Inside the cavernous Lucas Oil Stadium, amid a sea of 40,000 chanting fans watching the venue's first soccer match, two different contests were unfolding.
There was, of course, the Guinness International Champions Cup match between global soccer titans Internazionale, of Italy's Serie A league, and Chelsea FC, of the English Premier League.
That contest saw the two clubs racing across 100,000 feet of Kentucky bluegrass sod, laid over the stadium’s usual FieldTurf days before the match—a contest that Chelsea handily won, slotting two goals in the first half. (At a postgame press conference, Inter's coach, Walter Mazzarri, remarked through a translator: "The stadium is beautiful; the field a little less.")
The second contest, though, wasn’t confined to the venue. Instead, it played out among throngs of fans before the game, in pubs such as the Claddagh ("We're at capacity," employees stationed outside its doors told those hoping to grab a pre-match drink), and on Georgia Street, where revelers at a pre-game street party fêted what felt like Indy's coming out as the nation's newest soccer town.
It was a contest waged by many, but spearheaded by Indy Eleven, the city's new professional soccer club in a long line of past failures, for the hearts and minds of potential supporters—and converts to the Beautiful Game—ahead of their debut NASL season in 2014.
And, it seems, it was a contest they also handily won: Even veteran Indianapolis Star sports columnist Bob Kravitz, once a naysayer about the sport's prospects here, seemed to recant:
"Warning to anti-soccer curmudgeons (and I was one myself)," Kravitz tweeted during the game. "I'm writing a positive column on the future of soccer in Indy."
Indeed, Indy Eleven officials seemed to approach last night's event as a sort of a test-run for their marketing apparatus. The team’s new coach Juergen Sommer comfortably rapped with a scrum of reporters shortly before kickoff last night, and said he was encouraged by the night’s turnout. (Go to the top of the page for audio from Sommer's interview.)
Dozens of Indy Eleven volunteers fanned out across the stadium before the game, placing promotional postcards in seats. And right before kickoff, there was Indiana Gov. Mike Pence down on the field, saying a few words alongside Ersal Ozdemir, the team’s owner.
But it was more than a test run. Indy Eleven actually had "skin in the game," says John Koluder, the team’s director of public relations, meaning they could see some financial incentives tied to the match's success, as one of the event’s promoters. What that meant in real terms was unclear (and Peter Wilt says the event wasn’t about making money, but building the game).
What stuck this reporter, though, is the organization's marketing muscle. The fledgling club managed to land a vaunted international fixture, stage-managed a globally televised sporting event, and seamlessly orchestrated a post-game press conference (that was partly in Italian, no less).
Some are already speculating that Indy could be a contender for one of the four expected Major League Soccer expansion teams set to launch by 2020.
But even if that doesn’t happen—and Sommer downplayed the possibility last night, saying he was focused on fielding a quality side next year—even if only for one night in August, soccer scored big in Indianapolis.
Read more IM soccer and Indy Eleven coverage here.
Inset photo: Indy Eleven coach Juergen Sommers