One might think that self-described “compulsive soccer team starter” Peter Wilt would have grown up playing the game.
It was instead a Major League Baseball strike in the 1980s in Chicago that gave Wilt his entrée into the fun, community connection and entrepreneurial possibilities of professional soccer.
More than 30 years after starting professional men’s soccer teams in Chicago and Indianapolis, Wilt, an Illinois native, is developing a men’s pro soccer team in Madison, set to begin play next year. The team, which does not yet have a name or colors, will play at Breese Stevens Field.
Wilt sat down with the Cap Times to discuss preparations for the team and why he thinks it can be successful in Madison.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from establishing the Chicago and Indianapolis teams?
It’s two things: It’s staffing up with good people, people who are hardworking, talented, have good character and communicate well. The second thing is that the team connects emotionally with a broad base of support with all kinds of organizations. Not just the soccer community, not just the corporate community, but social organizations, charitable organizations, civic, cultural. Make them feel a part of the team so they have a sense of ownership and the team reflects the community at large and the community takes pride in the team, just like it does in the city. You get those two things right… it’ll all come together successfully.
How do you compel a city to connect emotionally with a new team? What does that look like?
The end is that you want people to care about the team. You want them to have a vested interest. So that’s where you’re trying to get to, and there’s a spectrum in the beginning. It’s perhaps casual interest, and then as they go along, they become maybe advocates of the team. If you’re really fortunate, a good number of them become evangelists. It’s most personified in the supporters’ section where there are the hardcore fans who won’t sit during the games. They’ll shout and cheer and wave flags and light off smoke bombs to celebrate. Starting a team from scratch to cultivate that is daunting, but it’s doable.
But what about people who aren’t inclined to care about soccer at all?
What I’ve found in other places is that there’s a good opportunity for those folks, to let them become fans of the team, partly because of the sport. It’s up to us to give them reasons to care about this team. Generally around the world, a passion for the team reflects the connection the team has to the community. So when they’re on the field playing …they’re representing the team at-large. It’s almost like those players are warriors in battle against the other city’s warriors. If you have care and a passion for your community, that battle between your community and another person’s community is played out on the field through athletics. Soccer around the world has that quality, maybe more so than some of the other traditional sports.
But in America we get it quite frankly with college athletics and that tribal mentality is really connected to football, both professional and college. I think when it comes to soccer, it’s creating an identity that people can relate to.
How do you make these connections with community groups?
I’m educating them on what we’re up to, what our process is, giving them an insider’s view of what is going on and making them feel a part of the process.
The groups are people involved in soccer, people involved in other sports, people involved in cultural arts, civic, social charitable organizations. It covers an entire landscape for the community.
I know Madison’s younger demographic is growing, but Madison itself is still much smaller than Chicago and Indianapolis. Can a city this size sustain a team?
Certainly population is a factor that impacts what our goals are. In Indianapolis, obviously a much larger city, our goal was to sell out every home game. The first year we did that. We were the first American pro soccer team to do that. It was 11,000 capacity of the stadium. Here capacity of our stadium will be about 5,000. It will be a success, obviously, if we’re able to achieve that.
Sometimes a city can be too big. It can be difficult to cut through the clutter and make those connections. I think it’s easier to make the connections and get people enthused and excited about a soccer team in Madison than in Chicago. In Chicago there are so many alternatives and so many hurdles to, practically, getting to a game on a Saturday night with traffic and distance being two important ones.
In Madison it’s easier to get from wherever you’re living or working to the stadium. Traffic isn’t as bad and the distance isn’t as far. There’s not as much competition. We’re the first professional soccer team in Madison.
Being the first professional soccer team in Madison is a big opportunity for us and the demographics are right. It’s a very young city and soccer appeals to young people. It’s trending well. A little over half of Madison is under 30.
Especially in the Tenney-Lapham, Marquette, Atwood neighborhoods, there is something like 35,000 people within walking distance of our stadium. A lot of those adults are young adults who grew up playing soccer and actually enjoy watching it now.
They can get frankly better soccer for less money by watching it for free on TV or on the computer, but that’s not their team. It might be the team they support but it’s not their local team. If we’re really able to become people’s local team that we’re able to connect with, I think we’ll do very well.
It’s also about having a good experience at the game. We need to make sure it’s entertaining and comfortable. It’s not just the 90 minutes of the game, certainly that’s important. But it’s all the logistical stuff, the practical stuff, getting to the stadium, parking. Limiting the lines for entry, concessions, bathrooms, merchandise and having something for everybody.
How many tickets do you need to sell for each game to make this viable? And at what price point?
The price point is important especially for the barrier to entry, which is the lowest price ticket. We want to make sure people are not deciding not go to a game because the lowest ticket price was too much for them. We’re pricing it a little bit more than a movie ticket. On the low end it will be $16 and for group and season tickets there will be discounts. The higher prices may include all-inclusive food and beverage. Ticket prices are $45 on the high end.
Certainly we need to sell most of the tickets in the stadium to make this viable, but that’s more of a byproduct in and of itself.
You’ve talked about engaging “new Americans,” as pro soccer fans. What do you mean by that?
New Americans are immigrants. They come from all over the world and since soccer is a world sport, immigrants have a passion for soccer which means there is a good chance they will be interested in our games.
They also likely already have a favorite soccer team and it’s not Madison pro soccer because we haven’t played a game yet. If they’re Mexican or Mexican-Americans, their favorite team is probably Club de Fútbol América, Chivas, (C.D. Guadalajara) or Atlas or one of the other Mexican teams.
Convincing them to attend one of our games may not be as simple as saying, ‘Hey we have professional soccer, come watch us play.’ We need to earn that commitment from them. But Madison and the United States is becoming much more diverse and soccer is a beneficiary of that.
How do you earn that commitment?
From my experience with other teams I’ve worked with, especially in Chicago, which has a very large Latino population, if the team is authentic and consistent in promoting and reaching out to the Latino community, there will be returns, there will be support. That means being involved in their family. It’s the three Fs: family, food and festivals. If there is a strong presence and connection of the local soccer team in those areas and the team itself reflects a community, if you have players that are Latino, that helps as well.
Women’s soccer is growing in popularity. What about starting a women’s team?
It’s on our radar. We’d like to do that. I’ve started and run a professional women’s team, the Chicago Red Stars.
I’d love to bring high level women’s soccer to Madison. I think this market would support it very well based on how it has already supported UW-Madison women’s volleyball and hockey. So it’s on our radar. We want to get the (men’s) team going first and being successful and then we’ll look at bringing a women’s team to Breese Stevens.