Sunday, February 5, 2017

Eleven Paths To Victory: How Indy Gets to MLS

Indy Eleven surprised the soccer community with its MLS announcement.

By Brandon Cockrum

Late in the evening of January 30, less than 24 hours before the deadline to formally apply for the next phase of MLS expansion, word began leaking out that Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir would be arriving the following day at MLS headquarters in New York City with his club’s application in hand. Hard-core supporters of the club and fans of the sport exhibited a spectrum of responses, with the most common being surprise. News of the bid also inspired plenty of skepticism toward Indy's chance at success.

Ozdemir signs paperwork for the bid at MLS HQ. // Image courtesy of: Indy Eleven

I too was surprised, but after reviewing the info the team did share, talking with others about the bid and conducting some research, I hold the opposite opinion: I think the club and Indianapolis will be highly competitive and that their bid will see the Eleven arrive in MLS. I’ll even kindly provide you (and Mr. Ozdemir, if he’s reading) a detailed path to victory for the Eleven.

Before we get to that though, here’s what we know about Indy’s MLS bid:
  • Indy is one of twelve clubs competing for four spots in MLS
  • Two clubs are expected be announced by October 2017 to enter the league in 2020 and two announced at a later date to enter in 2021
  • The MLS expansion fee for the first two teams is $150 million each; the fee could be higher for the second pair
  • The Eleven proposed a 20,000 seat stadium at an estimated expense of just over $100 million
  • In two previous Indiana legislative sessions, the Eleven were not quite able to successfully negotiate funding for a new stadium
  • The Eleven are in negotiations to purchase 16 acres of land for the stadium, bordered by Kentucky Avenue and Merrill, McCarty and West streets
  • The ownership group will provide “a significant” amount of money to get the new stadium built, but suggested public assistance may be necessary as well
  • The Eleven’s proposed ownership group consists of local auto dealer Andy Mohr; Elwood Staffing President Mark Elwood; Heritage Environmental Services President Jeff Laborsky; and Mickey Maurer, a shareholder in The National Bank of Indianapolis and IBJ Corp
  • The ownership group meets MLS' financial requirements but is likely to add more members

Proposed site of stadium. Photo looks northeast from the intersection of Kentucky, Oliver and McCarty streets.

Now, let's discuss their path to victory:

1. Three teams eliminated from the competition… by being successful bids

San Diego, Tampa Bay, Phoenix

Three great cities and three of the largest markets in the country without a MLS franchise. It’s hard to argue with any of these bids as they check a lot of boxes, plus San Diego and Tampa Bay are among the closest of all cities to having their stadiums fully approved. So, three down, only eight teams for Indy to beat now. This will be easy.

2. One city eliminated for being less experienced


The market of the North Carolina city is nearly equal to the league’s smallest in Salt Lake. Indy frequently hosts world-class sporting events such as NCAA Final Fours, the Indianapolis 500 and even a Super Bowl. What has Raleigh hosted? The College Cup? Please.

3. One city eliminated because the Eleven have a big head start


The former supporter-owned club in the Music City has new owners and will be moving up from a lower league into the USL in 2017. Their bid checks some boxes but they’re the smallest market and their stadium plans are nowhere near being finalized. Meanwhile, Indy has posted at least the fourth-highest attendance in lower division soccer for three straight seasons and might be closer to getting a stadium built.

Image courtesy of: The Monsieur

4. Three cities eliminated because they can’t get stadiums deals done

St. Louis, Charlotte, Detroit

Stadia funding and locations seem to be significant holdups in these cities at a critical time. Each had a rejection of their stadium proposal on the eve of submitting their MLS bids. These cities might check more boxes than the Eleven, but, no stadium, no bueno. Indy has to get over the same hurdle, but it’s possible, you’ll see.

5. Three cities eliminated because of proximity to existing franchises

Sacramento, San Antonio, Cincinnati

Both Sacramento and Cincinnati have great clubs and supporters and are possibly the most deserving clubs making a bid. San Antonio is just barely off their pace. However, MLS doesn’t always choose the most deserving clubs to promote. (See Sacramento, still not in MLS.)

The San Jose Earthquakes have approved the addition of Sacramento, just two hours up the road, but the league may not be interested in five California franchises. The market is also not one of the best of the 12 but the city does have an approved stadium site and funding. However, at the final hour, the ownership group stripped Sacramento Republic FC and essentially many of their supporters from their bid. The mayor is attempting to negotiate a peace treaty but this opened the door to the city being passed over once again. Regardless, their bid comes up short of San Diego's and only one Cali team gets in this round.

San Antonio FC has half of an MLS stadium already in place and a classy owner in Spurs Sports & Entertainment, among the best in the NBA. The second year USL team stands on the shoulders of an NASL club that built the current stadium and established a good foundation of support. If there weren’t two MLS clubs each about three hours away by car the city would be nearly a lock. Unfortunately for them, the two cities are both that close and each struggles with attendance despite seeing success on the field, which might scare MLS away from taking a chance on the smaller San Antonio market.

