"It's a notch above 8-year-olds where it’s just a mess of people and there's a ball in the middle," says Sean Mann, who's only half-joking. He's the creator of the Detroit City Futbol League, which is hosting its third annual championship tournament this weekend. His review of the league's level of play isn't glowing. But what's important about this soccer league is that it's not really about soccer.
"The whole focus is social," says Mann. "The rationale behind the league was to make it a community organizing tool. Kind of a fun, light-hearted way to bring neighbors together and build connections."
Mann launched the league in 2010, organizing it as a collection of neighborhood-based teams. The idea, he says, was to give people a reason to get to know their neighbors and to provide a way to develop some neighborhood pride. It happened on the field and over drinks after the games.
In the first season, each team associated itself with a local bar, and all the teams would gather at one after their Tuesday night games to celebrate. By the second season, the league had grown too big for that.
"The first pub we went to, literally within less than 90 minutes we drank it out of all its alcohol. Beer and liquor," Mann says, recalling crowds in the hundreds. "It was like locusts."
Now in its third season, the league has 28 different teams made up of more than 800 locals. The post-game parties have become pop-up events in different places throughout town with the space to handle the crowds. The last post-game party was at the Detroit Yacht Club.
But it's not all just alcohol-enabled community-making. The league also emphasizes community service, using the number of community service projects a team completes as a tie-breaker in league standings. Three-quarters of the teams have done at least one project, Mann says, but the average is three or four. A few of the teams have adopted local empty lots and converted them into makeshift soccer fields.
Just by using the city's parks, Mann says the league is making a difference in the city.
"What we're finding is that where we play, so many people are using these spaces, in a certain way we're kindly pressuring the city into doing a better job of taking care of the fields and mowing regularly," Mann says. "The more activated the space is, the more inclined the city is to step up."
Still, Mann is quick to argue that any gains are modest.
"I've always been pretty adamant that a soccer league's not going to save Detroit," he says.
The popularity of the league has led Mann and four others to franchise a semi-pro team in the Midwest Division of the National Premier Soccer League, about three steps down from the pro-level Major League Soccer. Mann says the neighborhood league provided a built in supporter's culture for the minor league team.
"We get 300 or 400 crazies who are singing songs and waving flags and setting off smoke bombs the entire game," says Mann. "It creates a unique atmosphere."
The local business community has also gotten behind the team, Detroit City FC. Instead of relying on large corporate sponsors, each of the team's players is sponsored by a different small business in town. The team finished second in its division this season, and Mann says they were seeing about 1,800 people per game by the end. He's hoping next season will get even more people out.
"We're pretty excited about where we're going with this," Mann says. "None of the owners lost their homes, so no complaints."
Photo credit: Detroit City FC/Jon DeBoer