Indy Eleven has goal of adding women’s team, but faces obstacles

A women’s soccer team could one day be joining Indianapolis’ professional sports ranks—but it wouldn't be before the Indy Eleven move into a new venue.

Indy Eleven team owners and front office personnel have had “solid discussions” about the possibility of adding a women’s team to the organization since its first year in 2013, CEO Greg Stremlaw told IBJ.

The team hopes to add a franchise to the National Women’s Soccer League, or NWSL, the country's primary professional women’s league, which got its start in 2014. The league has nine teams after adding three expansion franchises and losing two of its original franchises.

”We’ve had interest in seeing a women’s professional team here since the Eleven were founded,” Stremlaw said. “That interest has continued with open dialogues with the NWSL" and its leadership.

The NWSL declined to comment on its conversations with the Indy Eleven, but said in a written statement it is “open to adding teams that make sense strategically for long-term growth and sustainability from a basis of owner, community and fan support.”

Team owner Ersal Ozdemir has long said he wants a professional women’s soccer in the city. He’s an avid supporter of local soccer programs and closely follows the U.S. Women’s National Team. He attended Sunday’s World Cup Final in France, where he was seen wearing Indy Eleven gear.

The success of the U.S. women in the World Cup both this year and in 2015 has reaffirmed the franchise’s desire to bring a women’s pro soccer team to Indianapolis, the team's leader said.

“I think [the victory] reassures us and reaffirms what we already know: The women’s game is incredible, and there are some incredible athletes that play women’s professional soccer,” Stremlaw said.

He said to ensure a team has the opportunity to succeed in Indianapolis it must be through “the right model, and in the right league.”

University of Indianapolis sports business professor Larry DeGaris said adding a women’s team to Indianapolis would be a “strong move,” particularly as the women’s game continues to gain traction around the country.

“I think it would be really smart,” he said. “There’s absolutely a consumer base there for the sport, and it would be a mid-range ticket, so it would be affordable to most people who would want to go to those games.”

He also pointed to recent television ratings and a 2017 study from IUPUI’s Sports Innovation Institute, which showed interest in the women’s game is similar to that of the men’s.

If the Eleven do land a women’s team, they won’t be the first pro men’s team to add a women’s squad. At least five of the teams in the NWSL have ties to Major League Soccer or United Soccer League teams. The Eleven play in the USL.

But chances for an Indianapolis-based women’s pro team are slim in the short term.

Amanda Curry, managing director of the NWSL, has said the league won’t consider expansion plans again until at least 2020, and there are several cities looking to add franchises thought to be higher up the ladder than Indianapolis.

The Eleven aren’t yet prepared to add a woman's team, anyway.

Instead, they are looking to 2022 or beyond, giving ownership time to focus on Eleven Park, a $150 million stadium and related $400 million mixed-use development that was announced in January, as well as a potential bid to join Major League Soccer.

The team earned approval from the state Legislature earlier this year for the project, and is now thought to be working with city officials and potential site owners to strike a deal to get the project underway.

Stremlaw said a lot of the issues with adding a women’s franchise “are really venue-related.”

The franchise is looking to construct a 20,000 seat, natural-grass stadium somewhere in Marion County. That stadium would be home to the Eleven, as well as any future women’s program.

In an LWG-conducted feasibility study, the team indicated it planned to host 10 women’s professional soccer games each year at its new stadium, along with about 19 men’s soccer matches and other activities such as concerts or special events.

A previous study, for when the team made its stadium pitch in 2015, also accounted for a women’s soccer team. NWSL teams generally play about 24 games in the regular season, including 12 games at home.

Indy Eleven officials have expressed frustration with the scheduling process during their two years at the 70,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium, which the team plays in rent-free as part of a deal with the city’s Capital Improvement Board. The turf surface, which soccer teams typically prefer to avoid, also has been a problem.

In addition to adding a women’s team, the stadium deal is viewed as critical for the Eleven’s future in Indianapolis—particularly its quest to join MLS from the second-tier USL Championship Division.

Once a stadium is constructed, Stremlaw said, the team expects to move forward with bringing a women’s team to central Indiana.

But a new franchise also depends on the long-term viability of the NWSL itself. The league has hemorrhaged money since its founding in 2013 and receives about $8.5 million in annual subsidies from the U.S. Soccer Federation, which manages the league.

“It's really important that any professional team has the ability to be successful,” Stremlaw said. “We also want to ensure that the league is also successful.”

The national team's success has spurred some companies to sign on as sponsors for the league, offering a marketing and revenue boost for the NWSL in recent days. This includes Budweiser, which gained naming rights to the league’s playoffs and most valuable player trophy through a multi-year deal.

ESPN also agreed to broadcast 14 NWSL games this season, one of the first big television deals for the league.

Stremlaw said the Eleven “continue to monitor” the league’s status, with the hope it’s successful and financially stable. The NWSL is one of several attempts over the past 20 years to make a viable league for women’s soccer.

Most of the others have folded, except for the Women’s Premier Soccer League, which is considered a lower-tier professional organization.

In addition to ensuring the NWSL can stand on its own, Ozdemir and other Indy Eleven owners would have to invest a substantial amount in getting an Indianapolis team off the ground. 

Ownership would be required to pay an entry fee to get into the league (the price tag hasn’t been made public), and the team would also have to collaborate with the league on scheduling, sponsorships and merchandising—things the Eleven already have to do as part of the USL.

But the salary cap and entry fee for the NWSL is significantly lower than that of MLS.

NWSL teams have a salary cap of $421,500 spread across at least 20 players, with a minimum salary of $16,538 and a maximum of $46,200.

By comparison, the MLS has a cap of $4.2 million spread across up to 20 players, and a minimum salary of $56,250 to $70,250, depending on the player’s status. The maximum allowed for a single player is $530,000.

Average MLS attendance is nearly 22,000 per game while NWSL is just under 5,500.

It’s not clear whether NWSL will take measures to increase its salaries—or if its teams have the capacity to do so—amid calls from athletes and some lawmakers for equal pay.

The U.S. Women’s National Team in March filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation that demands pay equal to that of the men’s national team.

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