Friday, February 28, 2014

Is there a future for soccer in Indianapolis?

Being a French native and Hoosier by adoption, I can’t be more excited to have a soccer team in Indianapolis, be it an NASL team. Based on Indy Eleven’s success in ticket sales, I am clearly not the only one looking forward to next season’s kick-off.

With the Colts’ sustainable success, the Pacers’ rebirth (what a season!), the Fever’s 2012 championship title, and the Indians’ steady strong attendance, is there a place for soccer in Indianapolis? Yes, definitely. But Indy Eleven’s future success beyond the next couple of seasons and the present excitement around the new venture is not about bringing soccer to the city, it is about creating a distinctive, unique experience around the team.

Unarguably, ticket sales have been a tremendous success so far, and the focus on the international community in Indy has been the right strategy. A good illustration was a packed Lucas Oil Stadium for the game between Chelsea and Inter Milan for the Guinness International Champions Cup last summer.

However, I see a few challenges lying ahead. The Chelsea/Inter game is a good indication of soccer interest in the city, but we are talking about two huge teams. As a reminder, Inter Milan won the UEFA Champions League in 2010, Chelsea in 2012. Hoosiers did not go to that game for soccer, they went for two big teams and theirs stars (the Mourinho, Lampard and others). Indy Eleven does not play in the same league. Hoosiers won’t go to Indy Eleven games to see elite players.

Second, the dichotomy between novelty and long-term support is not to be underestimated. Like a marriage, the first couple of years are great, but if you don’t build a solid relationship, it falls apart. This could be the same for the love story between Indy Eleven and the fans if the front office does not build a lasting fan experience.

For any foreign-born Hoosiers accustomed to elite soccer, there is always a stake at the beginning and the end of the season. Unlike franchise sports in the US where you can go 0-16 like the NFL Detroit Lions in 2008 and still play in the elite league the following season, in European or Latin American soccer, if your team finishes last, it is relegated to a lower league. This means that even of your team sucks, true fans will continue to cheer to avoid relegation. I am skeptical there will be the same enthusiasm if Indy Eleven sucks, as there is no relegation at stake.  The same goes with the championship title. The MLS title is a big reason why fans rally behind their home team, such as LA Galaxy (in addition to David Beckham when he was there). A NASL title is not very appealing, at least for true soccer fan. In other words, there is nothing at stake (title or relegation) that will motivate the fans to support the team, fill the to-be-built 18,000-seat stadium if they offer an unattractive game and poor results. Indy’s soccer team’s success passes through an attractive game.

Sponsor deals and corporate suites won’t get any suitors in the fans don’t come and the Indy Eleven brand is tarnished by low attendance and poor results.

The fan base is inclusive of hard-core soccer fans, broad sports fans (not just soccer), and families looking for entertainment opportunities. For the hard-core fans, Indy Elevens’ main competition is truly cable TV. For the same price as one season pass, you can buy premium cable channels where you have the guarantee to watch top soccer every weekend with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Paris St Germain, or Bayern Munich. Do you spend $200-$300 a year to watch Indy Eleven, or get cable to watch the top European teams? 
For the average sports fans looking for any type of exciting sports events, they will follow the winning teams (Colts, Pacers, Fever) in top notch leagues. If our local soccer team does not have a winning tracking record and attractive game plan, will the average sports fans follow? Not so sure.
Finally, for the family in search of any type of entertainment, be it sports, concerts, movies, etc., they will spend their money where fun is guaranteed... Very versatile part of the audience that does not build a fan base in the long term.

Indy Eleven has done all the right things to build the buzz around this team. From the announcements of the team name Indy Eleven, to the hiring on the front office, the coach, the first player... They have reached out to the international community, the safest bet to build a strong support. They have successfully developed a continuous marketing campaign using social media, to keep the momentum going over the past year.

As Bob Kravitz wrote last summer, “history tells us professional soccer  doesn’t work in Indianapolis. The city has been a graveyard for soccer startups, including the ill-fated Indiana Blast. But there’s hope, specifically for the 2014 startup Indy  Eleven”. Indeed there is hope. Indy Eleven’s long term success is dependable on the fan experience the franchise will be able to build, not on performance. Competition will be tough, at all levels. Welcome to Indianapolis, Indy Eleven!

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