Last weekend, Indy Eleven saw their first year in the North American Soccer League (NASL) come to a close. The Indianapolis-based team’s performances will hardly light up the record books: bottom of the spring season with just four points, seventh in the fall, eighth in the combined league table.
Beyond the 11 men on the field, though, the figures of this fledgling club tell a rather more prosperous story. For Indy Eleven – as well as the number of players in a team, their moniker pays homage to the 11th Regiment, Indiana Infantry, which fought in the American civil war – posted another “11” that statisticians can now tie to the club: it was the number, in thousands, that turned out for the team’s most-attended game. Throughout their opening year, Indy, who play at a 32-year-old track stadium, averaged crowds of 10,465, selling out every home match to become the best-supported team in the league.
According to the club, the feat has not been matched: Indy, they claim, are the first team in US professional soccer history to sell out every home match in their inaugural season. Fans continue to press for next year’s now-capped season tickets; the club is looking to accommodate demand.
But the story of Indy Eleven – or “Racing Indy”, to prick the ears of the long-term backers of the push for professional soccer in the city – was not always one of thousands of fans, flares and banners aloft, chanting European-style songs and rattling terraces. It was, in fact, the keyboards of a few such fans (believed to be just eight) that started the push for professional soccer to return to Indianapolis.
“I think the way this team came together was completely unique,” said Derek Richey, one of Indy’s fans who has been with the club since it was merely a virtual reality. “Maybe it is a future model for other teams to come … the power of social media has been amazing.”
In the beginning
Indy Eleven fans Flags, flares and chants – Indy Eleven fans bring the noise. Photograph: Trevor Ruszkowski/Indy Eleven
On 12 October 2010 a Facebook group, overseen by Richey, emerged. It was entitled “Racing Indy FC for the MLS” and it featured the following mission statement:
This is a place for Indiana soccer fans to support and organise a movement to bring a professional soccer team to Indianapolis by 2014.
Included in the statement – which, despite the group’s title, stressed that the backing was for a team to play in the MLS or the NASL – was a call for fan support. That support would be for a team that did not exist, and over the months and years that followed, those who joined the group would have to make do with fictitious visions of what their team would look like.
Racing Indy fans, known as the Brickyard Battalion and founded in 2011, drew up kits. They devised chants. There was even serious talk of where the team would play. The old Indians baseball field acted as a great conversation starter, Richey said, drawing others to the page. The name “Racing” was devised by Richey, and was a link to both the area’s auto-racing history and the fact that it is a popular title for European and South American soccer teams.
The biggest draw the group had lay, perhaps, in its fictional nature. Everyone wanted to write their own little chapter, shaping what this team – at least on the internet – would look like. Fuelling the increasing numbers were many factors, Gabe Peters, a member of the leadership section of the Brickyard Battalion, said. Most were to do with timing.
“We had a couple of professional teams in the past,” Peters said, “so we had a little bit of a taste for professional soccer, but not really at the level that it’s been grown to be at now.”
The last professional team in the area, the Indiana Blast, disbanded in 2004. In the decade that followed, Indianapolis soccer fans, many falling into the “millennial” demographic, would be treated to more readily available games on TV. Like elsewhere in the US, this generation – who had played the game themselves – would be the ones overseeing the rise in youth participation figures in the area.
Combine soccer’s availability and participation figures with the area’s demographic, Peters said, and you had a recipe for what could be a well-supported team. (Around 10% of the population of Indiana is Hispanic; European residents, Peters said, also bring a love of the game.)
‘The world’s game, Indiana’s team’
Indy Eleven Indy Eleven take on the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Photograph: Trevor Ruszkowski/Indy Eleven
One European native who was looking at such figures was Ersal Ozdemir, a Turkish-born businessman who continued to play soccer after he moved to the States for college. Owner of Keystone Realty Group and Keystone Construction, he said he had always been interested in starting a team in the US; Indiana, where he resides, was his first choice.
“I had been thinking about this for a while,” said Ozdemir. “Then there was the Brickyard Battalion … it turned out they had been emailing the league to try and convince them to put a team there, so the league’s commissioner put those emails to me, giving me an idea of the support the city already had.”
