Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Indy Eleven Stadium Directions

Today's Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee vote to move forward House Bill 1273 has set off a flurry of activity and discussion among Indy Eleven fans, myself included.  I decided that I would summarize and expand on some of the things that I have seen and said.

First off, I don't like the amendment that the committee proposed and ultimately approved.  It is a complete change from everything that has been approved to date by the Indiana House of Representatives.  It literally starts with the phrase, "Deletes the provisions currently in the bill."  The positive of the vote today is that it didn't force the bill to fall into the dreaded "killed in committee" realm.  It still has a life.

If my recollection of the process is correct, the $82M House version of the bill is still out there because that was the version that was approved by the House of Representatives. Today's committee amendment revises the language of the bill in the Senate. Their approval means that the bill can now go before the entire Senate for additional debate and modification. Even if it was approved as is, there would be an approved House version and an approved Senate version, where it would go back into yet another joint committee to iron out the differences between the two. Only at that point would the bill be "final" subject to approval, notably, final approval by the Governor.

So there's still a lot of discussion to be done before anything is finalized. I believe that part of the team's, and specifically Peter Wilt's, optimism stems from the fact that today's House committee didn't kill the bill and it can continue to move forward to be discussed.  I would like to share the team's optimism, but that's not my strong suit, especially when it comes to the operation of the government.

In the days leading up to today's vote, I've seen many a defeatist comment stating that not getting a new stadium would be a death blow to any aspirations of moving to MLS.  Others have even expressed concern that the life of the NASL is short-lived, leading to a short-lived Indy Eleven.  I haven't yet reached those levels.  I believe that a renovated Carroll Stadium could definitely hinder any move up to MLS, unless the revisions bring it up to what is expected of a first division team.  I'll get into that more in a minute.  I also believe that there is a place and a market for a professional soccer team in Indianapolis regardless of the name of the league.  This, obviously, has not always been the case as professional soccer has had a very poor track record in Indianapolis (sorry for the racing pun).  So whether it is MLS, NASL, or USL, I think a professional team has the potential to be long-lived in Indianapolis.  The fans are here even if the league changes.

Consider for a minute that the NASL folds, which I don't think will happen.  The USL is currently considered third division, but they feel like they can/should be second division like the NASL.  With a defunct NASL, their argument would make more sense, especially given the number of MLS teams who have begun to align themselves with USL teams for developmental purposes.  Now let's consider that the nay-sayers are right and the Indy Eleven new car smell wears off and attendance drops this year or next.  How about a 20% drop in attendance?  That's an average attendance of 8,400.  Any guesses what the USL averaged last year for attendance?  3,114.  The highest average was Sacramento with 11,293 with Rochester second behind them at 5,329.  For year 2013, Rochester was about the same in second place with Orlando averaging 8,056.  How about 2012?  Rochester at just over 6,200 and Orlando at just over 6,600.

My point?  Even if attendance drops by 20% for the Indy Eleven, they would still be the highest average attended team in the USL the past three years (with the exception of last year's Sacramento team).  Orlando is moving up to MLS this year and there is a strong push to move Sacramento to MLS.  People take notice when you consistently bring in fans and I believe the Eleven will continue to do that, even if it is in a properly renovated, and sized, Carroll Stadium.

I've made no secret about my concerns of renovating Carroll Stadium.  To me, it's a nearly complete demolition project and building back up for a number of reasons.

  1. The age of the stadium doesn't necessarily concern me, but the materials of construction make it more different than some of the other high profile sports venue renovations in the area.  It cost $36M to renovate Hinkle Fieldhouse and $52M to renovate the Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds and those were much closer to having modern amenities than Carroll and were much more robust and strong initial structures.  Carroll was not built the same way.  It's not a brick and mortar structure.  It's steel, steel, and more steel.  Strong, but in a different kind of way, especially when all that steel has been exposed to the elements the past 30+ years.  
  2. It's location on the land makes it difficult to substantially build on the north side of the field.  The suites that were added before the inaugural season are one thing, but where do you go from there?  I've seen people state that the entire thing could be shifted south to give more room.  Now you're rebuilding from scratch.
  3. The only thing saved is the cost of the land and I don't believe that was ever in the $82M estimate for the new stadium.  That would have been additional money beyond the $82M.  
  4. My continued argument has been where does the team play during all of this construction? That is, and continues to be, a major obstacle for me to see a Carroll Stadium renovation as truly viable.

Today's vote by the Senate committee only accentuates some of my other concerns.  A representative from IU, Tom Morrison, testified today stating something that had already been on my radar from a previous discussion.  As of the most recent IUPUI Campus Master Plan, Carroll Stadium was to be demolished and used as a track and grassy area for the students.  To me, it looks like it's only survived the wrecking ball because of the Indy Eleven's need for a temporary place to play.  Just because it has done a serviceable job in that capacity doesn't mean that it is a viable long-term solution for a professional team, especially if any future plan includes keeping the existing track (which today's discussion implied).  It may be semantics, but a renovation of Carroll Stadium that includes the track is a "track facility that hosts soccer games" even if the predominant use is soccer. That's just my opinion, no matter what other changes they make.

I also understand that the amended House bill limits the amount of money that the State will give to Indiana University to make renovations to $20M, but that doesn't mean that the team, city, or other investors couldn't add to that amount.  That additional money would just require a different funding mechanism.  I think it's interesting that when they say the State is going to provide the funding mechanism for an $85M stadium paid by user fees with a backstop from a private business, people are in an uproar. When they say the State is going to provide the funding mechanism for a $20M renovation of a State university's existing infrastructure paid by user fees with a backstop from a private business, that's ok. Is it really just the extra $65M that bothers people. If the team ever fails, leaves, etc., isn't the State on the line either way? And really, in the second version, the University is leasing the stadium to the team so aren't they actually affecting the taxpayers more?  I'm also curious how the State can fund a project directly with the University (kind of a State government entity) and continue to use Ersal's private hotel as a backstop. I'm not sure how that works.

Today's vote doesn't really clarify anything other than the discussions get to continue.  The possibility of a new stadium doesn't appear to be completely removed nor does it seem like it will be realistically selected.  How does either version truly get funded and with what backstops?  Even with an appropriately sized and renovated Carroll Stadium, with sufficient bathrooms, locker rooms for the teams, concession stands, merchandise stands, etc. is there any way that it can look like this:

Probably not.

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