Cincinnati is attempting to become the league’s second Ohio team. A two-hour drive separates the city from Columbus Crew and the cities teams pull fans from many of the same markets. The Crew have negative revenue, one of the league’s lowest attendances and have begun talking about needing a new stadium. FC Cincinnati averaged a larger attendance than the Crew and seems MLS ready, however the league appears to be pushing them to build a soccer-specific stadium. If think the Crew will view the Cincinnati bid as more of a threat to them than a benefit, and the club’s owner is on the expansion committee, making this bid a no go right now.

6. Plot Twist: A fifth expansion spot becomes available

The 24th spot in MLS is currently designated for David Beckham and Miami, however the likelihood of him making enough progress in the next year to hold onto his spot is looking less and less likely. As more high-quality bids from other ownership groups come together, the league will feel pressure to move on from Miami. They’ve not yet set a date for the expiration of Beckham's franchise rights to the 24th spot, but it will be here sooner than later.

7. Indy is a hub for a MLS midwest core

Indy is located almost exactly 3 hours from both Chicago and Columbus and their inclusion in the league would create an instant rivalry with each club. If Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis or even Louisville join the league at some point, Indy is an easy road trip and natural geographic rival with each. The same cannot be said for the other midwest bids as they are not located as centrally in the region. Competition between MLS’ Cascadian Cup clubs have taken the sport to new heights in North America. The midwest represents a similar opportunity to grow the US game and Indy is right in the middle of it.

As compared to Cincinnati, Indy is an easier road trip and more natural geographic rival with existing and proposed clubs. 

8. Ozdemir thinks big and has key connections

Eleven-owner Ozdemir has built an empire as a successful developer, and is not simply just the owner of a sports team. He’s also a reserved, thoughtful strategist that can execute big projects. Even if this bid came together quickly, Ozdemir would likely not jump into the fray unless he was confident in its’ success.

The club’s owner also has widespread GOP connections in a state dominated by Republicans. Indianapolis leans more Democrat and the developer has many positive relationships here as well. While the city and state governments are likely to be reticent in offering much public assistance for another sports stadium, they could be convinced with the right arrangement. The club will have to propose a better deal than it has in the past, and they’re already talking like that is going to happen. There is opportunity here, and Ozdemir might be one of the few people that can pull it off.

9. Herb Simon and Reno 1868

With his founding of Reno 1868, real-estate tycoon Herb Simon and owner of the Indiana Pacers, has recently become a player in the American soccer landscape. The Eleven are admittedly looking to add to their recently-formed ownership group and the current investor list includes names that are locally impressive but not quite up to MLS expectations. Getting the billionaire Simon on board would be more than enough to satisfy MLS requirements.

Launching this season in the USL, 1868 will play its games at the Triple-A baseball stadium also owned by Simon. MLS' San Jose Earthquakes currently work with the Reno club in an affiliate partnership, which is similar to a Triple-A team's relationship with a partner in Major League Baseball. With Simon as an owner of both, the USL club could easily partner with the Eleven instead of the 'Quakes. Having a reserve side ready to go on day one is a small but possibly important differentiator for Indy. Some of these bids - Detroit and St. Louis, for example - feature zero active teams; Indy could have two active teams in its bid package.

10. Plan 2020

The City of Indianapolis will begin celebrating it’s bicentennial in 2020 and is mobilizing to launch and execute plans to re-envision and redevelop areas of the community. The city has also been working hard but failing to generate development in the GM and Stadium districts on the southwest side of downtown and in December designated the GM land a TIF area, which allows them to reinvest district tax dollars directly into area improvements. This TIF area is also immediately adjacent to the Eleven’s proposed stadium location and improvements are already in the planning stages for streets that serve the stadium property. Coincidentally, the Eleven are using “2020” as part of their MLS marketing campaign. Partnering Ozdemir and Simon in a significant real estate and development project involving the GM and Stadium districts and that is in progress by 2020 sounds like a deal the will be hard for local and state officials to pass up.

Indianapolis has high hopes for the GM and Stadium Districts. The proposed stadium could spur more projects in the area.

11. Hamilton County saves the day

The continuously growing and affluent county to the north of Indianapolis is also a soccer hotbed. Home to the Eleven’s training facility and many excellent youth soccer programs, a community in Hamilton County might be willing to help fund the stadium if downtown Indianapolis does not work out. Carmel and Fishers are each investing in economic development projects and trying to change perceptions of their communities from sleepy suburb to sophisticated metropolis. A professional soccer stadium in their backyard might make the local soccer moms quite happy, however, a transition to MLS and move to Hamilton County might test the relationship with club supporters.

Indianapolis, Spring 2020. Is this what the future looks like?

Now, not all of these events have to happen for the Eleven to be successful. The key event is Indy securing a stadium and if that occurs Indy has a very good chance of being selected. 

I think there is a bit of serendipity in play right now and the timing is right for the club to secure a stadium. There are also just enough flaws with the other bids (and maybe a fifth expansion spot), which will allow the Eleven to enter MLS in Spring 2020, literally kicking off Indianapolis' bicentennial celebration.


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