I played on the very first Mt. Horeb High School soccer team in 1991, and I’ve been a Major League Soccer fan since the league’s founding in 1996, despite the league’s awkward early attempts to “Americanize” the game. I’ve also been a supporter, however casual, of the Chicago Fire ever since 1998 when they joined MLS as an expansion team and won the double — both the MLS Cup and the US Open Cup. So I was quite excited to hear the recent announcement that professional soccer was coming to Madison in the form of a yet-to-be-named United Soccer League Division 3 team, brought by Mallards parent company Big Top Entertainment, to be led by former Chicago Fire president Peter Wilt. Wilt has started several professional teams in his long career, which has also included an attempt to bring the MLS to Milwaukee. Wilt sat down with me at Jamerica on Willy Street, a short walk from his office at Breese Stevens Field, to talk Madison, soccer, supporters and more.
Robert Chappell: Welcome to Madison! How’s it been so far?
Peter Wilt: Amazing. It’s funny, because I’ve lived in Wisconsin my whole adult life, it’s going on four decades, and I’ve been to Madison often, but I’ve never really immersed myself in the city until now. It’s a progressive city with a lot of young people that take a lot of pride in the community. There’s a good diversity of people, restaurants, culture. Just the walk over here, I’d never been down Williamson Street before, and it’s a couple of blocks away from my office at Breese Stevens.
It was remarkable how many places I said, “I have to go there. Oh, I have to go there. Got to go there. Got to go there.” That’s kind of every day for me in Madison. Restaurants and bars in particular, but also various types of shops.
One of the first things I’m doing, and this is something that worked real well for me in Indianapolis, when I started that team, is meeting morning, noon, and night with influencers, generally, in the community. So that I can hear from them what they would like to see from the professional soccer team in town. I can also share what our vision is. By doing that, I get a better sense of what will work, and what won’t. Also, hopefully I’m able to connect with people in the community who will then spread the message for us.
At the end of the day, the product on the field … Not just on the field, but in the stadium, and in the community, but especially in the stadium on game days has to be something that the community takes pride in. It doesn’t mean they have to win a championship every year, but they have to be respected, and the people of Madison have to feel good about feeling connected. I’m probably just going on a run here, but I feel pretty strong about this.
RC: No, no, go ahead.
PW: Sports in general, and soccer in particular, is tribal. The teams are mere representations of the community at large. The best example of that in the United States is the Green Bay Packers, because they literally are owned by the community. But that’s the brand, I guess, for lack of a better term, around the world with soccer especially. And I think that’s why you see so much passion. You know, the worse case scenario is when it breaks out into fights and rioting. But, the reason fans in the rest of the world have such passion about their soccer teams is because it’s representing them on the field doing battle, against the next town over, right? And a win means my town won a miniature war with your town and a loss, the opposite. So it’s one thing to have that with a sports team that’s been around for 20, 50, 100 years, but to have it from the start can be a challenge. And I think the best way to accomplish that is by building an organization from the bottom up, and in partnership with various constituent groups. The obvious ones are the soccer organizations. Especially youth soccer families and young adults, who played the sport and more importantly, watched the sport internationally, especially. You know, go over to the Nomad and you have five different supporters’ groups there.
Liverpool fans, Chelsea fans, Manchester United, Spurs (Tottenham Hotspur). It’s amazing that there’s these diehard, passionate fans supporting these teams, I don’t know, 4,000 miles away. So what you’re hoping of course, is that not just those groups, but the community at large will develop a similar love affair with Madison’s team. And if we truly are able to create Madison’s team, it’ll all fall into place. If we bring this top down, and say this is the owner’s team and we’re gonna name it this, and our colors are gonna be this, and not take any input from people, it won’t work.
The opportunity for soccer to connect, is better now than it was even five years ago.
RC: Why do you think that is? Do you have to build a soccer culture in Madison, or is it here and you just have to connect to it?
PW: Both I think. This age wave that grew up playing the sport, is now overlapped with the age wave that’s watched the sport on handheld devices and laptops and 24 hour soccer channels. If it is just about the age wave of the participants, this would’ve happened 20 years ago, because kids have been playing soccer in a critical mass since the 80s or 90s. But, they get to be 12 years old and go play basketball or whatever right? And they’re still doing that, you know, most soccer players, when they’re 12 now, same thing. Some of them will stick with it, some of them will go with another sport or no sports, or discover girls or computers, or whatever it is, and that’s fine. The difference in the last five years is the relevance of international soccer clubs. And to a certain extent MLS, but that’s more market by market.
