Jeff Belskus is used to deafening roars – from the car engines at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, not from the fans at Carroll Stadium during Indy Eleven games.
Between the IndyCar Series and NASL soccer, “there are more similarities than differences,” said Belskus, who this week was named president of Indy Eleven as one of the club’s guiding lights, Peter Wilt, relinquished the position and his full-time job as the club’s general manager.
“The products are vastly different,” the Indiana native told NASL.com. “But at the end of the day they are both live outdoor events that involve ticket sales, sponsorship, and operations. What they’ve been doing in soccer are all things that we’ve been doing in motorsports.”
Indy, which is preparing for its third season in the league, is in transition. Wilt is eventually leaving to focus on efforts to bring an NASL team to Chicago. Months before Wilt’s official announcement, the club named Tim Hankinson as its new coach. The roster has undergone significant changes, the most recent being the signing of Jamaican international defender Lovel Palmer
In the insular business world of Indianapolis, Belskus and Ersal Ozdemir, the club’s owner, were well acquainted. And with Wilt’s departure in the wind, Ozdemir approached Belskus last November after the motorsports executive retired after 27 years at the Brickyard.
“He knew Peter was making plans to move on, he was starting his planning,” Belskus said. “We started a conversation that led up to this week. In Indianapolis, there’s just are not that many sports and entertainment executives walking around. The added benefit is that I’m so deeply integrated in this community and know the landscape here. In addition, Ersal was looking for mature leadership for the organization.”
Belskus is the first to confess that he is on a steep soccer learning curve. He said a full-time replacement for Wilt as general manager is probably seven to nine months in the future.
“Peter and I have developed a good working relationship, his soccer knowledge is incredibly important to me,” Belskus said. “At end of day, I’m not a soccer expert and I know that. The history he has is very important, and I look forward to working with him.
“I’m excited about taking it all in, I’ve never run a professional soccer franchise, but I’m a soccer fan. I know about the game and I’m just excited to learn more and to continue to grow and develop. One reason Ersal separated the jobs of president and general manager is that as president I’m going to need a GM who has the soccer knowledge. That job will be a lot more soccer specific than it has been.”
Ozdemir’s decision to hire Belskus has a strategic purpose: Supervise the club in its quest for a new soccer stadium. Recent efforts, while showing promise early, ultimately was shalted on the shore of the Indiana State Legislature. Job 1 for Belskus is to move that project forward as quickly and intelligently as possible.
“The stadium part of this is a big part of the deal,” Belskus said. “Our attempts to locate a permanent home have been well publicized. I have experience dealing with the state legislature and mine are all valuable contacts. We want a permanent home and I like our chances, but there’s nothing for sure when dealing with legislative bodies. Indianapolis is a committed sports community and understands the value of pro soccer.”