It may very well be the most underrated sports city in the country. Indianapolis has only two major league teams. That’s not a lot. But the public and political commitment made to the Colts and Pacers is notable, as is the region’s connection to the sports world beyond the “big four.”
It begins, of course, with the iconic Indy 500, which consumes the city each Memorial Day weekend. It’s the planet’s largest one-day sporting event. There’s the Brickyard 400 as well. It’s not nearly as old as its open-wheel counterpart, but it remains a highlight of the NASCAR calendar and one of the circuit’s richest races. Back in the city, the Indianapolis Indians are minor league baseball’s second-oldest team—they first took the field in 1902—and last season they attracted the second-highest average attendance below MLB. The Indiana Fever have won a WNBA title and draw crowds that exceed the league average. And Wayne Gretzky began his pro career with the old Indianapolis Racers.
Indianapolis is the site of the NCAA and the NFHS, which governs sports at the high school level. Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse is home to several well-known Cinderella basketball stories, from the Bulldogs’ two recent Final Four runs to Milan High’s stunning state title in 1954. The Hickory Huskers won their championship there as well—that one’s much easier to find on film.
Super Bowl XLVI, seven men’s and three women's Final Fours, the Big Ten football championship, the 1987 Pan Am Games, the 2002 FIBA world championship—they all were hosted in Indianapolis.
Now the city that calls itself the “Crossroads of America” and its three-year-old NASL club, Indy Eleven, hope to attract MLS. And they’re using that impressive, if under-appreciated, sporting culture as a lure.
“No city in the country has made sports a focal point quite like Indianapolis—and no city is better equipped to welcome Major League Soccer,” the Eleven’s bid summary reads.
It calls Indianapolis, “A city that has fully embraced the role of sports as a both a driver of growth and the centerpiece of its civic identity across the last four decades.”
That civic identity and commitment will be central to Indy’s bid, since the market itself doesn’t particularly stand out from its MLS expansion competitors on raw numbers. Indianapolis anchors the 34th most populous metro area in the USA. That’s not too small for MLS—San Jose is 35th and Salt Lake City 48th—but it means Indy will have to excel in other areas. As a media market, it’s a more attractive 27th. That’s higher than several expansion rivals.
Four Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in the area and multinationals like Honda, Salesforce and Rolls-Royce have significant presences. Forbes named Indianapolis as the country’s 10th best city for young professionals thanks to the area’s job growth and relative low cost of living.
Indy Eleven president Jeff Belskus used to be president and CEO at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He knows Circle City sports, and he said top-tier soccer would be a perfect fit.
“There is momentum for our stadium. We’ve got good local ownership. Indianapolis is a sports market,” he told SI.com. “[MLS] is so logical for us … [The response to the MLS bid] has been overwhelmingly positive. Folks look forward to having MLS here in Indianapolis and feel like it would be a great addition to this community.”
Indy Eleven and the MLS bid are led by Ersal Ozdemir, a native of southern Turkey who moved to Indiana to study civil engineering at Purdue. He made his millions as the founder of Keystone, a construction and real estate company now based in Indianapolis. Ozdemir launched the Eleven in 2013 and hired soccer start-up savant Peter Wilt to build the team and front office.
Ozdemir is very well connected in Indianapolis. His board memberships include the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the University of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He also co-chaired a host committee ahead of Super Bowl XLVI.
Joining Ozdemir in the MLS investor group are National Bank of Indianapolis and Indianapolis Business Journal chairman Mickey Maurer, Heritage Environmental Services president and CEO Jeff Laborsky, Elwood Staffing CEO Mark Elwood and Mohr Auto Group founder Andy Mohr.
The plan is to rely on Indy’s love for sports. The city, county and state’s support for athletics is hard to miss on a stroll through Indianapolis’s small but dense downtown. The massive Lucas Oil Stadium isn’t only the “House That Peyton Built.” The $720 million venue opened in 2008 thanks largely to the collection of tourism-related taxes (food, hotels, rental cars, etc.) in the city and surrounding counties. The Colts chipped in $100 million.
The Pacers’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse opened its doors in 1999 and cost $183 million. It was paid for through similar means, and the Pacers have collected additional millions since then to cover operating and maintenance costs. Marion County’s Capital Improvement Board, which managed the funding of the two major league arenas, also funneled $20 million toward the Indians’ stadium and $53 million toward renovation of Indiana Farmers Coliseum, which hosts the ECHL’s Indiana Fuel and IUPUI basketball.
The key to adding a soccer stadium to that portfolio, Belskus said, is the creation by the state legislature of what is called a Professional Sports Development Area (PSDA). Once the PSDA’s boundaries are defined, the city and county can pass bills providing for the collection of taxes within the footprint. Indy Eleven is asking for the creation of a PSDA that would enclose the stadium it hopes to build between the NFL venue and the White River. Belskus said the taxes would be raised through stadium usage—from tickets, concessions and parking to the salaries of those who work there.
