In July, Detroit City FC hosted Black Star at Keyworth Stadium and the Detroit City Fieldhouse for a three-day event that continued the partnership established between the organizations two years ago. | Photo courtesy Black Star
When Detroit City FC’s T.J. Winfrey learned about a new program his counterparts at For Soccer were planning, aimed at providing greater access to soccer for Black communities, he knew his hometown was going to be the ideal starting point.
“They were going to start in some big cities,” Winfrey, DCFC’s Chief of Partnerships, said recently. “I said, ‘Hey, guys, you should probably start in Detroit. We have a large Black population, and at DCFC, we’re trying to get access to the game,’ so that’s how it started in 2021.
“We were the first city and first club to be part of this. We call ourselves the flagship market and club for Black Star.”
Two years on, Black Star is thriving. Since its first edition in Detroit, it has worked with more than 2,000 participating kids while expanding the program to new cities and locations. This year it has already made stops in Los Angeles, Detroit and Washington D.C., with additional events planned for New York and Houston.
Backed by corporate support from organizations like Amazon, adidas, All State and Major League Soccer – where Winfrey previously worked as Director of Digital Partnerships – and having partnered with influential soccer website 2centsfc.com, the group is building a different approach to what has been standard for initiatives of this kind in the past.
Black Star events are about soccer, for sure, but for Winfrey it’s also about cultural gathering and understanding, meeting people where they are to achieve buy-in from participants and families that will make it a long-term success.
In addition to the First-Touch Youth Clinic aimed at introducing young players to the sport at Keyworth Stadium, the three-day event in Detroit last month also included community pick-up games, a watch party for the United States Women’s National Team held at Detroit City’s Fieldhouse, Coach-Mentor training in partnership with the U.S. Soccer Foundation, and an ID Showcase that saw talented players from across the city compete and be scouted by colleges, professional sides and U.S. Soccer scouts.
All of it was documented across Black Star’s social media channels, providing interactivity for participants and a distinct voice that embodies the program’s outlook.
“Some folks know soccer, they’ve been loving it for the last 20, 30 years, right? And some folks are completely new to this game, completely new to the culture,” said Winfrey. “[We’ve been] meeting folks where they are in order to get them excited about this weekend. That’s shown. Since that first event, this year, we had 500 registrants across all events for the weekend, and that was certainly the most we’ve ever had. So, we just continue to grow that and continue to build out. Now they understand the brand, understand who we are and what Black Star is, this is a great thing to see.”
The inroads Black Star has made mirror those that have made Detroit City FC the longstanding success it has been as a club and community organization for more than a decade. With its roots in recreational soccer at the Detroit City Futbol League on Belle Isle, Le Rouge have consistently aimed to provide greater access to the sport across the city.
Since taking on his role at Detroit City almost three years ago, those are initiatives that Winfrey and the rest of the club’s front office and senior leadership, led by Chief Executive Officer Sean Mann, continue to advance. When Winfrey approached Mann about involving the club with the launch of Black Star two years ago, there was no pushback. Instead, the discussion immediately shifted to figuring out how to make it happen, and how the club could be involved.
“One of our mottos is passion for the City, and passion for the city of Detroit,” said Winfrey. “What that means is being a community club here, and that’s for the entire community. We sit in the city of Detroit, and Detroit is 80 percent Black, right? For us to not put on programming events that really tailor to that community – that speaks to that community where they are – would be inauthentic to our mission.
“It’s really an extension of our youth clubs as well. We have six youth clubs around the state of Michigan. One based here in Detroit is comprised of Black and Brown kids from the inner city, and 50%-60% of those players on the team receive some sort of financial aid to play travel soccer under the DCFC banner. It’s really something that, when you think about it, is essential to that. It’s a full circle endeavor.”
Detroit City FC's youth academy and community initiatives have helped introduce soccer across the city, offering financial assistance to ensure accessibility for youth players. | Photo courtesy Detroit City FC
That buy-in extends across the Detroit City community, with the Northern Guard Supporters among the most active in the USL Championship when it comes to social initiatives and support. One of Winfrey’s goals – which he believes would be easily achieved – is to see the NGS in the stands at Keyworth at next year’s Black Star event, providing the atmosphere it brings every gameday for the club’s USL Championship and W League sides throughout the season.
Another long-term goal is Winfrey’s aim to make Black Star programming more than just an annual event in the city.
“We want to have some level of recurring program throughout the city of Detroit, so it’s not just the big weekend,” he said. “Doing something maybe on a monthly basis, or bimonthly basis with Black Star, with DCFC that can get kids and get families excited about the programs that will happen during the big weekend.”
For now, Winfrey, Black Star and Detroit City will continue to build off the success of last month’s event. In addition to record registration, the ID Showcase saw two players identified as potential prospects for the future that can be integrated into DCFC’s Academy program.
Beyond that, though, the big-picture possibilities the weekend showed were just as important.
“Personally, this is one of my proudest accomplishments in my working career,” said Winfrey. “To see Black Detroit kids playing soccer en masse, in large numbers, is something that’s almost unbelievable to me growing up here, knowing the city and knowing what sports are popular here. I think we’re helping shift [mindsets] and show that there are other pathways to being in athletics, and really in life for kids here in the city. That’s a big piece, exposing these kids and their families to different things and showing them ‘hey, there are a lot of other things out here. We know this game can take you all over the world.’
“To have that resource for our kids in Detroit, for me it’s just very exciting and humbling. It makes me very proud.”
With Detroit as a foundation, Black Star will continue to open new doors and provide access that can transform the game and the communities it touches across the United States.
“We want this thing to grow, and we want to be the amplifiers, the shepherds, the growers, the cultivators of soccer here in Detroit and in Michigan,” said Winfrey. “We know that once we are doing that as well as we can, we can help influence what that looks like in America, what that looks like internationally as well.
“For us, it’s really about taking care of what we’re doing here, and hopefully those things will be amplified. The folks, and the seeds we plant here, will go on to do great things in our country and in our world.”