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EDITORIAL: Dreaming big about soccer

February 4, 2017

Successful real estate developers tend to have an audacious streak—they have big dreams and embrace risk. So it is with Ersal Ozdemir, whose Keystone Group has emerged as one of central Indiana’s top developers.

We’re glad to see that the 42-year-old Ozdemir has applied the same zeal to another of his passions—soccer. The native of Turkey—who has fond memories of playing the game with his brothers outside their home in the port city of Mersin—launched the Indy Eleven soccer team in 2013, defying skeptics who wondered whether our basketball-crazed state had a sufficient fan base to support the sport.

The answer to that is clearly yes—as demonstrated by league-leading attendance the first two seasons and the second-highest average attendance, 8,362, this past season—despite playing in IUPUI’s Michael A. Carroll Track and Soccer Stadium, a venue that lacks the comforts and conveniences of modern professional sports stadiums.

But the team plays in the second-tier North American Soccer League, and Ozdemir isn’t a second-tier guy. So no one was surprised in recent days when he proposed making the leap to Major League Soccer and formally submitted a proposal for one of four expansion franchises.

It’s a pricey proposition. The Indy Eleven has put together a plan to raise the $320 million needed to cover the expected $150 million MLS franchise fee, a 20,000-seat downtown stadium, and startup costs for the team.

Ozdemir is in the process of rounding up investors, and he’s had preliminary discussions with the Capital Improvement Board, the quasi-governmental entity that owns Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Lucas Oil Stadium and Victory Field, in addition to the Indiana Convention Center. The team would like CIB to own the soccer stadium, too.

The whirl of activity is great, though it’s way too early—and Ozdemir’s plan way too sketchy—to pass judgment yet on whether Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration and CIB should support any city financial involvement in making it a reality.

One question Indianapolis needs to confront is how many big-time sports franchises it can support. We aren’t just talking about rank-and-file fans. We also mean the city’s business community, which, in addition to buying the priciest tickets, plays a key role in supporting pro sports through sponsorships.

Still, we applaud Ozdemir for thinking big. Grand visions don’t always work out—as those who tried to launch the Indianapolis Arrows Major League Baseball team in the mid-1980s experienced. But sometimes they do, as the late Mayor Bill Hudnut proved when he decided a few years earlier to build the Hoosier Dome on the blind faith that he would be able to attract a National Football League team to play there.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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