Ersal Ozdemir’s 11th Hour

As one of the city’s most successful real estate developers, Ozdemir oversees a billion-dollar portfolio and rubs shoulders with the city’s elite. But he’s losing his shirt as he pursues his quest to bring a Major League Soccer team to Indianapolis. For perhaps the first time in his life, will the Indy Eleven owner end up short of the goal?

April 2018Add a comment

Ersal Ozdemir, the successful real estate developer with a very expensive soccer habit, seemed tense. Emotionally exhausted from a recent trip to visit his ailing father in Turkey, the Indy Eleven owner had returned home to responsibilities no less daunting. Only days earlier, Ozdemir had pieced together a bid for the Eleven to join the United Soccer League, paying the team’s former league a required $2.5 million early-exit fee. To date, he had only signed one player on an otherwise empty 22-man roster. And then there was the small matter of finalizing a venue for the 2018 season’s games, which would kick off in just two months. Sitting with him in a conference room at Newfields, where Ozdemir is a member of the board of governors, I could tell he wasn’t in the best spirits. So I offered a joke, hoping to lighten the mood. “How do you become a millionaire?” I asked. He looked at me quizzically for a moment before I delivered the punch line. “You start out as a billionaire, and then launch a professional soccer team.”

Ozdemir’s eyes rolled and his head dropped. “That’s true,” he said in his still-thick Turkish accent, having only become a U.S. citizen in 1999. “That’s a very good point. Thanks for rubbing it in.”

We had planned to meet in the cafe, but at the last minute, Ozdemir had requested we move somewhere where we were less likely to be overheard. Ozdemir is known to keep his business dealings close to the vest. That strategy has made him a multi-millionaire, a guy who went from living in a dismal apartment in the 1990s to developing huge projects like Eskenazi Hospital and residing in a mansion in Carmel.

But the word among those who follow the Indy Eleven closely is that Ozdemir has sunk somewhere north of $20 million of his own money into that venture and is reaching his breaking point. What began with a great deal of excitement five years ago when he founded the club in the hopes of someday upgrading it to a Major League Soccer team has become a money pit. In four consecutive legislative sessions, state lawmakers turned down Ozdemir’s proposal for a taxpayer-subsidized soccer stadium—a dedicated stadium being an MLS requirement to land an expansion club.

Ozdemir has staked his career on risky projects. Consider the so-called Broad Ripple Parking Garagemahal, a controversial $15 million structure that spurred a flurry of new development in the neighborhood. Or the $60 million Sophia Square luxury apartment building in downtown Carmel, which brought new life to the Arts & Design District where nothing else like it had existed before. “You shake your head a little about the risks Ersal takes sometimes,” a competitor in the city’s development industry told me.

Those risks all paid off, though. So far, the Indy Eleven are a different story. The recent announcement that they’ll play in Lucas Oil Stadium may seem like good news, but in fact, it may undermine the struggling team’s pitch for an arena of their own. As the fifth season heats up this month, Ozdemir is working hard behind the scenes to make sure this isn’t the last. But has one of the city’s most successful dealmakers finally found a game he can’t win?

Ozdemir’s proposal for a taxpayer-funded stadium inspired fans.

During Ersal Ozdemir’s senior year in high school in Mersin, Turkey, a note showed up on his desk one morning. His father—a local real estate developer who had branched out from building government roads to condominiums and retail projects—had typed out some advice. Roughly translated, its headline read: “Required Features to Be Successful in Life.” Among them? Be kind. Be brave. Have confidence in yourself.

At the time, the young Ozdemir could only apply those lessons on the soccer field, where he served as the captain of his high school team. After immigrating to the U.S. for college, however, he made them his guiding principles. Ozdemir started out at Oklahoma State, in an area of the country his mother deemed “safe,” but transferred to Purdue for its civil engineering program. When he moved to Indianapolis upon graduation in 1997, his apartment was barren—just a ping-pong table (Ozdemir’s second love, after soccer), a sleeping bag, and a few plates.

