Tom Dunmore talks to some of Indy Pro Soccer’s first fans about their love of world soccer and their excitement for 2014

When Bill Baugh was growing up in the 1970s in Michigan City, Indiana, he says that “nobody that I knew played soccer. I never even knew another kid that owned a soccer ball, let alone knew how to play and followed the game.”

It’s hard to imagine that scenario today, with perhaps over 100,000 kids participating in the sport across Indiana - more than 60,000 are registered with the Indiana Soccer Association alone. And soccer fans across America, including at its crossroads, are tuning in to the sport in ever-growing numbers on television.

The world’s game has come to the state of Indiana in a myriad of different ways, from youth soccer participation to fans following live streams of faraway games on the internet. By looking at a few of Indy Pro Soccer’s first fans, we can glimpse some of the stories that make “The World’s Game, Indiana’s Team” a tagline with real merit to it.

Falling For Soccer

Everyone has a different story of how they fell in love with the global game, and the excitement about having a pro soccer team to follow in Indiana is palpable. Let’s go back to Bill Baugh, who despite being blissfully unaware of the world of soccer as a child in Indiana, has already reserved season tickets for his family for Indy Pro Soccer’s inaugural NASL season in 2014.

In his case, Baugh’s expanding passion for the sport comes from his marriage to a Brazilian: she introduced him to the team from her home city of Belo Horizonte, Atlético Mineiro, and Baugh was able to attend games and sample the atmosphere. “It’s an amazing experience to watch a game live in Brazil,” Baugh exudes. “Especially when playing cross-town rival Cruzeiro - the stadium was literally rocking!”

Now Baugh can’t wait for a slice of that passion to come to Indiana. “It’s going to be great to watch this team being built from the ground up and the fan base get screaming crazy when games finally start,” Baugh says. “This is fantastic for area soccer fans, and sports fans in general.”

In contrast to Baugh, in the case of many fans in Indianapolis the cosmopolitan appeal of soccer is something they were born into. Ranko Radlovic, a 30-year-old IT professional, grew up in Serbia and stood with the “hardcore fans” of Partizan Belgrade starting when he was 13, inheriting his support from his father. “I’m very excited about Indianapolis having that soccer atmosphere,” he declares. “Indy is a great sport city, and it’s finally getting the best sport.”

The World’s Game

For other fans of Indy Pro Soccer, their connection to the global game came from being able to watch the World Cup on television, an event that since it was held in the United States in 1994, has led more and more Americans to discover the beautiful game on its biggest stage from the comfort of their living rooms.

Tessa Schlickbernd, a 30-year-old optometrist from Nebraska who lives in Plainfield, watched the closing stages of the 2006 World Cup and it left her “hooked ever since” on soccer. She has become a fan of Bayern Munich, tapping into her German heritage to support what she calls “a fantastically run and organized team.”

Schlickbernd has been an armchair soccer fan to-date, but that will change in spring 2014. “Being the big soccer fan that I am, I am ashamed to admit that I have never seen a pro soccer match in person,” she says, eagerly looking forward to Indy Pro Soccer kicking off. “I cheer in my living room as if I were in the stands - I can’t wait to put my vocal cords to work for real!”

The impact of television on interest in the global game in Indiana is evident in the responses to the Indy Pro Soccer fan survey held in the fall of 2012. From the almost 1,000 responses to the question asking “Who Is Your Favorite Current Soccer Team?”, it’s clear that broadcasts of the English Premier League have created fanbases in the state for the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Manchester United fan Brett Heald, for example, became a fan of the English team “because of the ease in being able to see their games.” He had grown up playing youth soccer in the 1980s when his dad began coaching in the new PIKE league in Indianapolis and like many others, Heald became a fan of Manchester United from afar some years ago, when he was able to watch the team on television. Now he is “beyond excited to have a local team to cheer for.”

Charting Indy Soccer Fans

The below chart shows the top ten club teams Indy Pro Soccer fans indicated they follow from around the world:

Interestingly, alongside the four EPL teams and the giants of Spain and Germany respectively (Barcelona and Bayern Munich; sorry, Real Madrid) are four MLS teams. The formation of Major League Soccer in 1996 has given American fans domestic teams to root for, and it’s no surprise that the two closest to Indiana - the Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew - garner the most support, along with the presumed impact of David Beckham at the LA Galaxy and the appeal of the Seattle Sounders, who boast the largest crowds in the league.

Chicago Fire fan Peter Evans has been following MLS since its early days, and the Crown Point, Indiana native believes that “Soccer teams are living, breathing representations of their city/neighborhood.” He thinks Indianapolis has lacked something without its own pro soccer team and hardcore fanbase, and the chance to be part of the active supporters of a team in Indy is something he’s looking forward to being part of. “The supporters section is the city’s heartbeat, its soul,” he says. “I love my hometown. I love Indianapolis.”

For Columbus Crew fan Johnny Hall, who watched his team win MLS Cup in Los Angeles in 2008, the chance to watch soccer in Indy every week over a three hour drive to Columbus “works better for me.” Hall, born in Indianapolis and raised in Martinsville, Indiana, says that though he’ll always be a fan of the Crew, having an Indy team to follow “just makes enjoying soccer that much more special.”

After all, Hall concludes, “It’s always better to root for your “home” team, right?”

The world’s game, now at home in Indy.

Tom Dunmore is a Chicago-based writer and editor of XI Quarterly. You can follow him on Twitter @tomdunmore

  • Quaidox

    Name and logo idea…..

  • Quaid929

    Name and logo idea….