Fort Wayne could have professional soccer again, thanks to three major assets:
1. Its reputation as a great minor-league sports town.
2. Its popular youth soccer culture.
3. Its millennials.
The United Soccer League (USL) Division III, a league kicking off in 2019, visited Fort Wayne in May, talked to potential investors and other interested soccer movers and shakers, and the result is increased interest.
“In the USL, our fan base is primarily younger, more educated, more affluent than other sports,” USL Division III vice president Steven Short said. “Some reports on Fort Wayne have the millennial population approaching 100,000. We see those, we see the family contingent, the local business contingent and just a lot of people who want to be around the game. The opportunity is there to provide them with a team of their own.”
Short said USL representatives met with multiple interested parties in Fort Wayne during a tour of potential Midwest cities in May, but did not identify the possible investors. Fort Wayne United's Bobby Poursanidis confirmed his group was among those who met with the USL. Poursanidis and his associates have not committed to join the league, but they are interested in the option. Poursanidis said he is also interested in exploring USL Division II.
USL Division III is slated to begin in March 2019 with cities and teams being added until “mid-to-late 2018,” Short said.
“It depends on how things are falling into place with a venue and ownership and how much ramp-up time is needed,” Short said. “Typically, a USL team needs 12 to 18 months for maximum outreach so they're not behind the eight ball.”
USL Division III does not mandate a soccer-specific stadium, although that would be preferred. Fort Wayne has demonstrated it can handle big soccer events with the annual Shindigz National Soccer Festival featuring top college programs. Those games have been played at various sites over the years.
Parkview Field is not typically used for soccer, although it was utilized in 2010 for the Shindigz exhibition game between Indiana University and Notre Dame men's teams.
Short said the USL group visited with the TinCaps management as well as The Plex and other facilities.
Ideally, a decision on Fort Wayne would come by the end of 2017 or at least early 2018.
“We want to make sure there's enough time and opportunity to interact with residents in the market,” Short said. “We want to make sure people understand what the league is about.”
Most of the players will be post-college, with an average age of 23, Short said, although some older veterans could participate.
“We're a fully professional league,” Short said. “This is not an amateur league. And it's important to note the USL platform is a proven professional model. We're not a league devised overnight. We've been in operation since the late '80s. As we've developed professional soccer in the United States, we've learned a lot and had a lot of success.”
Short points to Fort Wayne's support of Komets hockey, TinCaps baseball and Mad Ants basketball. He said he believes that support would be shown for pro soccer, too. The city was once home to pro indoor soccer with the Fort Wayne Flames and Indiana Kick and has also been home to a Premier Development League team, among other pro and semi-pro teams.
Fort Wayne has also produced professional players over the years, most notably DaMarcus Beasley, who has been a standout on the United States National Team.
“We actually had a pretty good understanding before we visited Fort Wayne to learn more about it,” Short said. “We know they have the field layouts and have brought in top D-I programs for the showcases. All of those things come together to provide a great picture of what pro soccer could be in Fort Wayne.”