Well-known Indianapolis developer launching pro soccer team

A prominent local developer has big plans to bring professional soccer to Indianapolis.

Keystone Group President Ersal Ozdemir is expected to unveil a big part of his plan at a press conference at the JW Marriott Wednesday. He's scheduled to be joined by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Deron Kintner.
Ozdemir said he will reveal plans to launch a team in the North American Soccer League—the top feeder league to Major League Soccer—in 2014.
He has hired the former founding general manager of the MLS’s Chicago Fire, Peter Wilt, to lead the initiative and is looking for investors to defray start-up and operational costs. IBJ first reported on the effort in November.

Ozdemir is looking for patient investors.

“The people that get in have to realize they’re going to lose money for some time,” he said. “We want to build this franchise the right way. This is a long-term investment, a community investment.”

Ozdemir also wants investors to be actively involved in the franchise.

“We’re looking for more than investors to just write a check,” he said.

Ozdemir, 38, is asking local residents via the website indyprosoccer.com to suggest colors and a name for the fledgling franchise. The contest to name the team will run through mid-March, and the team’s name will be announced during the third week of March.

Though several professional soccer teams here have failed, the local developer thinks the time is right for professional soccer to prosper in central Indiana.

“I thought with the evolution of soccer here, this would be a good time to have a professional team,” Ozdemir said. “The popularity of the sport is really growing in Indiana and the recent [2018 and 2022] World Cup bid got us more engaged.

“Soccer is an international sport, and Indianapolis is an increasingly international city. So I think the time could be right,” he added.

Ozdemir, a Turkish native who came to Indiana in 1993 to attend Purdue University, said he started meeting three years ago with local officials, soccer supporters and executives from the NASL to gauge the feasibility of launching an Indianapolis team. To see his vision through, he hired Wilt Oct. 1.

“The depth of the [central Indiana] soccer community has exceeded my expectations,” said Wilt, a Milwaukee resident. “I have every reason to believe a team will succeed here.”

Ozdemir declined to divulge start-up costs, but those familiar with the NASL said it would cost about $2 million to launch the team, and $2 million to $4 million annually to operate the franchise.

Each NASL team has about 25 players, with 18 in uniform on game day. While Ozdemir said the team’s roster would have an international makeup, he expects to find many of the team’s players from the area. An additional eight to 12 people will be needed to run the team’s front office, Wilt said, with the size of that staff growing to 50 when the operation matures.

The team would have 15 home games a year with individual tickets ranging from $10 to $30. Season tickets would be $135 to $390. Club seats and suites would be an additional charge.

“As we build this, it’s really important that we don’t price anyone out,” Wilt said. “But this will be a quality product and we don’t want to cheapen it or give it away.”

The NASL season runs from March to November, with most games played on Saturday nights.

The team would play at least its first two seasons at the IUPUI track and soccer stadium. By 2017, Ozdemir hopes to have an 8,000- to 10,000-seat soccer stadium built. His ideal location would be downtown, and he said the stadium could be part of a larger development.

Ozdemir, who is known for developing Sophia Square in Carmel and renovating the Majestic Building downtown as well as the ongoing parking garage project in Broad Ripple, said it’s too early to say what might be in the development.

It’s important that the open-air stadium be expandable up to 22,000 seats to accommodate the growth of the team's fan base, Ozdemir said.

The franchise, which would be the 12th in the NASL, could have started play this year, but Ozdemir said he wanted to spend a full year “building the infrastructure and building the outreach of the team.”

Fielding an NASL team is just the first part of a multi-phase business plan that could include graduating the team to the MLS.

“Having an MLS team in Indianapolis is not beyond reason,” Wilt said. “There’s an appetite for soccer in Indianapolis that wasn’t there 10 or even five years ago.”

Ozdemir’s effort follows others that were led by groups with a passion for the sport, but little financial backing. Some previous soccer team owners also had big ideas and even a modicum of short-term success before fizzling out.

Most notably, owners of the Indianapolis-based Indiana Blast—which competed in the United Soccer League’s D-3 Pro League, A-League and USL Premier Development League from 1997-2004—had grand plans of opening a 10,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in Lawrence. They even had an option on land near Fort Benjamin Harrison.

For a time, the team had a solid following, attracting more than 3,000 fans to some games. But eventually, the team ran out of momentum and the family ownership ran out of cash.

But a deep-pocketed businessman like Ozdemir, who has become a powerhouse developer in Indianapoils, is the type of investor that could give the effort instant credibility, sports marketers said.

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