Ahead of the game next week Stefan spoke to Sean Mann, one of the co-owners of Detroit City FC.
One of the great traditions of soccer/football is the international tour. At the end of the nineteenth century many English clubs started traveling to Europe, South America and elsewhere to play friendly games. The motives were often mixed- sometimes financial, sometimes personal, often purely for the adventure of it. And the tradition persists today at all levels.
As someone who moved from London to (near) Detroit I’m particularly thrilled to see that FC United of Manchester is coming to play Detroit City on May 28th. Most readers will be familiar with the history of FC United, formed by Manchester United fans who disliked the commercialism which took hold of the club from the 1980s onward and came to a head with the takeover of the American Glazer family in 2005. They decided instead to form their own club as a community asset, to start at the bottom of the pyramid and get promoted to the professional levels, and in so doing raise £6.5 million (about $10 million) to build their own 4400 seat stadium. FC United have demonstrated that it is possible to build a viable club in the modern era with only grass roots support. They have served as an inspiration to fans of many failing clubs in England, who, with the help of the Supporters Direct Movement, have increasingly taken a stake in the running of their clubs.
Right now FC United is in something of a crisis of its own. Internal conflicts over the commercial organization of the club, which now plays at the sixth level and is widely seen as having the capacity to reach the fully pro fourth level, have caused most of the Board of Directors to resign. Several unpleasant allegations are being made on all sides. One can only hope that it will be sorted out soon. However, when I spoke to Sean, he assured me that there would be no problems with staging the game- Detroit City are funding the trip and everything will go ahead smoothly.
Of course, Detroit City will be playing only their second game at the new Keyworth Stadium (6000 capacity) which the club acquired over the winter thanks to the successful community funding scheme which raised three quarters of a million dollars. Painting of the stadium is still going on this week, but Sean promised that it will be dry by next week.
I wanted to ask Sean what he thought of the ownership models of the two clubs- FC United is owned by the fans, Detroit City is a community club but has only five owners of whom he is one.
“For me the important distinction is between “community owned” and “community accessible”. There are a number of reasons that fan ownership would be difficult to operate in the US. Ultimately the club aspires one day to go pro, and the reality of MLS at the moment is that the rules require concentrated ownership- the fan ownership model would not be allowed. FC United are more idealistic about what they are doing, we’re not aiming to be a democracy.
“That said, we founded the club because we were dissatisfied with the version of capitalism that operates in modern sports in general, not just soccer. High ticket prices and stale atmospheres inside the stadium seem typical nowadays. Detroit City has found a niche by offering affordable prices and encouraging the fans to express themselves. The owners do not see the fans as customers but as the lifeblood of the club.
“In the end, both FC United and Detroit City punch above their weight because of what they stand for”.
The fan-centred movements that have emerged in Britain and in the US represent the most interesting development in the game of the last 20 years. In both cases the key is that clubs like FC United and Detroit City prove that it can be done, and they have become teachers for others willing to learn. The models adopted by clubs vary- consider AFC Wimbledon and Swansea City in the UK, or FC Cincinnati and the Portland Timbers in the US. There is a unique way to engage the fans, just a recognition that this is the primary goal.
But in many ways the task is easier in England than in the US. AFC Wimbledon have already worked their way up from the bottom level to the fourth tier; FC United are likely to follow. The segregated system of US sports prevents Detroit City from being promoted to the professional level purely on sporting merit- they have to pay an entry fee imposed by businessmen who are ultimately interested in profits. It would be a tragedy if the energy that currently abound in US soccer were to be dissipated for want of opportunities to progress on merit.
Full disclosure: Stefan is a member of the Detroit City FC Advisory Board and one of the hundreds of investors who put up money to acquire the new stadium.