Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Indy Eleven strive to #IndyMLS

Like many (most?) Indy Eleven fans, in the last 24 hours, I found that the team was going to be one of 12 teams submitting bids to become part of the next wave of MLS additions. MLS has indicated that they will be going from 24 teams to 28 teams by 2020 and so a dozen locations have put their name into the collective hat in hopes that their name is selected. I'm probably not the only one who found out from the article last night from Sports Illustrated's Brian Straus that the Eleven would be joining Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego, and Tampa Bay as the 12 hopefuls. The article also indicated that the team had a desire for a stadium that is heavily privately financed, as well as a desired location for the stadium. I'm going to touch on all of the major points of this news.

Let's start with the start. For as long as I can remember, MLS has been in the back of most Indy Eleven fans and staff minds, but it never really seemed to be the major driving force behind any of the decisions. To be in MLS at this time, a soccer-specific stadium is basically a prerequisite and the Eleven barely received any traction from that standpoint until last year. Even then, my impressions of the proceedings seemed like a long-shot. Yet the team has routinely stated, and it's been quoted significantly, that their goal was to be a Division 1 team on a Division 2 budget. Perhaps subtly reminding everyone that they were going to one day strive to actually be Division 1, without ever looking like they were so desperate to get in that they were willing to do anything to do it. The team continues to plug along trying to provide the best on- and off-field entertainment that they can for the City of Indianapolis, all within a reasonable budget. Mr. Ozdemir opened the purse strings a little this year to bring in some more experienced (and by extension, probably more expensive) players, but it never seemed like he would ever go the Cosmos' route of hemorrhaging the budget to chase a Championship. Act like a professional organization and eventually people will take notice. The Eleven have certainly done that to date.

Given that the Eleven, and Ozdemir in particular, seemed to be one of the major driving forces helping keep the NASL alive this off-season, the bid to be part of MLS seems all the more surprising to me. I've questioned a couple times already today about what the NASL think of the Eleven's bid. Some of the other cities in the running have not be secretive about their MLS desires, but the Eleven have looked to be truly committed to the NASL in the near-term. Tampa Bay barely had time for the dust to settle on their departure from the NASL before announcing their desire to be part of MLS. Cincinnati made a huge spectacle out of Commissioner Garber's visit there. The NASL's public relations battle over the off-season is not going to be helped out by the fact that just weeks after getting provisional Division 2 status by merely holding onto some teams, like the Eleven, one of those teams then turns around and expresses their desire to be somewhere else. So the timing by the team confuses me.

Brian Straus' article further indicated:
"the club’s MLS stadium will be a public-private partnership and that Ozdemir and his unnamed partners would be kicking in a “significant amount of private money.”

Ozdemir will remain the majority owner.
We've now found out more about those "unnamed partners" thanks to an article in the Indianapolis Business Journal.
On Tuesday, Eleven officials unveiled the names of its potential investors—a group that includes local auto dealer Andy Mohr; Elwood Staffing President Mark Elwood; Heritage Environmental Services President Jeff Laborsky; and Mickey Maurer, a shareholder in The National Bank of Indianapolis and IBJ Corp., parent company of the Indianapolis Business Journal.
Local partners, but not exactly earth-shattering money partners. Detroit's bid is being pulled together by NBA team owners Tom Gores and Dan Gilbert, Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers, respectively. The San Antonio bid is from Spurs Sports & Entertainment. Yes, the San Antonio Spurs. These are not rarities in these bids. Several of the others have high profile owner's groups. I'm not saying that Mr. Ozdemir and Andy Mohr don't make a lot of money, but they're on a different level than some of these other groups. I guess it doesn't matter how they get the money or how many investors it ultimately takes, but they apparently think they can get enough money for the MLS entry fee and the "significant amount of private money" for the stadium. I just have to wonder if "who" the money comes from is as important as "how much" money they can bring.

