Indy Eleven’s effort to score MLS franchise takes hit

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The Indy Eleven’s bid to join Major League Soccer appeared to take a serious blow last week when the Indiana General Assembly concluded its session without passing legislation that would help fund a downtown soccer stadium that the team’s owner says is necessary to land a spot in the sport's top U.S. pro league.

For those who were unaware the North American Soccer League franchise made a plea for help from state lawmakers during the recently concluded General Assembly: You probably weren’t alone. The Eleven made an eleventh-hour pitch for aid with most of the presentations conducted privately and quietly.

Eleven officials declined this week to discuss what they requested or what this does to their effort to join Major League Soccer, opting instead to email a one-sentence statement in response to an interview request.

“Indy Eleven remains committed to continuing conversations with interested and supportive parties regarding a public-private partnership that can bring a new multipurpose stadium to downtown Indianapolis,” said Eleven President Jeff Belskus in the statement.

On Jan. 31, the Eleven submitted a bid to become one of four expansion teams in MLS—a proposal that included a $100 million-plus stadium. Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir told IBJ in January the stadium is necessary whether the team moves up to the MLS or stays in the NASL.

“Without a new stadium, we have some serious decisions to make,” he said.

Ozdemir said in January he is seeking a 20,000-seat venue to meet the MLS’ minimum for capacity and because of the city’s midsize status. But he added that the stadium would be designed with expansion in mind and said he wasn't fearful the Eleven would have difficulty filling it.

Playing at Lucas Oil Stadium or Victory Field is out of the question. MLS has begun mandating that new teams not play in venues built for football and baseball and instead play in soccer-specific stadiums. Indy Eleven currently competes in the Michael A. Carroll Track & Soccer Stadium at IUPUI.

MLS officials did not return calls seeking comment this week.

During this year’s Indiana legislative session—in which a two-year state budget was crafted—there was never a bill drawn up to aid stadium construction. But multiple sources confirmed to IBJ that Eleven officials during the last month of the session—which concluded Saturday—gave private presentations to a handful of influential lawmakers in hopes of getting something passed this session.

This marks the fourth session of the General Assembly in which Eleven officials have been unsuccessful in getting the legislation they want to build a new stadium.

Influential budget writer Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, was at one of the private confabs where Ozdemir asked for a state help to build a new stadium. Ozdemir was accompanied by Belskus and automotive dealer Andy Mohr, an investor in the MLS expansion effort. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett also attended.

Part of the proposal, Kenley said, involved setting up a professional sports district where state sales and income tax dollars would be captured to help the team with what it needs financially. Some of those taxes, Kenley said, would come from Ozdemir’s proposed downtown hotel on the southeast corner of Illinois and Market streets.

Thomas Cook, Hogsett’s chief of staff, said Hogsett supports the idea of a downtown soccer stadium providing it does not require a city tax increase to fund stadium construction or any money from the city’s general fund.

Instead, said Cook, Hogsett favors a state law that allows the City-County Council to set up a professional sports district where primarily state taxes are captured for the construction of the stadium. Cook said the mayor is willing to discuss having the city’s Capital Improvement Board own the new stadium if construction funds can be secured.

“We’re still willing to discuss what we can do creatively to put the city in a position to secure a Major League Soccer franchise,” Cook said.

Kenley seems much less bullish on the proposition. 

“It didn’t seem like to me it all added up,” he said. “I didn’t think the [Eleven’s] presentation was well thought out.”

Kenley also said the latest proposal was disappointing because Ozdemir and the city didn’t seem to be putting much money into the project. Cook said the team is willing to contribute $10 million.

Kenley said overall “I didn’t feel comfortable with the last-minute effort.”

While Kenley questions whether the Eleven ownership “has the wherewithal to get this done,” Cook said the mayor “has a great deal of respect for a number of people in the investor group.”

In January, as part of his MLS push, Ozdemir floated a plan for a downtown stadium that would be built between Lucas Oil Stadium and the White River as part of a public-private partnership. 

The Eleven and 11 other teams are vying for four available openings in the 22-year-old MLS. Two successful applicants would join MLS by the 2020 season as the league’s 25th and 26th teams.

Teams 27 and 28 would begin playing at a “later” but undetermined date, the league has said.

The league expects to announce the first two winners of expansion franchises in the second or third quarter of this year.

MLS set the fee for expansion teams 25 and 26 at $150 million and said the fee for the other two teams would be announced later.

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