He landed a job as an engineer for Bovis Construction. His first assignment was an environmental cleanup project, maybe a $600,000 job. In the back of his mind, Ozdemir had always seen himself owning a company. He went to a local law firm—he can’t remember which one—to inquire about filing articles of incorporation. An acquaintance suggested he meet Beurt SerVaas, the late City-County Council president and serial business owner. SerVaas took him under his wing. That October, Ozdemir launched Aymir Construction Corporation, doing business at 3901 W. 86th St. The company finished commercial interiors, as opposed to building its own projects.

In September of 2002, for reasons that remain unclear, Ozdemir formed a second company, Keystone Realty Group. Unlike the vaguely foreign-sounding Aymir, he says he thought the Keystone name would sound more familiar to potential customers. By April of 2003, according to court documents, Ozdemir’s first company was forced to shut down due to “failed projects and financial problems.” In interviews, Ozdemir refuses to talk about this period of his life, and denies that his company went bankrupt. His former partners also declined to be interviewed on the subject.

Unlike Aymir, Keystone thrived from the beginning. The company started constructing small buildings such as banks and strip malls. But it wasn’t long before Ozdemir was tackling higher profile projects like the 12-story 3 Mass Condos on Mass Ave and the renovation of the Indiana State Fair Coliseum. In 2010, Keystone landed what may be its largest job to date: managing construction of the $754 million Eskenazi Hospital and parking garage. For a developer who had only been in business a few years, it was a daring undertaking. But it was the kind of gambit Ozdemir was fast becoming known for.

Newly wealthy, Ozdemir purchased a $1 million mansion off 106th Street in Carmel. The suburb’s mayor, Jim Brainard, had wooed the developer to make his home there. Ozdemir met his future wife, Izabela, the sister of one of his Purdue classmates, when he hosted a cystic fibrosis fundraiser at his house with a few hundred people. Soon thereafter, he proposed in Paris, and the two got married, and had four children. Ozdemir’s ties to the city’s political class deepened, too. He began to form several new companies that managed properties and parking garages around town. Through as many as 20 of them, he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Indiana politicians on the left and right. He also stocked his company with high-powered hires, including Paul Okeson, former chief of staff under Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, and Jasmin Shahid-Young, a former finance director for Congressman André Carson. Those contributions and relationships paid off handsomely when, for instance, Ballard’s administration hired Keystone to oversee the construction of CityWay. And Brainard awarded a $13 million contract to build a parking garage in Carmel’s Arts & Design District.

Soccer, Ozdemir’s hobby, was rising in prominence, too. In 2010, he joined Indy’s bid committee to be a host city for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The proposal ultimately failed, but it sparked an idea that would define the next eight years of his life. “One of the downsides of the bid was we didn’t have a soccer team,” he says. “When you have a soccer community and they see that it’s strong, they’re going to let you host it. You gotta show them you can make it happen.”

In the first few years, Ozdemir was extremely popular with players.

At noon on May 26, 2012, Ozdemir met with Peter Wilt, a former Major League Soccer general manager, at the Detour restaurant that anchored Ozdemir’s Sophia Square development in Carmel. The two faced an enormous challenge: launching a professional soccer franchise in Indiana, a place where 11 of them had failed. In doing his due diligence, Wilt had chatted with Alex Morris, the former owner of the Indiana Blast, a soccer team that had played in Kuntz Memorial Stadium on West 16th Street in the late 1990s. A big part of the Blast’s failure, Morris told Wilt, was the lack of a better venue (a planned 5,000-seat stadium in Lawrence fell through.) Wilt emphasized to Ozdemir the importance of building an arena. The team didn’t need a flashy home in its first year, but it would need one soon.

The following year, Ozdemir announced the launch of the Indy Eleven, a club that would play in the North American Soccer League (NASL), a competitor of MLS. A few months later, he started a campaign to build the team a permanent home. As the Eleven prepared for their first game at IUPUI’s Michael A. Carroll Stadium, the plan was for an 18,500-seat, $100 million multipurpose facility. Ozdemir proposed a 10 percent facility fee added to ticket prices to pay some of the construction costs. He hired lobbyists, including Barnes & Thornburg’s Joe Loftus, to pitch the idea to state lawmakers before the team had played even one game. Lawmakers were immediately skeptical. “As a season-ticket holder for the Indy Eleven, I support this team,” said then-state senator Scott Schneider. “But I do not support the section of Senate Bill 308 asking taxpayers to help pay for another professional stadium before the first goal has been scored.”