I've talked about the stadium a lot on this site. However, back in December 2014 I had my first attempt at really trying to figure out where a stadium could even be physically located in Indianapolis given some of the comments about what the team desired for a stadium. Using the Chicago Fire's Toyota Park as my basis because of Peter Wilt's involvement with both teams, I scoured the city looking for locations. One of the places that continually came back to me as an extremely viable location was what I called Sand Street because of Google's reference to a street that runs through the site, but which any Indy resident who has ever driven in the area will tell you is not really a street any longer. I think there's still a street sign last time I looked, but there's also a fence blocking both ends of the "street." The other cross streets would have been an easier way to find it, but I always like the alliteration of calling it Sand Street Stadium. From Brian's article, "If built, the new stadium would be located in downtown Indianapolis between the Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium and the White River." Sand Street Stadium fits that description.

Of all the sites I evaluated, it was the one that I continually thought had the most promise of checking all of the desired boxes, particularly since the former GM Stamping Plant site was designated for other uses at the time I evaluated. That site still seems promising, but the Sand Street site has advantages that have likely pushed it to the forefront, including, but not limited to, the fact that the GM Stamping Plant seems to be getting a lot of attention for a lot of other developments and would be more expensive. Another benefit is that Sand Street has multiple public transportation stops within a quarter mile of the location. The ability of spectators to access the stadium through public transportation has always been a factor for Indy Eleven's stadium site, largely because of Peter Wilt's involvement with the Chicago Fire and Toyota Park's lack of access. Peter learned a lesson and brought it to Indy. It's also less than half a mile to both Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Colts play, and Victory Field, where Indy's AAA baseball team plays. As I said in 2014, it helps create a "sports zone" in the southwest section of downtown Indianapolis. The NCAA headquarters are nearby, as well as the Indianapolis Zoo, further creating a "sports and entertainment area" that so many of the other bids are striving to achieve.

I have no idea what "significant" private money implies, but the latest articles are indicating $100M for the stadium. If the team can pull 3/4 of that from private money, I have a feeling that the State and Indianapolis will find a way to help with the other 1/4. Though I'm just basing that on last year's legislative session where it looked like the State was going to give about $25M before everything ran out of time. Though that was also for a State-owned stadium located on IUPUI's campus so they may feel differently for this location and stadium.

Lastly, the team's competition for the MLS spots include Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego, and Tampa Bay as previously noted. Of all those locations, Sacramento seems to be the most logical. They check all the boxes for having a successful club. They are consistently one of the leaders in USL for attendance, averaging over 11,000 last year, well above the league's average of around 3,500. They have a fan-base ready to make the jump and a stadium plan that is ready to go as soon as given the word. I'm not sure how they get kept out.

I don't have enough information to give a truly formed opinion on the viability of most of the other teams, but some of the higher profile owner's groups gives me concern about the Eleven's chances. The two teams that could really throw a wrench into an #IndyMLS bid are Cincinnati and St. Louis. Cincinnati averaged over 17,000 people at their games in their inaugural season and it sounds like ticket sales have been brisk for season two. St. Louis has long been considered a hot-spot of soccer in America and the city recently lost their NFL team to Los Angeles. An MLS team in either of those two towns could severely dampen the Eleven's chances due to a perceived "sufficiency of Midwestern teams."

I don't know if this was a legit bid or more of a we-need-to-do-this-to-stay-in-the-discussion on the chance that the league decides to go past 28 teams. I suspect that the additional partners are all contingent on the team actually winning the MLS bid and if the team isn't selected, all of those partners will no longer be around. So a new stadium for the Eleven in the NASL or the USL goes back to the drawing board and Indy Eleven fans will continue to sit in a stadium designed for track and field events in the 1980s.

As part of the "grassroots" media for the Eleven, I fully expect that despite Ozdemir's assurances, a successful MLS bid will eliminate the press credentials that I enjoy to be able to try and write better content. A blog on the internet isn't really needed to help with exposure when your games are covered by the major networks and discussed by Alexi Lalas, Taylor Twellman, Brian Straus, and Grant Wahl. Regardless, a move to MLS would provide a level of stability for the Eleven that the NASL and USL have not convinced me they can provide, meaning that the Eleven will be around for a long time for me to enjoy.

Like many people, I have objections to the way the business of MLS is run, but a legit stadium in a more stable league allowing me to write about the team and the game that I love for a long time will be well worth the lost press pass if it comes to that. Now we play the waiting game to see if there is a move to MLS and what happens with the NASL & USL's provisional Division 2 status.

1 comment:

Don said...

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.