Lions owners, Dan Gilbert discuss adding retractable roof to make Ford Field somewhat less crappy for soccer

Dan Gilbert’s pitch for a Detroit MLS expansion team was declared dead as soon as he gave up on his $300 million–subsidy land swap plan and switched to wanting to have the soccer team play at the Lions‘ stadium instead, but he never exactly gave up on it. So it’s not surprising that he now has a Plan C to get back on the future expansion list — but as for what that plan is, well:

Detroit Lions president Rod Wood said on WJR-AM (760) Monday morning that he and other Lions executives are looking into a retractable roof to help bring a Major League Soccer team to Detroit.

This is not the first time the idea of a roof for soccer has been raised — Gilbert himself mentioned it to Sports Business Daily last month, saying, “If we get that worked out, I think we have a pretty good chance” of getting an MLS team. Wood provided some more details yesterday, though, kind of:

Wood also explained adding a retractable roof is something that would be easy, saying the cost could be “With a ‘M’ and an ‘S’ and maybe three digits in front of the ‘M.'”

“We’ll figure out who’s going to pay for it after we figure out the cost,” Wood said.

For those who aren’t fans of cryptic crosswords, that first sentence translates as “it’ll cost at least $100 million,” which given that the U.S. Open’s new retractable roof cost $150 million and the Tampa Bay Rays owners are talking about a fixed roof that would cost $245 million seems like an underestimate at best. (Of course Wood didn’t say what those three digits would be.) Whereas the second sentence is either one of the most hilariously inept things a sports executive has said, or else code for “we don’t know who’s gonna pay for it, but it sure won’t be us.”

The idea behind adding a retractable roof is that it would enable the Lions to add a grass field, which would make MLS happy. That’s not an outright requirement, though — Atlanta United, for example, was okayed as a new franchise despite an artificial turf field — and it wouldn’t really address other reasons why MLS prefers soccer-specific stadiums, which is that having maybe 10,000 fans rattling around inside a 65,000-seat soccer stadium feels kind of crappy and looks even worse on TV. (The Falcons modified their stadium for soccer by building in moving sections of seats and retractable curtains to cover the upper deck.)

And while I’m always happy to see sports team owners looking to adapt existing stadiums rather than build entire new ones, at anything other than the very low end of this price point, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense — other cities are building whole new soccer stadiums for only about $200 million, so if a roof would end up costing something similar, that seems like kind of a waste, though I suppose it does save on land acquisition costs, and let you get twice the bang for your buck on maintenance and operations on your building.

MLS hasn’t even set its next deadline for expansion bids, so there’s plenty of time for the Lions owners and Gilbert to work this out. But for the moment, I’m categorizing this plan of action as “screwy.”

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5 comments on “Lions owners, Dan Gilbert discuss adding retractable roof to make Ford Field somewhat less crappy for soccer

  1. Typically facilities built as closed or roofed stadia cannot easily be ‘adapted’ to open.

    For one thing, the support systems used for fixed roofs are invariably different from those used for closed roof stadia (You’ve probably noticed the supertruss design supporting the fixed sections of roof and the structure required for the open panel(s) in many new facilities). Since it is roughly the centre of the roof that teams generally want to to open, the manner in which the scoreboard/video board is hung is also typically affected, as is it’s power feed and other items.

    Secondly, a problem that is often missed is that of electrical system specification. A fixed roof stadium does not need all weather electrical systems built in (or storm drains from the seating and playing areas, for that matter). As the cost for electrical equipment able to be used “outdoors” tends to be significantly higher than indoor equipment, fixed roof facilities generally use only the spec they need. So you end up with lots and lots of non weatherproof fittings and fixtures, sometimes up to and including transformers and major switchgear. This is one of the reasons why skydome remains closed as much as it does… it is a fixed roof stadium built to that spec. When there is zero percent chance of rain, the roof can be open. If there is any chance of rain in the offing, the roof must be closed.

    Without completely removing the existing roof and redesigning a new roof system at Ford Field, it is hard to imagine how an opening roof could be built over the stadium. When closed stadia are built, the roof tends to be completed fairly early on (while a significant amount of the rest of the stadium is not yet finished). How much dismantling of the existing facility would have to be done just to get it to a condition where equipment and workers could feasibly construct a new roof system on the existing building? Unless Ford was built with the idea of future retrofit for an opening roof, it is probably not going to be cost effective to modify it.

    Finally, Detroit is a northern city. The fixed roof had to be built to withstand a 1 in 100 year snow storm (insert Metrodome or Silverdome joke here). This is not like adding a roof to the Maracana in Brazil (which itself was problematic).

    Would it be wrong to point out that there was a stadium at Pontiac until very recently which had an “open” roof (though that wasn’t intentional, as it turns out).

  2. …. sorry, the first sentence of pgph two should refer to fixed vs open roofs, not fixed vs closed…

  3. Your absolutely right. All of a sudden two other billionaires in supposedly dead expansion bids will pass Detroit in line.

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