Then-state senator Luke Kenley, the veteran budget writer, practically laughed Ozdemir out of the committee room. Come back after a season, the Republican told him.

Ozdemir would do just that. The team took the field for the first time in April 2014 in front of a surprisingly large crowd of more than 11,000. That trend continued. When Ozdemir returned to the Statehouse in early 2015, he brought with him some of the highest attendance figures in the league. In its first season, the Eleven had managed to sell out every single game. Ozdemir offered other evidence of the need for a new stadium, too. Inclement weather routinely caused game delays. Visiting teams lacked locker rooms with running water.

In that legislative session and two subsequent ones, however, he couldn’t get a bill passed. Legislators seemed disinclined to subsidize another wealthy owner’s stadium after the outcry that occurred when Lucas Oil Stadium was built. And Ozdemir wasn’t willing to pony up any more cash than he already had. The strong attendance of the first couple of years had waned somewhat by 2016, when Wilt announced his departure. “The messaging didn’t seem to get through,” he says. “It never seemed to resonate.”

That December, Ozdemir had to single-handedly cobble together a deal to save the embattled NASL, propping it up for the 2017 season. Shortly thereafter, he surprised fans by making his long-whispered-about ambition public: He planned to take the Eleven to the highest division, Major League Soccer. By 2020, MLS wanted to add four teams, and Ozdemir was sure the Eleven could be one of them.

Actually, it needed to be one of them. By the end of 2017, the NASL appeared to be on shaky ground again, having failed to win sanction from the U.S. soccer board. Ozdemir knew he had reached a make-or-break moment in his quest to bring professional soccer to Indianapolis. “It was a very difficult couple of years,” Wilt says. “Ersal, perhaps more than anyone else, was deeply involved in that drama. It was grating on him. You don’t sign up for that.”

Ozdemir felt last year’s team lacked the passion of previous squads. Given the team’s financial difficulties, even the usually optimistic Ozdemir has considered shutting down the franchise.

One Friday last May, I met Ozdemir for an interview at his office on the 10th floor of the Majestic Building at 47 S. Pennsylvania St. Ozdemir had postponed our meeting for two weeks as he attempted to get his stadium proposal through the legislature one last time. Inside, Ozdemir gave me a brief tour, showing off a photo of himself with the Brazilian soccer star Pelé, a photo with then-governor Mike Pence (whom he showered with $46,500 as his fundraising committee co-chair), as well as the original letter of advice from his dad.

I asked him to ballpark his investment in the Eleven.

“It’s in the millions,” he said. “A lot of millions, yes.”

Over $10 million?

“Yes.”

Under $50 million?

“Yes.”

Was his investment in the Eleven getting close to $50 million?

“I won’t get into it,” he said. “When you lose money, it’s never fun.”

For the next two hours, Ozdemir pitched me the benefits of having an MLS franchise in the city. Football was a dying sport. Soccer would attract more millenials to the city and improve the quality of life in Indianapolis. It was a convincing argument, although apparently not to the people who count. “You know, it’s very hard,” he said. “I would say that I haven’t done a good job maybe explaining what we’re asking.”

In some respects, Ozdemir has been a victim of his own success. His close ties with politicians led to a sharp-edged Indianapolis Business Journal profile of him in 2014 that painted him as “the master of the public subsidy.” “I’ve never understood why he didn’t push back on the ‘Ersal wants a handout’ narrative by talking about the losses the team is taking,” a person with close ties to Ozdemir told me. “I know it counts against the ‘viability’ argument, but at the same time, it lends credibility to his seriousness as an owner.”

The months after our May interview would be even more trying for Ozdemir. Off the field, NASL was stripped of its accreditation by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Prior to the collapse, the league lost three teams, and an additional two folded because of shaky finances.

On the field, things weren’t much better. By 2017, average attendance had dipped from its first-season high of more than 11,000 to roughly 9,000. On September 16 of last year, with his Eleven at the bottom of the league, Ozdemir visited the team’s practice field at Grand Park in Westfield. His message was sobering. In an interview with the website SocTakes, former head coach Tim Hankinson described the scene. “He knows he’s going to lose a lot of money each year supporting this club,” he said. “And last year, he felt it was so worth it because of the moments that we shared, particularly moments at the end of games when we would never put our heads down and continue to work and still believe that we could win things at the end. He said to the team that he hadn’t felt that way this year, that he hadn’t seen that commitment and belief.”

