Inaugurating The Mike

In some sense, the actual game was the most important piece of Saturday night’s events. But it’s worth some time to discuss the first ever home game for the Indy Eleven. How was the stadium, what was the atmosphere like, and how did all the plans work out? We’ll talk about the Eleven match (and other NASL results) in my next post.

Indy Eleven prepare to take the field in front of the Brickyard Battallion, Inaugural Match

The short answer was that the team did a great job creating a fan experience, especially if you allow some leeway for a few rough edges for a first game. The atmosphere was engaged, happy, and surprisingly focused. Details after the break…

Our Night

Saturday was warm and windy, with bright sun and a few high clouds. Not a bad April day for a game! My wife and I decided to grab dinner before heading to the stadium, but to plan for an early arrival nevertheless. We had a light dinner at Rook, in Fountain Square, which we’d been wanting to try. (Short review: the food was excellent, and it’s well worth a visit.) It was pretty empty (we arrived before 5:00) but one of the two families there was also wearing their Indy Eleven gear. Fountain Square isn’t all that close to Carroll Stadium, so it was a bit surprising to see fans gathering that far out.

Fans tailgating before the inaugural Indy Eleven match on 12 April 2014.

We drove over to the stadium around 5:30. Traffic was busy but manageable, and I was surprised how easy it was to get into the parking lots. We parked in Lot D, just south of the Campus Center. We could see that there was already a long line to get into the stadium, so we decided to walk through the tailgaters for a bit. The BYB tent was the center of the festivities, with a good crowd buzzing around and a lot of happy faces.

As the clock reached 6:00, we decided to head in to the stadium. The lines were long but moving quickly, and getting in wasn’t difficult at all. We walked around the stadium a bit, then settled into our seats for the evening. Our home in section 108 gave us a good view of the action, though we were at the wrong end for both goals.

Indy Eleven kick off against Carolina RailHawks, Inaugural Match

We decided that we’d stay in the stadium after the game to let parking clear out a bit. Somehow I’d missed the news about the fireworks, so it was a quite pleasant surprise to see that we would have some entertainment as we relaxed after the game.

The Pitch and the Stadium

I know one thing: I don’t even want to imagine how complicated it was to start a new team and get Carroll Stadium ready for 11,000 fans. Fans who saw Carroll for the first time on Saturday night won’t really understand how unready it was for a professional-quality fan experience. No concessions, no restrooms, no ticketing or access control, no PA… just a host of logistical issues that the team had to work out — while also doing all the hard work to will the team into existence.

The good news is that the pitch is a good quality pitch. The FieldTurf Revolution surface was just installed in 2012, so it’s as good as any artificial turf the teams will play on. The challenge is that the stadium was primarily designed as a track and field stadium. The track pushes the north and south seating areas far back from the pitch, isolating the fans a bit from the action.

View of Suites at Carroll Stadium, Indy Eleven Inaugural Game

The stadium itself is rather old (built for the Pan Am games in 1982) and worn. The stands used to be pretty rusty, and the surrounding plazas were quite worn as well. I haven’t seen the locker room and press facilities but I’m sure they didn’t start out in good shape either. The team put a lot of effort and care into prepping the stadium for the season; fresh paint is just the start, and the banners and tarps (covering seats unusable for soccer) give the stadium a much fresher feel.

The added stands help quite a bit too. The suites added on the north sideline work out much better than I expected; they look quite appropriate, don’t isolate the stadium from New York street, and hopefully offer a fairly decent experience for the fans. The east and west grandstands work out really well — they put fans much closer to the pitch and add a lot more energy to the proceedings (especially the Brickhouse on the west end).

East Stand, Carroll Stadium, filled for Inaugural Indy Eleven gameThe Experience

Here too the Eleven were starting at a deficit. With no concessions or restrooms to work with — not really even any running water — there’s a lot that they had to add. The modular concessions they added looked reasonably effective, and they had them widely distributed around the stadium. Service seemed to be slow, and lines were formidable all night. The team clearly understood the issue, and have committed to making changes even for this week’s game. I’m sure it’ll run more smoothly as the season goes on, but it’s not an optimal situation. The restroom issues were solved with large banks of porta-potties. The good news is that they were effective, with no waiting. Still, as with the concessions, it’ll never be a great situation.

Fans buying food at Indy Eleven Inaugural GameThe seating worked out as well as bench bleachers could. It’s pretty tight; stadium design has changed in 30+ years to allow for more room for fans. On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to have the crowd massed together, and there was definitely a feeling of camaraderie and bonhomie.Carroll also has an odd design (probably optimized for track) in that the tallest part of the main stand is about even with the east 18-yard box. That’s likely why the team put the Brickhouse on the west end, as it adds more energy to the less-populated side of the stadium.

Carroll Stadium (which has quickly picked up “The Mike” as its nickname) has some inherent positives. The location works out pretty well — close to downtown — though it’s a bit long to walk from most of the downtown pubs. The ample parking and tailgating space is a major bonus. It’s compact and easy to get around, which was handy when searching for the best food lines. And it’s probably just about the right capacity — surprisingly! If the team had chosen Butler Bowl (the other likely choice), its 7,500 seats would have left a lot of fans out of the action.

As an aside: I’ve seen some people — mostly not soccer fans — ask about Lucas Oil Stadium. It would be a difficult choice for a few reasons, starting with economics. The team would have to spend a lot more money to operate there, and the difference would seriously eat into operating income. Moreover, the energy and excitement from 11,000 fans would be lost in a stadium sized for five times more people. It’s never going to be a good match — not for MLS, and certainly not for NASL.

Brickyard Battalion raise a banner following the Star Spangled Banner, Indy Eleven Inaugural Match

The gameday schedule worked out just fine. The pregame festivities were a bit extended, but that’s only appropriate for an inaugural match. Using the 11th Indiana reenactors as the color guard was a nice touch. The video screen worked out quite well, and added a modern dimension to the older stadium. The only game operations flaws I noticed were that the scoreboards are a bit limited, and the “ball managers” (i.e., the ball kids) will benefit from experience and maybe some more training.

The Brickyard Battalion did a great job too. Their banner was quite cool, and the flags and signs were spot-on perfect. They were obviously fired up for the game, and sang the whole time, and the drumline sounded good without being too forced. It seemed like they had fun the whole time, and I hope so — because they certainly generated a lot of fun and excitement for everyone else in the stadium.

The Conclusion

Getting 11,000 fans to the inaugural game was a matter of generating awareness, excitement, and of tapping into soccer fans’ desire for a team of their own. The more important questions center around getting a full stadium in September and October. Hardcore soccer fans are one thing, but attracting casual fans — families, spouses, and the curious — is what will really grow the team.

The Eleven clearly know this. It’s why they’ve put so much effort into the stadium. It’s why they’ve done ‘non-soccerish’ things like creating a mascot and setting up a family fun zone. It’s why they’ve capped season ticket sales. And it’s why they so clearly are working hard to fix the less-polished aspects of the stadium experience.

The most exciting piece of this is that the team is clearly trying for something far beyond survival or mere viability. Whether the ambition is an eventual MLS team or an enlarged and competitive NASL, they’re clearly trying to build something that will last and grow.

Sunset over Brickyard Battalion, Carroll Stadium, Inaugural Indy Eleven Match

What’s certain though is that they’ve created a fun and entertaining gameday experience. We had a really good time and are looking forward to the next match. Now, if we can just get that first Eleven win!

 

 

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