Sport is a vital element of our city’s composition, especially basketball and motor racing. Yet soccer is rapidly emerging from the local cloud of sporting anonymity. The “world game” has already touched the Hoosier sporting psyche and the only professional outdoor soccer team in the state is housed on West 16th Street in Kuntz Stadium, the home of the Indiana Blast.
Michael Martinez in the air, Mark Allen on the right
The Indiana Blast are entering their seventh year in Indianapolis and their fifth year in the United Soccer League’s (USL) professional A-League — one level below Major League Soccer (MLS). They compete against 18 other teams around the USA and Canada, including El Paso, Minnesota, Calgary, Vancouver, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The A-League is the highest of the six separate leagues that make up the USL. It attracts more than 1 million fans every year. The USL spans 37 states, four Canadian provinces and is the second largest organization of sports leagues in the country behind Minor League Baseball. The sport that rules the rest of the world is becoming big business over here. But such is the dominance of other sports in Indianapolis that the question arises: How does soccer compete for attention? According to Indiana Blast President Kim Morris, the answer is hard work and lots of it. “It’s a tough market,” she says. “There are so many ways to spend your entertainment dollar in Indianapolis. We are just one option, but a good one.” Blast coach Jimmy McDonald agrees that competition for sporting sponsorship and media space is fierce. “We have to fight for media attention,” he says, “but we do very well … I think the fans want soccer here. By coming to the games … in the thousands they are proving that.” Pricing is important. Where tickets to basketball and football games can carve a hole in your wallet, Indiana Blast games are relatively inexpensive: $9 for adults and $5 for children. Kuntz Stadium is smaller than Conseco Fieldhouse and the RCA Dome and therefore allows the viewer to feel closer to the action. The stars of the show are also very accessible. Many Blast players are deeply involved in teaching at youth training camps and other, numerous promotions organized by MorSports, the company that owns a majority share in the Blast. Happy birthday Believe it or not, Kim Morris was given the Indiana Blast soccer franchise as a 40th birthday present by her husband, Alex, in August 1997. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” she laughs. “I am so glad he did. Diamonds are way too boring.” “I’m not a flowers type of guy,” Alex Morris adds. Alex Morris purchased the Blast at the end of their first season and, not content with his wife simply watching, he gave her the fledgling team, transforming a “soccer mom” into a “soccer boss.” “When I graduated from North Central High School, soccer was not something that was widely played,” Kim Morris says. “It was my children that introduced the game to me and I love it.” The Blast played their first season (1997) in the semi-professional D3-League. They subsequently won the 1998 USISL Organization of the Year award and were promoted to the professional A-League the year after. Ever since their step up in the soccer world, the going has been tough. Despite falling a single win short of the 2001 playoffs, the 2002 season was not successful. They won only six matches out of 28 games and finished near the bottom. “Last season was the most challenging season we have had on the field. We lost about eight games that went into overtime,” Kim Morris says. In a soccer season that runs from late-April to mid-October, the Blast were mathematically unable to make the playoffs as early as mid-July. However, this lack of success did not deter the fans from attending matches. “What came out of that was a tremendous amount of community support. Lots of people still came to cheer us along,” she says. The opening two league games for the 2003 season have not gone well. The Blast sit last in the Western Conference Central Division, with away losses to Richmond and Virginia Beach by 3-0 and 2-0, respectively. Coach McDonald attributes the losses to injuries suffered by key players prior to the start of the season. Despite struggling on the field, home crowd attendance has consistently risen by around 10-15 percent over the last four seasons and now averages around 3,000 per game. “We’ve got a great following of fans and we expect this to be substantially greater this year,” Kim Morris says. The team The Indiana Blast are hoping for a successful 2003 on and off the field. A revamped squad and the return of their former coach, former Canadian International representative Jimmy McDonald, has buoyed the team. “I just keep telling them to forget about the last two seasons and concentrate on this one, to look to the future,” McDonald says. “Winning only 14 games in two seasons is not enough. It’s been tough for the players and coaches to come back from a disappointing year. It’s a real challenge.” McDonald, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, spent the last two seasons directing the Blast’s summer camp program and has returned to coaching with renewed vigor. “There is a lot more pressure coaching, and I have to manage my time better, but I’m ready for it.” McDonald’s solutions to the disappointments of previous seasons are hard work, camaraderie, tactical knowledge and bringing in new blood. “The talent at the Combine [tryouts] was really good — the best I have seen in my years here. They showed a lot more promise than I have seen before.” As a result the Blast signed up a club record of five new players, including a surprise recruit, Tanzanian-born Indiana University student Mike Ngonyani. Also new to the Blast’s list are Justin Lucas, Michael Martinez, Matt Stonehouse and Ari Dolegowski. Stonehouse joined the Blast from Midwestern State University where he was a college teammate of fellow Blast player Jeffrey Samples. The Blast player list contains 23 players — 16 local and seven internationals from as far away as Ecuador, Brazil, England and South Africa. Although the A-League is a professional league, most of the players have other jobs to supplement their income. “During the season they play for us. Some go back to their home countries and play there. Others work during the off season. Some coach,” MorSports CFO Alex Morris says. Alex Morris was reluctant to give specific figures for player salaries. “It really varies. Some guys play here for a little less because they want to stay here. Some guys we have to bring in from overseas,” he says. But a sure-fire indicator of the wealth of an athlete can be found in the parking lot. A quick glance around the lot reveals modest sedans and the odd SUV — a far cry from the Ferraris, BMWs and Mercedes of pro footballers or basketball players. Top soccer players in Europe, such as Manchester United’s David Beckham and Real Madrid’s Luis Figo, earn in excess of $150,000 per week. Judging by the car park, A-League soccer is not quite at that level just yet. But give it time.