Ersal Ozdemir at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Indy Eleven’s new home—for now.

Back in our interview at Newfields, Ozdemir was no less gloomy. For the first time in a yearlong series of discussions, he struck me as a man who had reconciled himself to the idea that the team might fold. He admitted that he had seriously thought about shuttering the club over the last few weeks. “It was fifty-fifty,” he told me, “depending on which side of the bed I woke up on.”

Last summer, Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration had floated the idea of using Lucas Oil Stadium to host home games for the Eleven’s 2018 season. At the time, Ozdemir and Wilt nixed it due to logistical and scheduling issues. But needing something to inspire confidence in the team’s future, Ozdemir was reconsidering. He asked me what I thought about the scenario. I told him that the playing surface could be problematic. (When Chelsea and Inter Milan played at Lucas Oil in 2013, the coaches and players complained about the 100,000 feet of Kentucky bluegrass sod laid over the field’s existing surface.) I also said it would lack the intimacy of Michael A. Carroll Stadium. Overall, though, I thought it could work. In fact, I wondered if, in the long term, it might work well enough to further weaken his negotiating hand for a new soccer arena. Wilt later told me that Ozdemir shared that concern. “He’s afraid it will be moderately successful and people will say, ‘Oh, you don’t need a stadium,’” he said.

In December, MLS announced that Nashville would be home to one of its four expansion teams, leaving just three open spots. Dan Courtemanche, MLS executive vice president of communications, said there was no specific timeline for announcing the remaining expansion teams, but he applauded Ozdemir’s efforts. Indianapolis, he pointed out, still ranked among 10 markets that could be selected.
By January, though, friends of Ozdemir began to speculate about how the team would survive beyond this season if it’s not immediately chosen by MLS. One solution would be a huge infusion of outside cash. At the beginning of this year, rumors began to swirl that the Irsay family might be interested in investing in the team. A person close to Ozdemir posed this question to me about the developer: “Would he accept a minority stake in the team if it meant a place in MLS?”

At least as far as the Colts are concerned, no such deal is imminent. Jim Irsay declined to speak about the matter, and the team’s chief operating officer, Pete Ward, poured cold water on the rumors. “Jim Irsay has no plans at present to invest in any local sports franchise,” he said.

But it’s easy to see why Ozdemir might be interested in courting the billionaire. A recent Forbes analysis found that at least seven 10-figure fortunes are wrapped up in MLS franchises. Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen owns the Seattle Sounders, for example. New England’s Robert Kraft owns the Revolution. Backing of the Irsay family would boost Ozdemir’s chances of landing an expansion team. Ozdemir would get a lot of money behind his bid, and the Irsays would gain entry to a fast-growing sport with a millennial audience, the same audience tuning out of the NFL.

In our last interview, I asked Ozdemir whether he would be willing to take a minority stake in the team if he found a buyer like that. “Obviously, they’re a great family, and we do plan to add a few investors,” he said, pointing to some others who have expressed interest publicly. Mickey Maurer, the 75-year-old co-owner of IBJ Media and board chairman of The National Bank of Indianapolis, had initially considered putting some money in the Eleven. By February, though, that interest had waned. According to Maurer, he had yet to see a written proposal from Ozdemir, and worried about the long-term investment required. He made a point, however, to call Ozdemir “the kind of guy who could pull it off.”

In fact, Ozdemir is probably the only person able and willing to pull it off here. But in that final interview, it was clear the losses were weighing on him. Ozdemir acknowledged that the Eleven’s MLS bid was slipping. “We’re going to make one last run at it,” he said. “Something has to change. We just need a light at the end of the tunnel.”

A few days later, Ozdemir stood at a lectern inside Lucas Oil Stadium and announced to a group of fans and reporters that the team would would kick off its home season on March 31 there. Behind him, on large LED screens throughout the venue, a hopeful two-word slogan flashed. Ozdemir must have known it was overly optimistic, but the message perfectly captured his gift for selling the long shot, the thing that may not come to fruition: Eleven Forever.

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