The city of Indianapolis has had a checkered history when it comes to semi-professional and professional soccer teams in the Circle City. After the Indiana Blast folded in 2004 the city was without professional soccer until Indy Eleven was established in 2013. In the run up to their third year in the North American Soccer League the Eleven have attracted nine to ten thousand fans every game, corporate sponsorship has risen, and the team has become more competitive on the field. As popularity in youth soccer in the metropolitan area surges, television ratings increase, and more attention is given to the game locally it seems professional soccer in Indianapolis is finally here to stay. Now there is talk about a potential second professional soccer team in Indianapolis.
Athlete’s Business Network (ABN) is wanting to redevelop the vacant land that was previously occupied by the Indianapolis International Airport. They have plans of building a $500 million sports medical facility, including hotels, and a 20,000 seat stadium. In the original article in the Indy Star it said ABN had been in contact with teams and athletic leagues outside of Indianapolis. Now Major League Soccer (MLS) has come up as a viable option for a team to fill the 20,000 seat stadium. But where does Indy Eleven fit into all of this?
Indy Eleven wants to build a soccer specific stadium with public funding in downtown Indianapolis. The suburbs or the old Indianapolis airport terminal is not an option for them, and we cannot blame them for this. The city of Indianapolis has developed downtown over the last twenty years to make it easily accessible to get to the hotels, government buildings, the mall, restaurants, and sports arenas all within walking distance. In addition, the Eleven’s president Peter Wilt has experience with moving the Chicago Fire from downtown to Bridgeview, resulting in low attendance for games and tax hikes for that suburb of Chicago.
The other reason why the Eleven will not move to ABN’s stadium is because of who is building it. The Indy Star reported in mid-February that Walsh Construction Co. of Chicago and The Hagerman Group will be partners in the development of ABN’s sports medical facility. This is a conflict of interest for Indy Eleven because their owner also runs Keystone Construction Company in Indianapolis.
As time passes the Eleven will have a problematic time securing public funding and land in downtown Indianapolis. First, the Indiana General Assemble closes their short session on Wednesday of this week as politicians prepare for primaries and general elections. Second, the Eleven urging lawmakers to give the team $80 million in taxpayer money for a new stadium if ABN does not ask for public funding. Third, public funding for sports venues are dried up in Indianapolis after $620 million went to build Lucas Oil Stadium, resulting in the most expensive stadium ever built with tax payers’ dollars in United States history at the time it was built. In addition, the city is still paying on the RCA Dome and Market Square Arena which no longer exist. The only positive for the Eleven to sway the legislation and build support for a new stadium this year was that, this was a non-budget year in the Indiana General Assembly. If ABN’s development plan is given the green light it all but seems the Eleven’s publicly funded stadium will have to be financed through other avenues. Meaning, the Eleven will have to renovate and update Carroll Stadium again or have enough corporate sponsors to invest in a new stadium. Regardless, the Eleven will have Keystone Construction involved and his maybe why they want a new stadium to begin with.
As America becomes more familiar with soccer and the professional leagues that exist, fans will realize a closed market is being operated in the United States and Canada. This is nothing new to sports fans in these countries as all potential franchises have to pay a hefty financial fee to participate in these leagues. A closed market results in the MLS being the ultimate goal in the United States and Canada. It comes at a steep price but much cheaper compared to the $500 million franchise fee investors in Las Vegas and Québec City have to pay if they want a hockey team in the NHL. For ABN or Indy Eleven to join MLS they would need approval by MLS Commissioner Don Garber, pay a $100 million franchise fee, have a soccer specific stadium in place or in the process of building one that has a seating capacity of 15,000 seats or more, and a new team in Indianapolis cannot not effect this odd rule: 75% of the teams playing in MLS have to reside in cities with a population of two million or more.
Now Indy Eleven are saying they are upgrading to first division standards but that does not necessarily mean MLS. The NASL which Indy Eleven currently competes in, has an antitrust lawsuit against the Unites States Soccer Federation for changing the rules for teams and leagues to be sanctioned as division one. If the NASL wins their lawsuit, and Indy Eleven upgrade to meet the status along with the NASL, then that would make them division one.
First, ABN’s project may not be approved for a while. After gaining the approval of the Indianapolis airport board they will still have to get clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to build large structures and a stadium where airplanes fly over. Second, if ABN are granted to have an MLS team it will cause confusion for the majority of the population of Indianapolis that are non-soccer fans. Questions will be asked and both teams will have to defend themselves on this: the Eleven and the MLS team are a separate entities, the Eleven is not the minor league team of ABN’s MLS organization, and both teams play in different leagues. Third, the media will jump in to cover ABN’s MLS franchise more than the attention the Eleven are already receiving because Major League Soccer league is seen as a major sports league in the United States and Canada.
Fourth, ABN’s push for MLS will be interesting for this stat: Indianapolis already has six professional sports teams and is the headquarters for the auto racing industry. The Circle City has the Colts for football, Pacers and Fever for basketball, the Indians in baseball, the Eleven for soccer, the Fuel is the city’s hockey team, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy Racing League represent open-wheel racing, and Indianapolis hosts the NHRA nationals every Labor Day Weekend. This does not include the various collegiate organizations and teams that epitomize the city as well.
Fifth and most important, the city of Indianapolis has struggled to sustain a professional soccer team over a long period of time as the Blast had the most success over an eight year period. Now comes a potential second soccer team to a city with an erratic past in terms of pro soccer that already has an established team. Could the population of Indianapolis support two soccer teams? In terms of corporate sponsors, marketing, media coverage, merchandise, and ticket sales there is merely not enough to go around for a seventh pro sports team and second soccer team. The only way I can see two soccer teams in Indianapolis working is one team taping into the large Hispanic community that has been neglected for the most part. Oklahoma City is seeing a similar situation right now involving, OKC Energy of the USL (third division) and Rayo OKC of the NASL (second division). The Energy are the established brand, whereas Rayo OKC is the startup team that has financial support from Rayo Vallecano of La Liga (Spain). Atlanta saw a comparable situation when Atlanta United come in as the MLS team after the Silverbacks of the NASL had been established for twenty years.
We can only speculate how all of this will play out given this is a major election year in Indianapolis and the necessity to develop an area of Indianapolis that is struggling. I think it is good for the city of Indianapolis to have a sports medical facility where a large concentration of amateur and professional athletes reside. However, the verdict is still out on if another sports team coming into a metropolitan area will thrive where several professional sports teams are already established.
PHOTO CREDIT: JAMES (TREY) HIGDON