MLS 3.0: Making MLS Work in Indianapolis

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With so much hype around expansion in MLS, what does Making MLS Work in Indianapolis look like?

An AP story in the Indy Star last week touted Indianapolis as one of several cities that have been linked to MLS expansion. In addition to Indianapolis, other cities showing an interest in joining the first division league in North America are Austin, Texas; Sacramento, California (who host the USL team, Sacramento Republic), St. Louis (who currently play host to a USL team with connections to the Chicago Fire of MLS); and San Antonio (who host the defending North American Soccer League championships, the San Antonio Scorpions); El Paso, Texas; Indianapolis (who hold the 2nd year squad in NASL, Indy Eleven); and Las Vegas.

Indianapolis is home to the Colts of the National Football League, Pacers of the National Basketball Association, the Indy Fuel which play in one of the minor league systems of NHL as an affiliate to the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Triple A baseball affiliate for the Pirates, the Indianapolis Indians. It’s not a stretch for Indianapolis to be called a sports town, as they also host numerous racing events linked to NASCAR and Indy Car racing.

Not many have discussed it, so in the style of two other pieces on Minnesota written by Michael Norton and Eric Walcott, it might be beneficial to look at the same for Indianapolis:

Here is what a bid for MLS would look like if it was done by Indy Eleven:

Ownership/Management:

Currently, Ersal Ozdemir holds the club’s fiduciary responsibility,  but the ownership is much more of a management team. That team includes Tom Dunmore, who worked with the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Chicago Riot, and spent years as a supporter of the Chicago Fire, as well as serving for several years as Chairman of Chicago’s Independent Supporters Association, Section 8 Chicago. The other person involved as part of the ownership/management structure of Indy Eleven is Peter Wilt. Wilt has started numerous professional soccer teams over the years before helping kickstart Indy Eleven, but he’s best know as the former president of Chicago Fire, and is a former executive of the year for Major League Soccer.

All three men have had past success and brought the grass roots foundation that made Indy Eleven not only a success from the beginning but a template for teams wanting to start grass roots marketing. This shouldn’t be a real issue if the club were to transform to MLS status outside of altering the strategy to reach the next level.

Stadium:


You can read my thoughts on the Stadium for Indiana bill here

The Stadium for Indiana movement has been a highly reported event in soccer-related media. The latest news on the legislative bill leads the public to believe that the stadium as depicted in the initial proposal is dead, however a final decision on the amount of funding Indy may receive has not been determined. Currently, two bills are floating around the political realms of Indiana that could bring the club somewhere between $20 and 50 million. The source of those funds would likely come from the state, and a bond from Indiana University if the necessary bills are passed before the legislative session ends. Indy Eleven could receive further funding from the City of Indianapolis, but at the time of this writing it appears the money will go towards renovations and improvements to Indy’s current home, Michael A. Carroll Stadium on the campus of IUPUI.

Exclusive of the finer details involved in a club making the transition from lower division leagues to MLS, this seems to be the biggest hurdle between Indy Eleven and the first division. MLS brass has said that building soccer specific stadiums would be a big factor for clubs wanting to join MLS. Ironically this has also been one of the biggest arguments against the stadium with politicians citing the level of the league Indy is in currently not being big enough to support a stadium of this size.

Youth development:

For all intents and purposes, Indy has no youth development. This would be a huge need for the club once they make the jump to MLS. This might take some explanation for the market Indianapolis is in along with funding for a training facility for the youth academy. With the recent successes of youth programs in Seattle, Chicago, and other clubs, the need for an academy of some sort should be addressed after securing the expansion bid.

Supporters:

The Brickyard Battalion is one of the most respected supporter groups in NASL. Having helped develop and bring Indy Eleven to Indianapolis, BYB has helped develop other groups outside soccer markets. The Brickyard Battalion has made as much of an impact outside the soccer community as within, having recently launched a number of volunteer programs in and around the city.

Another facet leaning in Indy’s favor has been their attendance. Since their club opener in 2014, Indy has sold out every home regular season game since their inception. Would that stay up after they reach MLS status? There isn’t a metric to determine that. While many skeptics believe their ticket sales success is just as much giveaways as straight sales, people are showing up to watch regardless of how they get the tickets. Even during their first season, where the quality of play along with results weren’t anything to write home about, the lack of success for the expansion club didn’t deter supporters from selling out every match.

Market:

Soccer traditionally skews towards millennials. Young people like the fast paced action, and that tends to be the audience that Indy has attracted. Indy’s market is passionate on every front, regardless of sport. Indy Eleven has come in and shaken up the market, attracting a much wider audience than many expected would attend. With a downtown atmosphere along with the youth and families it would attract, soccer could play well in Downtown Indianapolis.

Conclusion:

The Midwest isn’t the hotbed of soccer that we see with Portland or Seattle, but with soccer’s success in Columbus, Chicago and recently Minnesota, it has arrived in the Midwest. While the idea of Making MLS Work in Indianapolis is many years out, the dream of a soccer specific stadium being built might be closer than many think. Regardless, don’t be shocked in a few years if you see MLS doing a press conference from Indianapolis.

Main Photo by Lance King/Getty Images