“If you don’t go to events at the stadium or you don't work at the stadium, you don’t pay,” Belskus explained.
The stadium would be owned by the city and leased back by the club, which also intends to contribute some $10 million toward construction, which Belskus estimates would cost around $120 million. Ozdemir and his partners will foot the entire MLS expansion fee.
In 2015, the Eleven’s first attempt to secure stadium funding died in committee. The Indiana State House agreed to funnel user taxes toward a new venue. The senate preferred to spend money to upgrade Carroll Stadium, the Eleven’s current home on the campus of IUPUI. The government was willing to raise $20 million and spend the money, it just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Nevertheless, Belskus said those “yes” votes indicate a genuine interest in soccer.
“That’s part of the reason for our confidence and optimism about getting this done. They’ve shown support in the past,” he said.
MLS’s expansion standards require the new stadium, so that’s the goal. And the key will be explaining the project to the public.
“We’ve been paying attention to social media and down at the State House in terms of the reaction, and reports have been positive and the coverage has been positive by and large,” Belskus said. “The only negative we seem to run into from time to time is, I’ll call it ‘stadium fatigue.’ People don’t necessarily understand the project and they’re afraid we’re asking for tax increases or that we’re trying to take money away from other projects, neither of which is the case. That’s the only negative we run into.”
Soccer and sports scene
Despite the robust sports scene, the Eleven have carved out their niche and been a noteworthy soccer success story over the past three years. They play in a convenient stadium (Carroll is within walking distance of downtown). They’ve got a cool logo featuring the Victory statue from Indy’s imposing Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. And at the start, they had Wilt’s experience and savvy. Combined, that helped attract sell-out crowds eclipsing 10,400 at every NASL game in 2014. That figure included 7,000 season ticket holders. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is a big soccer fan, lives near Carroll and has stopped by on occasion.
Indy struggled on the field in ’14 and ’15 and attendance dropped to 8,362 per match last season. Still, over those three years, only Sacramento Republic has brought in more fans among clubs below MLS. The Eleven’s on-field fortunes turned last year, with the club finishing second in the regular season standings before losing the NASL final to the New York Cosmos on penalties.
The semifinal victory over FC Edmonton, which drew 9,700, was the biggest soccer game played in Indianapolis in some time. The senior men’s national team has never played in Indiana, and the women visited Indianapolis twice in the late 1990s. In August 2013, nearly 42,000 showed up for a Chelsea-AC Milan friendly at Lucas Oil Stadium. And the city has hosted four neutral-site U.S. Open Cup finals, most recently in 1997.
Bloomington, which is home to Indiana University’s juggernaut soccer program, is about 55 miles south of the city. The state boasts a strong youth soccer base, which includes approximately 65,000 registered players. Carmel United SC, which is now part of the Chicago Fire Juniors program, won U.S. Soccer Development Academy titles in 2008 (U-16) and ’09 (U-18).
Beyond the soccer field, the Colts play to capacity crowds and the Pacers are averaging 16,704, which is some 1,200 seats below capacity.
Indy has a strong, established fan base and a good brand. Bringing a proven entity into MLS should be more comforting than starting something from scratch. And an MLS team might provide an obvious regional rival to either the Fire or the Columbus Crew, two clubs which still haven’t managed to stoke much long-term reciprocal hatred.
The proposed stadium location is attractive and pretty much the MLS ideal. Indianapolis boasts a growing downtown, and there’s plenty of food, drink, entertainment and recreation available within a short walk of the site.
The Eleven are relying on politicians. That’s not a comfortable place to be, and the lack of certainty surrounding the project will turn off MLS if the league is ready to name teams No. 25 and 26 before the required votes are cast. That would lower Indy’s odds. MLS loves a public-private partnership, but sometimes those don’t work out. Soccer came close but ultimately failed two years ago, and it’s still a few hurdles away from the finish line now.
In addition, Indianapolis doesn’t really represent a hole in the MLS map. The Midwest is crowded with existing teams and expansion hopefuls, and there are several other directions MLS could go. The Eleven have three years of traction. But Detroit has a bigger market and investors with NBA cache. St. Louis has those deep soccer roots, Cincinnati boasts bumper crowds and Nashville has a coolness quotient plus the Ingram family’s billions. Indy is a mid-size market that has work to do if it hopes to stand out from the crowd.
Deputy Commissioner’s Thoughts
SI.com reported that Indy planned to bid for a team on Jan. 30, the day before expansion applications were due. Ozdemir had not gone public with his intentions and as a result, MLS commissioner Don Garber and other officials hadn't commented on the city’s prospects.
MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott conducted a media conference call after applications were submitted and said, “The thing that I think is interesting is … the team there has been successful from its perspective, and they have begun work on a downtown stadium plan. Other than that, I don't have a lot of specifics to comment on with respect to their plan, but those were two components that obviously we're aware of.”