EDITORIAL: Crunch time for Indy soccer

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The home-grown, locally owned Indy Eleven soccer team just concluded its fourth season in the North American Soccer League. But there’s a lot more to do this off-season than shore up the roster.

Professional soccer in the United States is finally becoming the business and cultural force that fans and investors in the sport have dreamed of. Whether the Eleven and Indianapolis are able to capitalize will depend in large part on whether Eleven founder and owner Ersal Ozdemir can convince investors and state and city government that soccer is a smart play.

We don’t know that it is, but the signs are positive enough that it’s worth a serious look. And those deliberations should start now. The minor league that Indy Eleven plays in is on shaky ground, and Major League Soccer, the premier league the Eleven has applied to join, is zeroing in on which of 12 cities will win four expansion franchises.

Joining MLS isn’t cheap, but it’s only going to get more expensive. With the popularity of the sport seen as ascendant by investors, team values in the league have skyrocketed—and so has the expansion fee charged new franchises. The fee has ballooned from $10 million only a decade ago to $150 million today, and there’s speculation it will rise to $200 million.

Is soccer a sound investment here? If popular support is any indication, the answer is yes. Consider that the Eleven weren’t so much founded by Ozdemir as willed into existence by Indy soccer fans. The Brickyard Battalion, the team’s independent fan group, predates the team itself by a couple of years and has propelled the Indy Eleven to the top of NASL attendance three of the four seasons the team has existed.

In spite of that support, today the Indy Eleven’s MLS bid is considered a long shot. It needs a quick jolt if the city wants to win.

Last January, Ozdemir unveiled a group of new investors and a plan to raise $320 million to pay the MLS entry fee, initial operating costs and to help with the expense of a 20,000-seat downtown stadium, which the MLS requires. The sticking point is public support, which Ozdemir has sought in each of the last three sessions of the Indiana General Assembly.

We understand why city and state officials are reluctant to endorse a stadium deal heavily funded with public money. But if Ozdemir can bring additional investors to the table and make a pitch that goes easy on taxpayers, city and state officials should treat the Indy Eleven proposal just as seriously as negotiations with the NBA Indiana Pacers and NFL Indianapolis Colts.

No one has a crystal ball, but there’s a demographic case to be made that soccer is, indeed, the sport of the future—one that’s a draw for millennials and the generation following them. If the Indianapolis region is going to capitalize, it’s time for private and public interests to make a play.•


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