Time ticking away on Indianapolis’ bid for MLS franchise Indy Eleven owner looking for route to solidify stadium plan.
Major League Soccer seems like a great fit for Indianapolis, and the city’s soccer franchise would love to move on up. Unfortunately, dwindling time and the lack of a stadium could block Indy’s shot.
The Indy Eleven’s hopes of becoming an expansion franchise at the highest tier of pro soccer requires a bigger, soccer-specific stadium plan. They need it tomorrow, if not yesterday.
The question isn’t fan support. Indy Eleven president Jeff Belskus believes soccer fans would, indeed, support an MLS team in the 20,000-seat range. The question is whether a major soccer stadium will be built, and if it is, will MLS then leap at the chance to expand to Indianapolis?
The clock is ticking.
“The window is closing on us in the possibility of bringing MLS through the expansion process,” Belskus said. “Should a stadium not pan out and come together, that really hurts our effort to bring Major League Soccer here.”
Belskus is blunt.
“The stadium is the key to all of this,” he said.
The Indy Eleven hopes to have legislation that would provide some state money for a new stadium, but past efforts have failed and nothing is publicly in the works with a biennial budget to be passed by April 29.
The Indy Eleven is a North American Soccer League professional team that has been part of the city’s sports fabric since 2014. It plays its home games at Michael A. Carroll Stadium at IUPUI. The stadium is best suited for track-and-field and doesn’t have the necessary amenities (such as on-site restrooms and on-site concession facilities) or the seating capacity to house an MLS team.
From the onset of the team, Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir has envisioned a day when it would move up to MLS. In January, he submitted a bid to be considered four one of the four expansion franchise MLS is seeking to include. Ozdemir, who owns Keystone Group, put together a group of investors to demonstrate the financial backing for joining the league, which requires an expansion fee of at least $150 million.
Two franchises will join MLS in 2020, with two more to follow in subsequent years.
Twelve bids were submitted, including ones from Detroit, Cincinnati and Nashville, all of which would be in relatively close proximity to Indianapolis. MLS has not set a timetable on announcing its decision but it is expected before the end of 2017.
One possible location for Indianapolis’ estimated $100 million stadium would be an area downtown, west of Lucas Oil Stadium. MLS mandates that new teams play in soccer-specific stadiums, so an Indianapolis expansion team could not use Lucas Oil Stadium or the Class AAA baseball team’s Victory Field.
Ozdemir and his group have not been able to obtain a stadium-financing package from state lawmakers in attempts so far. The Indy Eleven seeks a public-private partnership, but Ozdemir told Indianapolis Business Journal his group would make a significant investment in the stadium.
“Stadium projects are not very popular in the public’s eyes, but having said that, our preferred plan is not to involve any tax increases for anyone,” Belskus said.
The Indy Eleven averaged 8,362 fans per game last season, and Belskus believes that base would increase with a bigger, modern, soccer-specific stadium housing the highest level pro team.
Building a stadium is an issue, but filling a stadium is not, he said.
“Orlando is a good example of this,” Belskus said. “Orlando averaged in the 4,000 to 6,000 range (before joining MLS) and last season averaged more than 20,000. That’s the sort of trend you see. Having an appropriate stadium, with a good fan experience, we’re confident we can generate the same sort of numbers.”
Having an MLS team would help the Indy Eleven appeal to a larger geographical area.
Fort Wayne, which is a huge youth soccer community, would be a prime target for building an expanded fan base. Travel south on I-69 any Sunday of an Indianapolis Colts home game and you’ll see fans making their way to Indy. The same could be true for soccer fans.
Fort Wayne United soccer club leader Bobby Poursanidis has been around the sport in the city for decades. He said he believes an Indianapolis MLS team would be successful and he could, in fact, see Fort Wayne eventually having a “Division 2” team (like the current Indy Eleven).
“Can Indianapolis support an MLS team? Absolutely, I believe it can,” Poursanidis said. “If they build what they’re talking about, a soccer specific stadium, it would be a real positive.”
Poursanidis said he compares the potential of an Indianapolis downtown soccer venue to the smaller-scale draw of Parkview Field. If the right kind of stadium and atmosphere is created, the fans will flock to the venue.
“That would be a great, great thing for Indianapolis, and also for Indiana,” Poursanidis said.
Few could have envisioned an MLS team in Indianapolis years ago. But the sports landscape has changed over the last generation, with parents as likely to put their children in soccer as they are in football and baseball.
“I’m from Terre Haute, Belskus said. “In the ’70s, I’m not sure we even had a soccer program. Today, you see soccer field after soccer field after soccer field. People have embraced it.”
The Indy Eleven group keeps pushing for a way to make the proposed stadium a reality. It’s a necessity if MLS is going to seriously look at Indy, and invite it into the soccer big leagues. There’s no firm deadline, but time is running short to get a stadium deal in place. <br>