With Indy’s soccer future in balance, city to go all-in on MLS

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City officials are considering the Indianapolis Downtown Heliport and adjacent property as a site for a soccer stadium—if Major League Soccer agrees to put a franchise in the city. It’s one of two possible sites under review, city officials said. (IBJ photo/Mickey Shuey)

The city’s plan to work with an unidentified potential ownership group to land a Major League Soccer franchise—a plan revealed in a surprise announcement by Mayor Joe Hogsett on April 25—might seem pie-in-the-sky.

After all, the city has no detailed plan to build a Major League Soccer stadium. Hogsett won’t name the potential ownership group. And MLS—the highest level of men’s professional soccer in North America—hasn’t announced plans to expand beyond the 30 teams now playing or set to begin play soon.

But a 90-minute meeting with MLS Commissioner Don Garber and other executives at league offices in New York City on April 22 convinced Hogsett that Indianapolis has a real shot at landing a team, sources briefed on the conversation told IBJ. That’s when “the MLS bid became real,” acknowledged the mayor’s spokeswoman, Aliya Wishner.

The New York meeting followed more than three months of secret phone calls, email exchanges and other interactions between a small group of city leaders, MLS officials and a longtime soccer executive named Tom Glick who has been pursuing an ownership group to back an Indianapolis team.

Those conversations, combined with assurances the mayor received from MLS, persuaded Hogsett it was time to make the city’s intentions public. In a brief televised address from the 25th floor of the City-County Building, Hogsett said the city intended to work with an ownership group to make a bid for an MLS team by the end of the year.

“Indianapolis is a community that is ready to grow alongside the fastest-growing sport in the world,” Hogsett said. “I’m well aware that this new venture presents no guarantee. But every great achievement in our city’s history has begun where opportunity was met with action. So today we begin this new endeavor. Today we enter our pursuit of the world’s game.”

But why Indianapolis? And why now?

Observers and those briefed on the mayor’s conversations with MLS say there are a few key reasons the league could be interested in Indianapolis:

 The Legislature has created a stadium-funding plan that will allow the city to divert state and local tax revenue to pay off construction-related bonds.

 Indianapolis doesn’t have a Major League Baseball franchise, which means an MLS team would have less competition for fans during its long season (which began this year in February and runs through October).

 The city’s proximity to other MLS franchises—in Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, and Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio—would build on the league’s success in the Midwest and create potential for regional rivalries to drive fan interest.

But it will take more than a great location to persuade MLS to expand into Indianapolis. Winning a franchise takes money. A lot of it.

Wishner told IBJ that MLS officials made it clear that Indianapolis would need a strong ownership group with the financial wherewithal—and a strong local presence—to pay a franchise fee and support a club. Plus, the group must have the “ability to publicly finance, construct and own a soccer-specific stadium,” she said.

The stadium-funding law approved by the Legislature in 2019—and amended in 2021—makes the construction possible, assuming the city creates a taxing district that generates enough revenue to pay off the bonds for a stadium.

But a strong ownership group? That’s trickier—and tough to evaluate given that the potential investors are so far publicly anonymous.

The Hogsett administration started talking with Glick, who has a long history in soccer, in January about potential investors.

Glick was previously president of Tepper Sports & Entertainment, which owns MLS club Charlotte FC and the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. And he recently worked for Chelsea FC in the United Kingdom. Before his time at Tepper, Glick was president of New York City FC and chief commercial officer of Manchester City.

He’s currently managing director of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Rockledge Sports Advisory LLC, a professional-sports-team consulting firm he founded last October.

City officials say Glick has been pulling together an ownership group, which would likely be required to pay an MLS franchise fee of at least $500 million in addition to shouldering the costs of operating a team and contributing to the stadium construction (which is required under the stadium law).

But Wishner said the city has so far opted not to share their names or other information, including whether any are in central Indiana.

‘Genuine’ interest

Jeff Berding

Jeff Berding, co-CEO of MLS franchise FC Cincinnati, said he was taken aback by the city’s plans, in part because he’s heard little talk within MLS about additional expansion.

The league has 29 teams in the United States and Canada with another—in San Diego—set to join in 2025.

“I think anytime you have high-level executive leaders, elected officials, believing in the vision and the growth of soccer and sharing the ambition for where we can be as a league, I always think that that’s positive,” Berding said about Indianapolis.

“But I have to say, I’m quite surprised,” he added. “I’ve been in a lot of meetings in Major League Soccer, and I’ve never heard any expression of support for Indianapolis, respectfully. So I’m not exactly sure where this comes from.”

Still, two sources briefed on Hogsett’s trip to MLS headquarters told IBJ that league officials assured the mayor the city is considered a strong contender to secure a team.

The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Hogsett had entered the meeting with some optimism based on informal communications between the city and the league. But they said Hogsett and Faegre Drinker attorney Scott Chinn, who is representing the city in the MLS discussions, departed New York even more confident.

