Monday, February 25, 2019

Lawmakers hold fate of massive private development to boost local pro soccer

Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir prepares to take the stage at the team's "Show Your Love" rally on Valentine's Day at the Indiana Statehouse. The Senate Appropriations Committee advanced the team's efforts on Thursday, but with significant amendment.  Senate leadership must now decide when — or if — to call the bill before the whole chamber. 
(Photo by Rebecca Townsend)

New Year, New Players, New Legislative Effort


INDIANAPOLIS — The future of professional soccer in Indiana is at a crossroads — and the owner of Indy Eleven, the state’s pro team, said he needs support from lawmakers across the state to enable the funding mechanism necessary for a sustainable future.

At a Valentine’s Day rally, team owner Ersal Ozdemir outlined plans for Eleven Park, a $550 million privately funded effort he called “the most unique sports project in the state.”

In contrast to past failed efforts, Indy Eleven’s current proposal goes bigger: proposing not just a stadium, but an entire “privately financed mixed-use development that will be used to build a publically owned 20,000 seat multi-purpose stadium." Ozdemir envisions the development enabling a “neighborhood transformational project” with 150,000 square feet of office space, 100,000 square feet of retail space, 600 apartment units and 200 hotel rooms — all built around the grass pitch.

“It’s a private-public partnership with the city of Indy,” Ozdemir explained. “The amount of private investment is tremendous — and we’ve had tremendous support around the state.

“We are not asking for one penny from the state or city appropriations... only relying on taxes coming from our development.”

The team would explore and finalize a location for the project once a funding mechanism is established.

The legislature must grant the authority to use taxes generated from the development to pay off the bonds needed to finance the stadium. The public would own the stadium once the bonds were paid and the Capital Improvement Board, which manages other sports development areas, such as Lucas Oil Stadium and Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, would be charged with oversight of the facility.

Senate Bill 543 (sponsored by Sens. Jack Sandlin, R-Indianapolis, Majority Floor Leader Mark Messmer, R-Evansville, and Asst. Majority Floor Leader Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis), proposed to establish “an additional professional sports development area in Marion County to capture state and local revenue for capital improvements. [And] Provides for the issuance of indebtedness to finance a multipurpose soccer stadium.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday absorbed SB 543 into SB 7, a broader bill pertaining to Capital Improvement Board business — and passed it on for consideration by the full Senate at the pleasure of the chamber’s leadership. Senate Appropriations Chair Ryan Mishler, the author of SB 7, added a major twist to the stadium quest before advancing the bill, however.

As reported by the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Lindsey Erdody, who has been following the issue from the frontlines of the statehouse, “the revised bill makes money for a new Indy Eleven stadium available only if the team becomes a Major League Soccer franchise and kicks in at least 20 percent of the stadium construction costs.”

In response to the question “Does Sen. Mishler think Indianapolis is a good MLS candidate?”, his media liaison replied, “Sen. Mishler does not know if Indianapolis would be a good candidate for an MLS team, which is why he included a feasibility study to answer that exact question.”

According to the latest bill information on the Indiana General Assembly’s website (, the bill currently has bipartisan support from Minority Assistant Floor Leader Jean Breaux and Travis Holdman, R-Markle.

“While it’s in the legislative process, we just need to continue to monitor what’s going on and be engaged every step of the way,” SB 543 author Sandlin said in an interview at the Statehouse rally. “And my hope is: We’re gonna get there.”

Since first taking the field in 2014, Indy Eleven has been seeking a permanent home, a place with world-class facilities befitting of Indiana's unmatched soccer legacy, a history which includes at least 10 national championships from Indiana colleges, including Bloomington’s Indiana University Men’s Soccer ('82, '83, '88, '98, '99, '03, '04. '12), South Bend’s Notre Dame (Women’s: ‘95, ‘04, ‘10 and Men’s: '13) and Richmond’s Earlham College (NAIA '63).

Local players who have grown into World Cup players (DaMarcus Beasley) — even champions (Lauren Cheney Holiday) — currently must leave the state to pursue top-tier pro careers.

“We’re asking for the state legislators to create a mechanism to work with city … the future for soccer in Indiana is at a crossroads,” Ozdemir said. This is our chance to fully capture a multi-generational opportunity to make sure we secure a permanent home for soccer in Indiana.”

Indy Eleven coach Martin Rennie and his newly formed 2019 squad arrived to support Ozdemir fresh off a 3-2 pre-season win over former United Soccer League rival F.C. Cincinnati, a team which season will join Major League Soccer.

Whereas soccer dominant countries such as England and Brazil allow promotion and relegation between divisions each season, a practice which raises the stakes in the game and the level of competition, top-tier soccer in the United States is a pay-to-play prospect. The MLS currently has 24 teams in the league and a limited expansion forecast to grow to 28 teams by 2022. FC Cincinnati joins the league this season; Nashville and Miami are set to join in 2020 and Austin coming on line in 2021. Many teams — including Indianapolis — are vying to take the last available expansion slot. The MLS requires that its teams have soccer-specific stadiums.

Forward Ilia Ilic of Belgrade, Serbia, is new to Indy — and is hopeful the city will see the value of a soccer-oriented stadium. At his former club, Louisville F.C., “the construction of the team’s stadium “ was one of the biggest moves for the club and for the growth of soccer in Kentucky,” Ilic said during an interview at the Statehouse rally.

“Indianapolis is an even bigger city and if you guys do want to keep soccer growth in the state, this is a big move for the club and the city. ... I really hope this thing gets approved.”

Another player new to the city, Macauley King, hails from one of the world’s most storied soccer cities in the world: Leicester. The Leicester City Futbol Club, which has a 35,000-seat stadium, won England’s top-tier Premier League championship in  2016 against 5,000 to 1 odds.

“I agree with what Ilia says, really. Futbol is a big game, especially around the world. And if they get this stadium approved, hopefully, it will grow even more.”

Following the Senate Appropriations Committee’s action on Thursday, Indy Eleven issued this response: “Today was a step forward for professional soccer in Indiana. Tank you to our fans for your outreach and the amazing support for soccer around the state. This gives fans another reason to be excited for the 2019 season and the momentum we are collectively creating.”