Indy Eleven’s W League Gets In Formation

Indy Eleven W League
Illustration by Curt Merlo

WHEN INDY Eleven’s W League team steps onto Field No. 2 at Westfield’s Grand Park on May 6 to play Cincinnati’s Kings Hammer, they’ll make U.S. sports history. The match will go down as the first-ever game for the new United Soccer League’s women’s teams. The Eleven’s inaugural women’s side is an effort to grow the club’s female fan base. Even as women’s soccer is exploding across the U.S.—viewership of the National Women’s Soccer League increased 300 percent in 2020—the Eleven’s fan following skews 65 percent male to 35 percent female. Attendance at the men’s home games, which are played at Michael A. Carroll Stadium, averaged just 6,000 fans a match in 2021, a little more than half of what it had been before the pandemic. 

“We certainly hope it increases our footprint across the state of Indiana,” says Greg Stremlaw, president and chief executive officer. “From a business standpoint, obviously, nobody wants to lose a lot of money. But we’re doing this for the predominant reason of increasing opportunities for women soccer players.”

Indy Eleven officials also acknowledge, however, another reason for the new W League team’s existence: It’s one of the last puzzle pieces in a bid to finalize Eleven Park, the team’s long-pined-for, $550 million, 20,000-seat stadium and accompanying mixed-use development. After securing legislation from the Indiana General Assembly that allows the club to create a sports development tax district virtually anywhere within Marion County, Indy Eleven officials delayed announcing potential locations last March, citing logistical issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic. One official with the team told IM to expect a site announcement before the end of this year.

Nine years into existence, the Eleven have proven a lot of naysayers wrong. They’ve already outlasted Indy’s previous professional soccer club, the Blast, which played from 1997 to 2004, hosting games its last four years at Kuntz Memorial Stadium on 16th Street before folding after a plan for a 5,000-seat soccer stadium in Lawrence fell through. But the Eleven have frequently found themselves on new, uneven turf. Sometimes literally. As they tried to shore up legislative support in the Statehouse for new stadium funding, the team spent three years playing in Lucas Oil Stadium before moving back to Carroll Stadium. They played in the former from 2014 to 2017, only to see head coach Martin Rennie part ways with the team due to playing conditions on that field. “Frankly, the field is 10 years old, or at least eight,” Rennie complained in a postgame show last June. “And it’s hard to play on. It doesn’t really roll properly. The ball bounce is very difficult. That means you can’t really play at a fast tempo or get the movement or the quality that you’re looking for. And so, it’s always a little bit frustrating if I’m being open about it.”

Other obstacles loomed. As their old North American Soccer League imploded in 2017 due to financial mismanagement, team owner Ersal Ozdemir had to pay a $2 million early-exit fee and reconstitute the team in the United Soccer League, a second division below Major League Soccer. Average attendance has dipped from a high of more than 10,000 in 2019.

Whatever troubles they’ve had on and off the field, there’s a good reason to resolve them soon. With the U.S. set to host the 2026 World Cup, Indy Eleven officials are positioning Indianapolis as a potential training spot for an international team. Though Grand Park could provide World Cup qualifying team training facilities, such a coup would be far more likely with a new stadium. “All of that is in the lead-up to working towards Eleven Park, the ultimate facility that we want for both the men’s and women’s professional teams,” Stremlaw says.

The club purchased the women’s franchise on September 24, 2021, and the squad’s rollout had to be a quick one. Under the direction of Ozdemir, the organization is notoriously cagey and tight-lipped with details. Player contracts aren’t public, and the startup costs of the team aren’t available. The Eleven didn’t even begin announcing their W League coaches and players until this past March. Once it’s underway, the W League team’s season will be a short one. Sponsored by Puma, they’ll play six home games and six away games in the Great Lakes Division in a league featuring eight other teams. Just four of those will play in soccer-specific stadiums this year.

The Eleven’s front office may have announced a stadium location by the time the season ends. In 2019, Stremlaw told The Indianapolis Star they had narrowed their search to “a handful of sites.” The club looked at purchasing the former Broad Ripple High School land, but nothing ultimately materialized. The front office promises the eventual location will include 600 apartment units, a 200-room hotel, 150,000 square feet of office space, and 100,000 square feet of retail—all owned by the city’s Capital Improvement Board. One person familiar with the club’s timeline told IM that the women’s team should provide the club the momentum it needs to finalize stadium plans.

Stremlaw declined to announce a short list of potential locations, though, including saying whether Broad Ripple was still in the running. But the process is winding down. “The sites remain confidential at this point, aside from saying that it was a much longer list at an earlier stage,” he says. “We believe we are honing in on our premium preferred site.”