One said Hogsett “feels the league’s interest in Indianapolis is genuine.”

Marc Ganis, owner of Chicago-based sports agency Sportscorp Ltd., said the city’s decision to go public with its proposal is likely a sign the mayor is feeling confident about what he heard.

He said city and state leaders have so much history hosting major sporting events and working with sports leagues and organizations that they should have a feel for the seriousness of the negotiations and would be cautious about moving forward publicly unless they felt strongly that they have a good shot of success.

“If [Hogsett] comes away from a meeting with the commissioner of MLS excited, that tells me that there may be something there,” Ganis said. “Indianapolis is not like a lot of other places … with politicians who would do this for cheap headlines. Indianapolis does not have that reputation.”

But Ganis said there’s certainly no guarantee MLS will locate a franchise in Indianapolis. After all, several cities are interested, and Indianapolis has much more legwork to do to shore up its plans.

An expensive premise

If Indianapolis is considered for an MLS expansion club, the new ownership group will have to pay a hefty sum to get the ball rolling and could face an uphill battle in the Midwest. Over the past six years, St. Louis, Nashville and Cincinnati have been approved for expansion, as have Charlotte, Austin and Miami.

In San Diego, officials paid a franchise fee of $500 million for an MLS expansion team set to begin play in 2025. And operating a team can cost millions of dollars a year in Major League Soccer; in 2022, the maximum operating revenue for an MLS team was $8 million.

The minimum annual salary for an MLS player is about $71,000; the minimum player salary for the next-highest league, USL Championship, is $27,000. The Indy Eleven soccer team plays in the USL Championship league.

Berding, the FC Cincinnati executive, said comparing the owners of USL Championship league teams with owners of MLS teams is “largely a difference between millionaires and billionaires.” FC Cincinnati started as a United Soccer League team but moved up to MLS in 2019.

That’s what Indy Eleven majority owner Ersal Ozdemir hoped to do as well, but the team wasn’t chosen during recent expansion rounds.

Milt Thompson

“If you look at the Keystone Group, and Mr. Ozdemir, they have deep pockets, but not deep enough to be able to [fully] support a major league team,” said Milt Thompson, an attorney at Indianapolis-based Bleeke Dillon Crandall PC and a former sports agent.

Ozdemir applied to MLS in 2017, when Indy Eleven competed against nine others for two spots in the league that were eventually won by Cincinnati and Nashville. He hoped that building a stadium for Indy Eleven would put the team in a better position to lobby for an MLS club.

That’s one reason he spent years pushing the Legislature to pass the stadium-funding law the city now hopes to use to woo the undisclosed ownership group and MLS.

Ozdemir and his development firm, Keystone Group, bought the former Diamond Chain Manufacturing Co. site on the west side of downtown to build a mixed-use district anchored by a stadium funded through the legislation. The city had been negotiating with Ozdemir about incentives for the district and to finalize the stadium-funding deal.

But Hogsett’s announcement—while never mentioning Indy Eleven or Keystone—served as a statement that his administration was no longer negotiating with Ozdemir to build a stadium. City officials say those negotiations stopped in March after they determined the finances for the Eleven Park stadium didn’t add up—a claim Ozdemir’s team denies.

Keystone officials say they have met at least four times with Glick, at least in part to discuss whether Ozdemir could join the ownership group. But Keystone officials told IBJ that Glick so far has declined to discuss details of the ownership group that already has been assembled for a bid.

Glick’s visits with the Keystone team included a Jan. 26 tour of the former Diamond Chain property, which city officials say is still being considered as a site for an MLS stadium. But it’s not clear whether Keystone Group would be willing to sell the land if Ozdemir doesn’t become part of the ownership group.

And Ozdemir has been working to secure partners on another Indy Eleven-backed MLS bid, with commitments from current minority owners Quinn Ricker and Chris Traylor to support such a move. The franchise has also hired an unnamed investment banker to procure additional ownership interest.

“We believe this process will produce the most credibility and highest probability of MLS expansion success, and Indy Eleven is still prepared to carry out this process today,” a team spokesperson said.

A smart play?

Ganis said Indianapolis would likely have had a better shot at a franchise during the early 2000s, when the league was expanding quickly, or later by either becoming a more active partner in the Indy Eleven’s 2017 application or by joining with another ownership group then.

“Indianapolis could easily have stepped forward, and I suspect it would have been welcomed,” he said. “But it didn’t happen, and by now … the train has left the station, and Indy is playing catch-up.”

But Ganis said even today, Indianapolis would be a good fit for the league because it could cultivate regional rivalries with other Midwestern and Midwest-adjacent cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus, Nashville and St. Louis.

A source familiar with the league’s thinking confirmed that MLS is interested in cultivating more soccer interest in the Midwest, where MLS teams have been among the league’s tops in attendance.