MLS is not a popular league in neutral markets. In Florida, Atlanta where they have a team, Seattle where they have a team, Portland where they have a team, it’s unbelievably popular. More so, arguably, than their NBA or NHL teams, but in a neutral market like Madison, even people into soccer don’t really connect them unless people connect with Liverpool or Manchester United.
But, they all get their soccer culture into different levels and want to have a local team that they can identify with, if they feel it truly represents them. Right now, I think they’re at the stage of more-than-open-minded.
RC: I went to study abroad in England in 1995. I got to watch soccer on TV for the first time and it was great. Then the next year, I come back and MLS starts, and I’m like, this is trash. What is this? I could really tell the idea was, “Let’s make something these dumb Americans will enjoy.”
PW: In early MLS they had different rules. The clock counted down and they had shootouts …
RC: … like a hockey shootout. I’m like, what? This is nonsense.
PW: It wasn’t the game.
RC: Now, I think, actually, the quality of the product has improved and is now really good. I know there’s a lot of people, like my father-in-law, who’s a English Premier League guy. He’ll never watch American soccer.
PW: If it’s all about the quality of play, then Madison gets no chance. I was telling the coach that I was interviewing yesterday that our player budget for salaries is gonna be the very high end of the league. We wanna win.That being said, the total budget for all of the players for the whole year, would probably pay Michael Bradley’s salary for less than a month.
If it’s only about the quality of the play, no one will come. It’s gotta be about more than that. It’s about what I said earlier. That identification, the emotional connections, the positive game experience. Everything there. The play on the field, the players have to work hard, be competitive, hopefully win more than we lose. During the 90 minutes, it’s about the game on the field. So, pre-game, half-time, post-game, we’ll have fun and some gimmicks here and there, and PA announcements and everything. The only thing you’ll hear during the game itself is the fans themselves, and the supporters will sing and chant, and wave flags.
They make it interesting for everyone else in the stadium. So, you won’t have all 5,000 people standing the whole game, but you’ll have a thousand people on one end, standing for 90 minutes singing, chanting, cheering, waving flags, banging drums, creating that aura behind them that’s so important. The only PA’s you’ll hear during the game are for cards, goals, and substitutions.
RC: Have you established any relationships with the amateur clubs? The 56ers or Wisconsin Rush or any others?
PW: Yes, I’m fortunate that I knew a number of people in town from prior endeavors. The Milwaukee wave and the effort I made to try to get MLS to Milwaukee. (Madison 56ers coach) Jim Launder and I go way back. So, yeah on the administrative and coaching level, I know them and I think because of my history a lot of them know me. Hopefully that’s a positive in most cases.
RC: Will the team have its own youth program?
PW: Great question. Certainly not at the beginning, and maybe not ever. I mean, I think one thing, you’ve got some good clubs here, and we don’t want to stand in their way. What I’d like to do is talk to them about ways a pro team can supplement what they’re doing.
PW: Help them. I’ve had some initial conversations with Jim Launder about that. You know pro teams around the country are starting to get into that, into the youth development. Certainly, in the beginning it makes more sense to limit it to supplemental training, soccer camps. Work with the state association. I talked to (Madison Area Youth Soccer Association Director) Chris Lay about seeing if we can do some fundraisers to raise money for underserved communities and their soccer programs.
RC: You’ve kind of touched on this but do you have a one sentence or just sentence of what is our vision? What I’m hearing is you really wanna build it from the ground up. You really wanna connect with existing soccer culture. But if you’re looking around at the 5000 people in the stadium, who’s there?
PW: The mission is, we wanna build championships on the field and in the community. We wanna make an impact with the diverse community. The targeted audience is youth soccer families, young adults, and new Americans. The young adults is actually split into the younger part of that generation and the older part of that generation. If you say it’s millennials, they’re about are 18 to 38. Maybe the younger ten years is more active hard core fans that will stand for 90 minutes and be in the supporter section having a good time. Getting a little rowdy. The older half of that generation may be more casual at the games, but they understand soccer. They grew up with it, they follow it in Europe. Age 28 to 37. Some of them may be in the supporters section, some may be in the hospitality areas. The families obviously have the kids playing the sport. It’s getting that next generation engaged.
We wanna make a positive impact in the community and be a resource for Madison, and be a team that Madison is proud of. I look at Chattanooga in some ways as a comparative city. On the surface it doesn’t seem like it would be, because it’s a southern city and it’s not as progressive as Madison is. But, the commonality with Chattanooga, is that the people take great pride in the community and almost feel like it’s a hidden gem. People outside don’t appreciate it as much as they do. In Chattanooga the soccer team, it’s an amateur team, and they’re averaging five or six thousand fans a game.
