Chelsea and Inter Milan faced off in downtown Indianapolis earlier this month. The quarterfinal of the International Champions Cup was a massive event that drew 42,000 fans to Lucas Oil Stadium, and filled the streets of Indianapolis. But there was something more important happening that day, something more subtle. The city was being groomed for something larger than a single pre-season tournament match.
I traveled to the match with the supporters’ group Chelsea in America, one of the largest fan groups of the Blues outside of England. We met downtown at Claddagh Irish Pub and spent the afternoon singing about our common love and chanting “Who are ya” at anyone that came in wearing another team’s kit. Just around the corner, Guinness was having an event that took up an entire block. It was there, while taking a break from the hot, stifled, pub air, that I first heard of Indy Eleven. This new NASL club is preparing to debut at the start of the 2014 season with plans to eventually build a stadium in the downtown district.
Indy Eleven, and the city it was named after, is really a perfect representative of soccer in the United States. After all, downtown Indianapolis is already home to two major teams: The Colts and the Pacers. The two huge stadiums that house these popular clubs take up some serious real estate in an already-cramped city. That’s not even mentioning the AAA baseball team: the Indianapolis Indians, or the Tier 1 hockey team: the Indiana Ice. As I perused the tables filled with information on the newborn club, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any more room left, not just in downtown Indianapolis but in the hearts of its residents, for another sport.
With about two hours left until kickoff, the myriad of Blues supporters left Claddagh and we began our march, flags held high to Lucas Oil Stadium. “Super Frankie Lampard” echoed from the skyscrapers and drowned out the sound of bumper-to-bumper traffic. It wasn’t long before I, along with several others, realized we were heading in the wrong direction.
“The stadium is that way,” someone yelled, pointing behind us.
“We know, we’ve got another stop first,” said a voice from the front.
Before long we were in the center of the city, climbing the broad stairs that lead to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. This tall edifice, erected in 1888, is a monument to Indiana soldiers who fought in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish American War. There, upon the steps of the century-and-a-half-old structure, we sang “Keep the Blue Flag Flying High,” and “Carefree” while Lady Victory, who adorns the crest of Indy Eleven, looked down upon us from the top of the monument. People stopped on the sidewalks, in the middle of the street, and even in their cars, to record our concert on their phones. Monument Circle was the venue, Chelsea our muse, and we were the headliners. It was perhaps the first taste of this type of soccer culture the Hoosiers have seen, but it will not be the last.
Like many clubs that have popped up in the MLS and NASL over the past few years, Indy Eleven is focusing their marketing on identifying with their city. The club’s tagline, “The World’s Game, Indiana’s Team” isn’t just catchy, it’s their mission statement. According to the club’s website, indyeleven.com, the name not only represents the number of players on the pitch, but honors the 11th Volunteer Infantry Regiment that fought in the Civil War.
It’s not a new strategy, but the owners of Indy Eleven know that if they’re going to reach the people of Indianapolis, who are already satisfied with their choices of sporting events, they will have to go deeper than just selling entertainment. Identity is the key. It’s a good start, exposing the city to soccer at the level that Chelsea and Inter brought, but to really reel in fans they’ll have to create a connection to the club. If the organization can rally people under the torch of Lady Victory, Indianapolis and its people will have more than enough room for another professional team.