The Indy Eleven continue to be one of the top minor league soccer draws nationally despite serious questions about what league and venue the team will play in on a long-term basis.
The team this season halted a two-year attendance slide with the slightest of upticks.
The Eleven again led the North American Soccer League in attendance, averaging 8,397 per game for 16 home games. That's an increase of one over last year's home attendance average.
But that’s far ahead of the league average of 4,478, and it marks the third time in the team’s four-year existence it has led the NASL in attendance.
The attendance success comes despite a home venue that has no concourses or overhead cover or permanent restrooms or concession stands. The teams plays at the Michael A. Carroll Track & Soccer Stadium on the IUPUI campus.
“We feel good about holding steady with our attendance,” said Eleven President Jeff Belskus. “It shows we have a strong core audience and we’re able to do this despite a stadium that offers a marginal experience. Our core audience remains strong, engaged and vibrant.”
Fans also continued to turn out this season despite a disappointing season on the field. A year after making it to the NASL championship match, the Eleven finished sixth overall in the eight-team NASL.
In terms of attendance, though, the Eleven even stack up nicely against teams in the United Soccer League, the nation’s other—and more robust—Division II minor league. Only three—Cincinnati, Sacramento and Louisville—of 30 USL teams had better home attendance this season than the Eleven. And Louisville’s attendance was fewer than 300 per game higher.
The Indy Eleven led the NASL in attendance with a per-game average of 10,253 in the team’s debut season in 2014. In 2015, the team again led the league despite dipping to 9,809 per game. In 2016, the team averaged 8,396 per game, good for second in the league.
There are a lot of questions about the future of the NASL. In September, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced it would strip the league of its Division II status, meaning it will likely be downgraded to Division III—if it survives. Several of the teams—and the league itself—are reportedly in financial difficulty.
“If there is an NASL next season, we expect to play in it,” Belskus told IBJ. “That chapter has yet to be written.”
Belskus on Thursday declined to say if Eleven officials have had any recent discussions with USL officials about joining their league.
“We continue to evaluate our options,” Belskus said. “We definitely expect to play in 2018.”
A source familiar with the situation said officials for the Eleven and USL have had discussions in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, the USL was granted provisional Division II status by the U.S. Soccer Federation. The USL also has an affiliation with Major League Soccer, something the NASL does not have. The NASL has sued the soccer federation over the issue and is expecting a ruling any day now.
Belskus said the Eleven are on solid financial footing in so much as owner Ersal Ozdemir has made a long-term commitment to operate the team. However, Belskus admitted the team this season continued to operate at a loss. He wouldn’t say how much the loss was, but hinted it was a small one.
Belskus said if the Eleven can get a new stadium and jump to Major League Soccer—as it wants to—it can turn the corner to profitability.
The team last year applied for an MLS expansion franchise and identified land southwest of Lucas Oil Stadium for a new 20,000-seat stadium. A “solid stadium plan must be in place” to join the MLS, Belskus said.
Belskus said he's confident area soccer fans would fill a 20,000-seat soccer game for MLS games.
Average attendance in the MLS this year is just more than 22,100. The lowest team attendance—Dallas for 17 home games—has average attendance of 15,122.
The MLS is planning to add four expansion franchises. Eleven cities besides Indianapolis put in bids for those four expansion clubs.
The announcement on two expansion franchises that will join the league in 2020 will be made in December, MLS officials said. The other two will be added in a future year unspecified by MLS officials. Belskus thinks the second two franchises will join the league by 2022.
It doesn’t seem likely the Eleven will be one of the two teams to join the MLS in 2020 since there is no financing in place for a new stadium. Team officials have tried unsuccessfully for three years to get state lawmakers to approve a funding measure.
While support from state lawmakers will likely be needed at some point, the Eleven are now focused on working with city officials to nail down the stadium plan, Belskus said.
A new stadium, Belskus said, would take 18 to 24 months to build, but he added the team could play its MLS games temporarily in Lucas Oil Stadium. The team’s current home at IUPUI doesn't meet the MLS requirement for a 20,000-seat venue.
Indianapolis remains a strong option for the MLS due to its relatively strong attendance compared to other U.S. minor league soccer teams, Belskus said. Eleven officials talk to MLS executives “regularly,” he added.
“[MLS officials] are doing their due diligence,” he said. “The MLS recognizes what the Indy Eleven has accomplished here. They realize we’ve demonstrated what a great soccer market this city has.”
MLS officials could not be reached to comment on the Indianapolis market.