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Local residents getting kick from pro soccer

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The regulars were in full voice Sunday on one side of The Blind Pig in Greenwood.

With the jukebox blaring, bar patrons were having loud conversations with one another while watching NASCAR and ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on big-screen TVs.

On the other side of the bar, however, a different scene unfolded. About 25 soccer fans, many decked out in jerseys and other merchandise from new pro soccer franchise Indy Eleven, were watching a live webcast of the team’s latest match in the North American Soccer League at Edmonton, Alberta.

Fans cheered and jeered with every shot on goal and turnover, saving their loudest outburst for the final minute when Brazilian star Kleberson drove a low shot into the back of the net to give Indy a dramatic 1-0 victory.

It seems the excitement accompanying the new team’s arrival on the area sports scene has extended to Johnson County.

The team has enjoyed tremendous popularity thus far. Playing at IUPUI’s Michael Carroll Stadium, the Eleven have sold out each of their six home matches, drawing nearly 10,500 fans per contest. A notable feature of these matches has been the presence of the Brickyard Battalion, 3,000 extremely vocal fans who basically have a big party in the temporary stands behind the goals.

These fans provide much of the atmosphere at the stadium, leading chants and songs and generally keeping the noise level high throughout the contest.

The Battalion actually is made up of a number of satellite groups from around greater Indianapolis, and one of those is the Southie Brickers, a Greenwood-based group of about 70 fans, many of whom were present at The Blind Pig on Sunday.

Greenwood resident Tyler Drake, 23, is a founder of the group and said during Sunday’s webcast that support for the team on the southside is strong.

“The team had an event in early March, and we filled the bar here with 70 or 80 people for a question-and-answer session with (team president) Peter Wilt and (vice president) Tom Dunmore,” he said. “That’s when I realized we had to have a southside chapter and a

way to get the fans down here more involved.”

It was the team president who encouraged Drake in his efforts. A veteran of sports management, including service as the first general manager of Major League’s Soccer’s Chicago Fire, Wilt has run the club for more than 18 months, traveling around the state, and central Indiana in particular, to promote Indy Eleven to any and all listeners. He has visited each of the state’s 92 counties and conducted countless meetings and speaking engagements on behalf of pro soccer in Indianapolis.

Last week, Wilt spoke early one morning to the Perry Township Kiwanis Club at an IHOP near Greenwood Park Mall. Wilt shared with the group how he capped season ticket sales at 7,500, more than three times his initial goal, so a greater number of fans could be exposed to the sport via walk-up and single-game ticket sales.

He also shared how a meeting last year at The Gathering Place, Community Church of Greenwood’s large sports facility, brought a few hundred people out and convinced him about the market for pro soccer in Johnson County.

“There’s a real soccer audience on the southside,” Wilt said. “There’s a myth that soccer in this area only exists in Hamilton County, but it’s really all over.”

The club reports that of the 7,500 season ticket holders, 295 have Johnson County ZIP codes.

The breakdown of fans who are interested in the team spans three primary demographics, Wilt said. These are millennials (defined as people aged 18-35); new Americans or area residents with international backgrounds; and youth soccer families.

While millennials make up the overwhelming majority of fans in The Brickyard Battalion, Southie Brickers and those on hand at The Blind Pig on Sunday, Wilt estimates they make up about 30 percent of the overall base. He admitted they may be the most important group.

“If you get the millennials, they will create a brand of edginess and a cool factor, and the rest of the demographics will want to aspire to it,” Wilt said said. “The kids themselves will want to be like their older brothers, and the adults will want to say ‘I’m still cool. I’m still young. I can go have a beer at a game and have a good time.’”

Both Drake and Justin Wiese, a 32-year old Whiteland resident on the board of the Brickyard Battalion, said the audience participation factor among soccer fans is a big pull for people in their age group.

“It’s a huge participation thing,” Wiese said. “You go to a Colts game and it’s all canned, you know, ‘1-2-3 first down.’ It’s much more organic here, and you know that the team hears you and you can have much more of an impact on the game. These players are much more accessible.

“You can lean over and touch the net (on the goal) from The Brickyard Battalion if you are in the first row. That’s how close we are.”

While millennials and youth soccer families in other cities have sometimes had conflicts over issues like fan language and other less demure behaviors, Wiese said there really should be no issue with everyone getting along.

“There’s a growing number of people who want to be in the Brickyard Battalion and do that cool stuff,” Wiese said. “But there are also a number of families who want to be in the other stands and just enjoy that environment and say, ‘Oh look, there are the crazies down there having fun.’”

Dave Schafer, 52, is a Greenwood resident whose interest in the sport stems largely from his children’s involvement with youth soccer. He purchased a pair of season tickets following the presentation by the club at The Gathering Place in Greenwood, but he knows the sport is still making inroads to the more mature and suburban demographic, especially in terms of following a professional team closely.

“For most people in our age group, there has to be some connection to the game for you to have that interest,” Schafer said. “I’ve seen a few people just kind of pick up the game from being exposed to it, but most I know have children or grandkids involved. During the World Cup, I spent a number of lunchtimes talking to colleagues and explaining the game to them because they were interested but had no clue what the game involved.

“Soccer has gotten bigger, but you still have to make an effort to get involved in following it. It’s not on the front page of the paper or on TV every night.”

Wilt said youth soccer families make up 60 percent of soccer’s fan base with the club, with New Americans comprising the final 10 percent. He also said that the rural market may be the toughest threshold for the game to cross in terms of fan interest.

He remains convinced that support of the groups like the one that watched the game in Greenwood will be instrumental to it succeeding in this community as a spectator sport.

“The supporters themselves are the energy of the team,” he said. “Any sports team is tribal. You’re trying to get an emotional connection and to look at the athletes on the field as representatives of the community. Our fans feel like they are part of it. That’s what we want.”

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