It wasn’t that long ago that Jovan Chavez was kicking a soccer ball around Breese Stevens Field … though it wasn’t technically allowed.
“I used to live on Jenifer Street and my brother, my friends, they would come over on weekends and we would hop the fence at Breese Stevens and just shoot around,” he says. “We never got caught, never got yelled at, there was no security at that time so it was this perfect, I think, two-year period where I was hopping the fence and we would just shoot around for just an hour or two.”
Chavez has lived in Madison since 2006, when he moved from the Chicago suburbs to get his audio engineering degree at Madison Media Institute. He ended up not pursuing a full-time career in music production, though, at least in part because Madison had quickly become his adopted hometown.
“Ultimately it was Madison kind of pulling me here,” he says. “I started to build strong relationships here.”
Chavez will be back at Breese Stevens in a professional capacity, though not on the field — last week he was named Madison Pro Soccer’s Latino Outreach Manager. It’ll be his job to help the team live out its stated commitment to be a team for the entire community.
The team, being started as an inaugural member of USL League One by Madison Mallards owners Big Top Entertainment, brought on longtime professional soccer exec Peter Wilt as general manager, and recently announced former MLS assistant coach Daryl Shore as the head coach and veteran Jamaican midfielder Don Smart as its first player. The team will officially unveil its name, colors and crest at an event on November 18.
“The mission is, we want to build championships on the field and in the community,” Wilt said in an interview with Madison365 earlier this year. “We want to make an impact with the diverse community. The targeted audience is youth soccer families, young adults, and new Americans.”
Bringing Chavez on to reach out specifically to Latino communities in and around Madison is part of that commitment.
“Obviously (we) recognize that there is diversity here in Madison, and the Latino diversity is obviously really strong and present and that’s a group that we want to communicate with and connect with and let them know that this isn’t just a team for the downtown crowd or the university students,” Chavez says.
Chavez says he’s spent his first week on the job leveraging connections he already has like Literacy Network, where he has volunteered, or La Communidad publisher Dante Viscarra, which whom Chavez plays recreational soccer. He’s also made new connections like Centro Hispano and Omega School founder Oscar Mireles — all with the idea of getting Madison Pro Soccer players out into the community, and members of the community into the stadium.
Chavez knows there are challenges in building fan loyalty for a new team, especially among soccer-loving people who already have a favorite team of their own — and who know enough about the game that they’ll be able to tell whether this is serious.
It will be, Chavez says.
“The target is to put a competitive team on the field and I think when you do that, the community and the city recognizes that we’re trying to be competitive, we’re trying to put a winning team on the field,” he says. “Everyone has their favorite team … Maybe they’re from out of the country and now they’re coming into Madison and why should they care about this local team when they’ve been rooting for their team in their native country? So that’s going to be a challenge, but ultimately we’re excited to get them as a fan, to have them join us, because we’re bringing that competitive team. We’re taking this very seriously. We’re excited about the product that’s going to be out on the field. When you show full intent to create that connection with them to show them that this is something for them to be excited about that can be your new team, that you can join a new group of brothers and sisters that are excited about soccer in Madison. They’re going to see that.”
Chavez also hopes to connect the team with young people and youth soccer families all around Dane County — a kind of connection he never had as a youth soccer player growing up in the mid-90s.
“I did youth soccer and as far as professional soccer, it definitely wasn’t on my radar,” he says. “The only thing I knew of professional soccer was the Mexican soccer teams, the club teams, América, Chivas, Monterrey, and then the European teams that my older cousins were fans of like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester United. But there was no local team that I saw. I knew later on that there was other indoor professional soccer teams. And then as the MLS came, that still didn’t really pull me because again, I didn’t feel like I was a part of that community.”
Chavez says he’s interested in hearing from any Latino community groups who’d like to partner with the club.
“There’s a lot of options for us. Whatever they’re interested in and they feel that the group or the members are going to want to be a part of, I’m all ears,” he says. “I’m not excluding anyone and if there’s someone that has any ideas, I’m definitely to open to suggestions.”
Big Top Entertainment is no stranger to creating both a winning culture and a unique fan experience, regularly breaking attendance records with the Mallards as well as winning league titles. Soccer has a different kind of fan base, but Chavez thinks there’s enough soccer culture in Madison to build a proper base of supporters for at least 14 home league games, plus US Open Cup tournament games and — one hopes — playoff games.
“With the history that (Big Top has) with the success that they have with Mallards, they clearly know how to create that fan experience and engagement that is necessary,” Chavez says. “But now you’re adding the soccer, futbol element to it that is going to be maybe new to a lot of people, but I think they’re gonna quickly realize that there’s definitely a strong connection here, a culture here, and think, ‘I want to be a part of this. I want to be a part of this local movement, this local fan base.’ And they’re going to see support groups coming down chanting, singing, drumming with smoke bombs coming down East Washington. They’re gonna turn around and go, ‘This doesn’t look like a simple soccer game. I wonder what the heck is going on in there?’”
The team hopes what’s going on in there is a lot of winning — but also a lot of excitement generated by a diverse, energetic crowd.
“We’re looking to bring a competitive team on the field that can start winning right away and that’s gonna show everyone that we’re obviously really serious about this,” he says. “I think with that, you’re going to make those connections and the community is going to want to see what kind of team that we have going.”