PW: They got 18,000 for a championship game a few years ago. Who would think, soccer in Chattanooga? The whole pride in community thing is missing from a lot of the sun belt cities. Whether it’s Miami, or Phoenix, sometimes the sports teams don’t quite as do well because so much of the population is from somewhere else. So, they won’t necessarily care about the local team. If you’re in Madison, we got a large population that’s either from here, or moved here because they wanted to live in the culture of Madison.
RC: Does the ethnic makeup of the city play into the potential success of a soccer team?
PW: Absolutely. Ethnic diversity usually brings passion for soccer, because it’s such an international sport. But just because a fan comes from a country that loves soccer, doesn’t mean that fan will love this soccer team. In fact, it can almost be harder, because they’ll already have their loyalty for a soccer team in their home country. They may also view the local team not only not representing them, but not being of the quality they’re used to.
So, it can be a challenge, but if you show especially the first generation immigrants through outreach that you care about them, you care about their community, you’re authentic and consistent in that, and you are welcoming inside the venue, they can become your most loyal fans. Ultimately, we’re trying to create, not just advocates for the team, but evangelists.
We need the team to reflect that diversity too. I Imagine we’re gonna certainly have a number of former Badger players on our team, that’s kinda low hanging fruit. Also, having various international players that come from countries where our fan base in Madison is from is important too. Our league permits seven international spots on the roster. With the salary range we have in this league, we’re not gonna get a ton of interest from the top level foreign players in western Europe. But, we will get tremendous interest elsewhere. I’ve already been fielding phone calls and emails from players in Africa and Latin America. You also get strong interest from international players that have come to the US to play college soccer, and wanna stay in the US. They may not be of the caliber where they can go back to Europe, or South America, or Asia, or Africa and get a professional playing job. They may very well be good enough for this league, and be willing maybe to put off the career in business or something else. So they can keep playing the game they love, and get paid for it.
RC: What’s the calendar look like?
PW: The regular season goes March through September. Playoffs, knock on wood, in October. Pre-season is generally about a month before hand.
RC: So, about a year from now you’ll be in full swing.
PW: Oh yeah. Yeah.
RC: How many games in the season?
PW: Looks like it’ll be 28 games the first year, ramping up to 32, that’s home and away combined. So, it’s gonna be a lot of games. It’ll essentially be one game a week, either home or away. In the summer there’ll be some Wednesday games, but not too many.
RC: Are you going to enter the US Open Cup or other tournaments?
PW: I’m super excited about that. That’s your chance for David versus Goliath. I love that tournament. In fact the ring I’m wearing is an Open Cup ring. This one’s a US Open Cup we won with the Chicago Fire in 2000. We were fortunate we won the tournament four different times. We took it seriously.
Without promotion and relegation it’s the only chance for these lower division teams to prove themselves against the higher division.
RC: Right. You brought it up, what do you think about promotion and relegation?
PW: I love it.
RC: You think MLS is gonna get there eventually or is American soccer is gonna get there eventually, and should it?
PW: I think American soccer will. I don’t know if MLS will. I think it should, but it needs to be done the right way. I tried very hard and had different opinions about how to get there. Working with groups of people that all had the same vision, just disagreed on the path way. MLS, I think, they’re almost too far down the road to change. It would require quite the change to the business model.
RC: You’re undergoing some renovations at Breese Stevens Field to get the capacity up to 5,000. Is that taxpayer funded? The city owns the stadium, right?
PW: Yeah, and the city had already approved, years ago, spending that money on improvements. What the vote was on a few weeks ago, was to accelerate the timing of the spending of the money, the improvements. I don’t think we’re supposed to be done for another four or five years. But they’ve moved it up to now, so we could start the soccer.
RC: So the City has been supportive?
PW: Yeah, they get it.
One of the challenges of getting foreign players coming into America is the assimilation to the lifestyle, and the culture, and such. If you can have two from the same community, it makes it easier. Some of the African communities, so much soccer talent, and nowhere to go because the teams in Africa are not paying much, if any money. So you know, we think our player budget may not be large, for them it is. Then there’s the opportunity to live in America. As much as we look at the political news now a day, and shake our head at what our country has become, it’s still a great country. It’s still wonderful opportunities to live for people from around the world.
I think maybe the intention is not going to be to have a stadium full of 5,000 people that are unified around the United States. It’s gonna be 5,000 people that we hope will be unified around Madison. That’s the unifying idea of this team, and that’s why our tagline is, “The world’s game, Madison’s club.” When you see the diverse makeup of Madison walking around town, that’s who you should see inside the stadium.