Benner/Sports

BENNER: Professional soccer's time here may have finally come

January 26, 2013

Like most Americans of my generation, I always have preferred football to futbol.

But, I concede, the times they are a-changin’. Not that football is going away. But neither is futbol.

Thus, the recent announcement that futbol, er, soccer, is going to have another professional go of it in Indianapolis with the arrival in 2014 of an entry into the North American Soccer League, pro soccer’s Triple-A level.

The news was greeted with much hubbub, accompanied by glowing reports of soccer’s increasing popularity as a spectator—rather than participant—sport.

Of course, you often heard the same refrain during the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium. Yet it always seemed that the voluminous youth participants in soccer did not convert into adult ticket buyers or TV watchers.

We’re told it’s happening nationally. We’ll see if that’s true locally, where previous tries—the Blast, the Twisters, the Daredevils—have been greeted with a collective yawn.

In any case, the ownership appears solid, led by Turkish immigrant and now Indianapolis developer Ersal Ozdemir who, in turn, has hired a chap named Peter Wilt to serve as the details guy who will bring the franchise to life. Wilt has soccer franchise startup experience with Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire.

Plans are to play the first few seasons at a semi-revamped Michael Carroll Stadium on the campus of IUPUI. Improvements are long overdue at one of our most underused and long-neglected venues. The franchise should be willing to pay for the upgrade.

Over the longer haul, Ozdemir’s group has ambitious plans to build a venue somewhere downtown, possibly at the old Market Square Arena site.

People much smarter than I already have suggested to IBJ’s Anthony Schoettle that the venue cannot exist as a soccer venue alone on the 15 home dates the NASL can supply and whatever other soccer events might be lured here. Thus, some sort of multi-purpose facility, including retail offerings, would seem to be required for long-term viability.

Again, I’ll leave that to the smarter folks, who also would have to determine in these tax-sensitive times if any level of public involvement is necessary. Those who chafe at the Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium lease or the Capital Improvement Board payouts to help Pacers Sports & Entertainment operate Bankers Life Fieldhouse are certain to keep a keen eye on any city ties to a soccer facility.

But that’s for the long term. What comes first is answering the question of whether a soccer franchise can elbow its way into a crowded sports market where corporate and public support is stretched mighty thin.

Wilt strongly states that “millennials”—those 18-to-30-somethings who grew up playing soccer and now have or are close to having their own disposable income—will be eager supporters of the as-yet-unnamed NASL franchise, and they will be joined by Central Indiana’s rising ethnic population. Wilt also is confident the sport and its price points will be attractive to families. 

Corporate support might be more difficult in a community where businesses large and small are being asked to give to sports, arts and multiple not-for-profits.

More is not always merrier.

Again, I hope it can work as an affordable, family-friendly enterprise. There is no better model for that than the Indianapolis Indians, who have maintained a pristine atmosphere in Victory Field and have succeeded in selling the experience more than the team’s outcome.

We have seen other markets of our size—Columbus, Ohio; Salt Lake City; Portland, Ore.—where MLS franchises have taken hold. Ozdemir’s vision is that Indianapolis might eventually reach that level. For now, though, it’s one step, or kick, at a time. Futbol, anyone? We shall see.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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