What Ozdemir said he found was unexpected: a fanbase for a team that did not even exist, but was well-run and working at grassroots level to promote professional soccer.
In the latter part of 2012, Ozdemir sent Peter Wilt, a soccer executive who had overseen Chicago Fire’s entry into MLS, to see if the emails, the Facebook group and by then a website were enough to go off.
“When a possible owner for this team emerged and brought me to Indianapolis,” Wilt said, “it was the Brickyard Battalion that arranged all of the public meetings, the talkbacks, the meetings with outlets – promoting their idea of professional soccer in Indianapolis.”
A few months later, in January 2013, Ozdemir’s – as well as the league’s – commitment to soccer in Indianapolis was solidified: the team was penned in to join the NASL in the 2014 season.
In the move from concept to creation, the next 16 months saw the Brickyard Battalion at the forefront of a development that was very Indianapolis-centric. The team opted for colours and patterns once posted on a design-a-kit post in the Facebook group, linked to the area’s auto racing ties; a coach who had studied at Indiana University, Jürgen Sommer, was chosen; pushes to promote the team were made at youth and adult community soccer games, with the help of the Indiana Soccer Association.
But the real acid test, fans and club staff admit, came in November 2013, when Indy’s season-ticket figures were reviewed. Having advertised under the slogan “The World’s Game, Indiana’s Team”, it was announced that Indy had sold their allocated 7,000 season tickets with six months to spare. They were, according to the club, the first NASL team to have a waiting list.
“If we had not capped it, we estimate we would have finished with more than 11,000 season-ticket holders,” said Wilt, now the club’s president and general manager. “But we wanted to have enough room for group tickets and individual tickets too.”
Going into the season which began in April, there were mixed expectations among fans and those at the club.
“I don’t really remember having any expectations,” Gabe Peters said. “The guys who had been around a long time with the Brickyard Battalion, at that point, when the first game was coming, saw it as almost surreal – because it had been almost a fictional thing until then.”
Those at the club – Wilt and Ozdemir included – admit that they had high expectations on the field. The team fell short. Next season, they hope, the club will be challenging for the league championship.
The most impressive displays arguably came from the fans. Despite continuing to sell out every home match, Indy did not post a win at the Michael Carroll stadium until the fall, having gone 12 games (including all of the spring season) without a home victory. Wilt said the club’s form has been promising in the latter part of the fall season; upgrades have also been made to the stadium to make it more fan-friendly, having previously – and arguably still – not been able to facilitate the large numbers attending Indy games with the likes of toilets and catering.
Indy plan to push for a 18,500-seat, soccer-specific stadium, but for that they must first obtain political approval. In the spring of 2014, optimistically, the club put the plans to the Indiana state legislature. With the team not having kicked a ball, they did not receive the necessary backing. They will return in January 2015, a season’s worth of sellouts behind them.
Indy Eleven Indy Eleven fans – some, apparently, from Kenya. Photograph: Matt Schlotzhauer/Indy Eleven
When asked if this is geared towards a push for an MLS franchise, those at the club gave predominantly pro-NASL responses.
“My goal is to build one of best soccer – or sports – organisations in the United States, which is considered as one of the best experiences, making sure that people are enjoying the experience, as well as a good team on the field, and a great front office, continuing to become very competitive,” Ozdemir said.
“It doesn’t matter who we play – whether it’s an NASL team or an MLS team – as soccer continues our organisation will grow.”
Next season will reveal whether such “experiences” at Indy games are enough to keep fans coming back, or whether attendance will become more dependent on on-field success. (When asked, the club would not provide figures based on season ticket renewals ahead of the 2015 season. They will be announced at a later date, if at all.)
“We have had and heard a lot of fans say that the atmosphere that’s created, pretty much by our section [the Brickyard Battalion], is the reason they are coming back,” said Peters. He hopes that, moving forward, the club will continue to include the community as much as possible and will improve the pitch. Perhaps most importantly, he hopes they will remain buoyed by the thought of getting a professional team to the area.
“This [club] is about a community coming together on a very grassroots level,” said Wilt. “It had a connection with a professional sports team, really, before it had even played a single game.”