Indy Eleven owner Ozdemir wants to build soccer dream in Indy

Indy Eleven owner Ozdemir wants to build soccer dream in Indy
Indy Eleven owner Ozdemir wants to build soccer dream in Indy
Indy Eleven owner Ozdemir wants to build soccer dream in Indy

Two hours before an Indy Eleven soccer match, team owner Ersal Ozdemir works the crowd in the IUPUI parking lots surrounding Michael Carroll Stadium. The owner hangs out with soccer supporters, sips on a local beer and plays corn hole. He introduces himself to some, but most of the tailgaters seem to know him already as the man who brought Indianapolis professional soccer.

"I just want to tell you I'm proud of what you're doing for this community,” said one female fan. “I can't wait to see the new stadium you're working on. If you need people to vote, I'll gladly go petition.”

“I'm going to give you a hug," said Ozdemir, as he embraces the woman.

In their second season, the Indy Eleven are a hit, filling Michael Carroll Stadium with a North American Soccer League leading average of 9,896 fans. That strong support is despite obvious stadium deficiencies - like no locker rooms, and temporary restrooms, concessions and souvenir stands.

"Those are really basic stuff that any business needs to be successful,” said Ozdemir. “We know the business will be successful. It's a matter of having the right venue so at least that we can actually continue to prosper."

The biggest problem playing at a facility built specifically for track & field is no concourse for protection in bad weather. In stormy weather, the stadium must be completely evacuated. The track lanes also separate fans from the playing field and the majority of seats are at one end of the stadium - the track finish line.

“Right now, it's kind of very disconnected,” said Ozdemir, surveying the stadium just before the match. “The atmosphere, there’s not intimacy, none."

Ozdemir wants to build a new $82 million stadium, preferably downtown. The new stadium would seat 18,000, paid for by taxes captured at the stadium and at a downtown hotel being developed in the Illinois Building by Ozdemir's Keystone Realty Group. The stadium failed to gain enough support in the 2015 Indiana Legislature. But the Indy Eleven are prepared to try again.

"The stadium really becomes an important part of the experience,” said Ozdemir, “not just what's on the field. The whole experience in how you feel - safe, clean, bright, bathrooms, concessions, the concessions stuff - I felt like if we didn't do this also now for soccer, I feel in 10, 20 years it will get more expensive enough that it will price us out because we are a small market."

At his downtown office in the Majestic Building, Ozdemir runs the Indy Eleven and his primary businesses, Keystone Realty Group and Keystone Construction Corporation. He started the construction and real estate development companies in 2002.

"It's amazing that you build it and 20 years you come back and say, ‘You know what? I was part of that project.’ It's hard to explain that satisfaction basically,” said Ozdemir.

Keystone Realty Group has developed projects all over Central Indiana, including Butler University’s new parking garage, the University of Indianapolis Healthplex, plus Sophia Square and the Olivia in Carmel, both residential and retail mixed used projects named after his daughters.

"Buildings are a large piece of art if it's done properly,” said Ozdemir, who serves on the Board of Governor for the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “We also have to be thoughtful because we live in Indianapolis. We don't have unlimited resources, so I always try to be fiscally responsible. But at the same time, how do I make it a little more unique, a little bit nicer so people go, 'Cool! I like this.'"

Ozdemir is a Turkish immigrant, the son of a construction company owner in Mersin, a large port city on the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey.

“I had this passion when I was growing up,” said Ozdemir. “I had these ideas to build buildings. I like tall buildings. I wanted to build these tall buildings, the taller the better."

His passion for soccer also came early. Ozdemir, the third of four boys in his family, grew up playing soccer in the street outside the six story building where he lived.

“You know when the cars come you get off to the sidewalk, then you go back,” said Ozdemir. “I'm not joking about it. We would put two shoes on each end. Those are your [goal] posts. We had a lot of fights about was it out, was it in."

Ozdemir came to the United States just over 20 years ago for college. He graduated from Purdue as a civil engineer in 1997 and decided to stay in Indiana, not a popular decision with his family.

"If I was going to leave, because of my perception from them, I was going to leave right when I graduate, just move, start something, commit to somewhere and make it home and stay there,” said Ozdemir. “I was going to stay here permanently and this is home."

Ozdemir compares his vision for soccer to the Irsay and Simon families, the owners of the Colts and Pacers. He sees himself as another local professional team owner committed to Indianapolis and looking for city and state assistance in building and operating a facility to keep the team successful. Ozdemir doesn't expect to make money on the Eleven. He just hopes to eventually break even.

"What my goal will be is if I stop losing money, that will be the greatest day," said Ozdemir. “So when you're losing money, the last thing you want to do is to do something people don't want and appreciate. It sucks. It's one thing that you lose money but people love and say thank you for doing this and it makes you feel good. You keep working harder. One thing that you lose money and then nobody wants it, then you go, 'What the hell am I doing here?'"

Ozdemir believes Indianapolis shares his passion for soccer. He even wants to add a women's pro team in a new stadium. He says he turned down a chance to buy a Major League Soccer team in another city.

"In your heart you believe that this will be good in the long term,” said Ozdemir. “A few naysayers will try to - you're thoughtful about that - but you start basically shutting that off because you can't let that distract you. You have to have some passion and have vision that at some point it will get to a point that you won't lose any more because soccer will grow. TV rights will go up. You'll be more in mainstream than you are now, and then hopefully you'll stop doing that. But there are no guarantees. This is one business where you don't know if you'll ever get there."

The owner of the Indy Eleven is a builder, who wants to build his soccer dream in his adopted hometown.

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