The whole controversy got me thinking about my friends, the Motor City Supporters, and their efforts to will our MLS franchise into existence . . . and what’s going on with that whole Silverdome renovation plan, anyway?
I went right to the source: The Triple Group’s President of Sports, Steve Apostolopoulos. “When we made the deal, some said, ‘Soccer? In Detroit? Really?’” He laughed, but it was clear that he and his family are serious. “Some thought it was just a real estate deal, but we have no intentions of ‘flipping’ the Silverdome.” He believes they’re investing in the right community. “If you ask me, ‘Is there room for another pro sports franchise?’ the answer is definitely yes. But, you’ve got to put the product on the field.” He spoke passionately about his company’s dedication and commitment to building a quality soccer organization from the playing ground up.
Mr. Apostolopoulos’s company has literal construction to do, too. In another life, I was a structural steel estimator; I have a basic understanding of how buildings are put together. What they envision for the Silverdome borders on the fantastic. “Nothing exactly like this has ever been done before,” he admitted—but in the same breath, he noted that Madison Square Garden is also a multi-level, multi-use facility. If a large theatre, expo hall, and dual-purpose NHL/NBA arena can sit on top of a train station, maybe this new ‘Dome isn’t so outlandish.
“We’re going to split the ‘Dome in half, vertically and horizontally,” he said. The club level will be removed and become a service area, with locker rooms and other facilities. Below the club level will be a multi-use concert/expo hall, and an indoor sports arena. That arena sounds perfect for basketball, and the Silverdome team is already negotiating with professional lacrosse leagues. Above the ceiling of the arena will be the centerpiece: a soccer field, surrounded by the renovated upper deck, and open to the sky.
There will be seating for twenty to thirty thousand fans, with a canopy to cover the fan seating areas. “It will have a feel,” said Apostolopoulos, “like Red Bull Arena,” citing the beautiful new home of the New York Red Bulls:
But even if they build it, will anyone come? Steve told me a story, illustrating how important he thinks it is to build relationships with fans: “A friend of mine once built a skate park. It was really nice, a great facility, but no one was using it. He asked me what I could do, and I said, ‘You’ve got to make connections, you’ve got to pound pavement.’” That’s exactly what Apostolopoulos has been doing in Detroit. Shortly after purchasing the Silverdome, he called up Motor City Supporters President Andrew Kruz.
“It was the most surreal moment of my life,” Kruz told me. “My phone rang and he was like, ‘Hi, this is Steve . . . and I own the Silverdome.’” Kruz spoke enthusiastically about the potential Detroit MLS owners, and their active engagement with the fan community. “I think that they are doing an excellent job,” he said, “and we are doing anything we can do to help them make Detroit the 20th team in MLS.”
Ah, but ours is not the only bid for that 20th spot. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been frank about wanting to place a second team in New York City, and give the Red Bulls a turnpike rival:
"Our attention is very focused on a 20th team as we speak. We'd like that team to be in New York City representing a second team in the Tri-State area," Garber said. "The Red Bulls are very supportive of that and believe that rivalry will help grow the popularity of the sport in the New York metropolitan area. So we're going to work hard and try to get something done perhaps as early as 2013."That sounds grim for Detroit—but the New York bid is in flux. MLS had been working with the owners of the Mets, the Wilpons, but building Citi Field—and getting scammed by Bernie Madoff—has apparently put the Wilpons' interest on hold. Meanwhile, an English-backed group, bearing the name of the old New York Cosmos, is angling to take their spot. Much as the original Cosmos were led by Pelé to on-field success and international media attention, the new Cosmos have hired retired Manchester United superstar Eric Cantona to run their (theoretical) soccer operations—and have gotten a lot of international media attention for it.
But there’s something missing from the New York bid: a stadium, or even the land to build one. Meanwhile, The Triple Group owns the Silverdome, and all 127 acres around it, free and clear. It’s not a dedicated soccer facility yet, but the Silverdome’s owners are “taking out tenders with different architectural firms; soliciting designs.” In the meantime, Detroit sports fans will have plenty of chances to prove they can support another top-level pro sports team.
I asked Steve if the Silverdome will continue to host matches between elite international club teams, as in the Match of the Titans. “Yes, absolutely,” he told me. “We’ve been in discussions, we’ve been in negotiations. It’s a matter of when, not if.” Further, the Gold Cup—a tournament between North American countries’ national teams—is being played in the US this year, and Ford Field will host a doubleheader. If Michigan sports fans can pack that house, we’ll definitely turn some heads. “People ask me if I’m mad because Ford Field got the Gold Cup,” Apostolopoulos told me, “but I’m not at all; I’m happy!” Those games will be a crucial showcase for southeast Michigan’s support for elite soccer. Plus, the USMNT might be playing; there’s no way I’ll be passing up the opportunity to see them play live!
Meanwhile, Kruz tells me, the Motor City Supporters “Will travel and cause problems elsewhere in MLS,” just as the Sons of Ben did to get their franchise. Steve Apostolopoulos and the rest of the Triple Group will keep doing everything they can to secure an MLS franchise that will call the Silverdome home. “We are talking with MLS, we’re in negotations with MLS, and we hope to be able to announce something soon,” he said.
What can you do? Well, besides showing up and cheering whenever top-level soccer comes around, or joining the Motor City Supporters for a meetup or pickup soccer game, you can do something quick and easy right now: pledge to join me and my family at the renovated Silverdome.
Update: I interviewed Mr. Apostolopoulos again prior to the Gold Cup match, click for the latest!