What’s more, the source—who requested anonymity—said MLS is interested in working with cities that have political leaders lined up to build a stadium for the team. That’s something the Hogsett administration is now working to do.

“It needs great support from government officials and other key stakeholders, and I think everybody [at MLS] would say that Indianapolis fits the bill there,” the source told IBJ.

While the Democrat-controlled City-County Council says it still has questions about the city’s plans, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Sen. Todd Young have expressed support for the city’s MLS bid. In fact, Young met the MLS commissioner in Washington, D.C., to discuss the matter in person, said the senator’s spokesman, Jay Kenworthy.

The city also needs sponsors and fan support to secure a franchise, observers said. “If there’s money to lead it, if there’s political will to lead, then there’s an opportunity,” Thompson said. “But even with that, I am skeptical because I don’t know that we have the fan base to support that kind of effort here. But I’ve been wrong many times before, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I were wrong again.”

In particular, procuring sponsorships might be an uphill battle, as many of the city’s big advertisers are already tied to the Indianapolis Colts, Indiana Pacers, Indiana Fever or Indianapolis Indians. The Indians play in the spring and summer, which would be competition for an MLS team. But as a minor league team, the Indians (where Thompson is on the board) likely appeal to a different demographic, which views attendance as an inexpensive family outing rather than as a display of loyalty to a team and a sport.

The Indiana Fever’s summer season would also overlap significantly with the longer soccer season, a conflict that might be more problematic than it would have been before the Fever drafted college phenom Caitlin Clark.

But Ganis and other experts have told IBJ previously that there are more sponsorship dollars available in Indianapolis and more opportunities with regional companies that could support a franchise—particularly if some of the Eleven’s largest backers—including Ford, Community Health Network and Dormakaba—make the move to MLS or previous ones, like Honda, come back to supporting soccer in Indianapolis.

David Ridpath

Courting fans

David Ridpath is an associate professor of sports business at Ohio University. He said many challenges in securing an MLS franchise are manageable.

But he added that it could be vital to keep fans’ interests at heart, as well—particularly if an MLS franchise replaces the Indy Eleven without inheriting the team’s history and fan base.

“The hope is that those fans would jump on board with the MLS team,” he said. “They might not—it depends on how they plan on folding in the Indy Eleven into this project.”

But, he added, “Most sports decisions come down to business; they really don’t come down to what the fans want.”

David Ziemba

David Ziemba, president of the Brickyard Battalion—the fan group that arguably jump-started the creation of the Eleven in the early 2010s—told IBJ fans are “hurt” that they have not been considered as part of the city’s Major League Soccer efforts.

“We know that this was eventually always going to be a conversation that needed to be had,” he said, referring to a potential jump to MLS.

Uncertainty also lingers about whether the Indy Eleven’s financing plan could work in building a 20,000-seat soccer stadium for a team that doesn’t put nearly that many fans in seats now.

“Those questions were always going to exist, and we would have loved to be part of that conversation,” Ziemba said.

“But right now, we don’t feel like we are. And that’s perplexing. It’s very disappointing, considering the relationships that we’ve built over the last 13 years with the city.”•

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4 thoughts on “With Indy’s soccer future in balance, city to go all-in on MLS

  1. The easiest thing to do is to let Ozdemir have a small percentage in the ownership of the new MLS team. Built Eleven Park as rendered. Let other developers help built Elven Park along side Keystone Group. The site is already shovel ready. The city doesnt have to spend extra to tear down the heliport. Keystone group already done the hard part. Dont let Eleven Park turn into a shell of what it was suppose to be like the Ambrose project on the GM Stamping plant site. Mayor Hogsett and his administration needs to work with Ozdemir to get Eleven Park built. I could be wrong but whoever these outside investors are that’s funding the MLS expansion in Indy, I doubt the site is the issue but more so on the political posturing the mayor is doing. Indy needs to look united and show that the city support developers that are trying to transform Indy into some thing major in the midwest amongst its peers

    1. Good call- the playbook is already out there. Nashville SC and Nashville’s MLS bid by Ingram. City-backed MLS bid is announced by a group separate from existing USL team. Public goodwill is somewhat restored with a later purchase of existing USL team (XI here) for a discount created by such threat of moving forward without the old team. Fans kinda win (if they accept the trade of USL for MLS/supporter involvement), new team definitely wins. This was separate from the Nashville SC/Nashville FC situation prior to MLS bid.

      Potential key difference is in Nashville, both sides were somewhat friendly publicly after Ingram announced the MLS group bid. Here, I don’t think the full MLS ownership stack has been announced. That’ll be just as interesting. I’m guessing tier one of Simon, Cuban, etc. and a second non-controlling/ceremonial tier of other fabulously wealthy people on a lower level + heavy sports interest already: Towriss, athletes, celebrities. Tier 2 can come on later, also see Nashville/Cincy.

  2. After how Mayor Hogsett has treated The Eleven group, why should any prospective company thinking of doing business with the City trust him?

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