Can Forward Madison continue soccer’s mainstream march?
Peter Wilt, managing director of the new pro soccer team, says Madison’s demographics — young, progressive, suburban — make it ripe for 21st-century soccer growth.
Forward Madison FC Managing Director Peter Wilt speaks at an executive luncheon hosted by the pro soccer team.
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With play slated to begin in April for Forward Madison FC’s inaugural season, there’s still much work to be done.
Renovations continue apace at historic Breese Stevens Field to get the facility ready to host professional soccer. Players are still being introduced to the fans and the public. Practices are underway, though indoors, in defiance of weather that’s decidedly not conducive to play on a pitch of green grass.
Overseeing the soccer side of the operation is Peter Wilt, Forward Madison’s managing director. Wilt’s background in building soccer teams from the ground up was a big part of why he landed the job, but as he’s quick to point out, he was just as eager to be a part of the team as co-owners Vern Stenman and Conor Caloia were to have him. “I have lived in Wisconsin for the past four decades, and I didn’t want somebody starting a pro team without me being a part of it.”
Over the course of his career, Wilt has built four teams in Chicago — including the MLS’ Chicago Fire, which during his seven seasons there won one MLS Cup, three U.S. Open Cups, and one Supporters’ Shield — as well as teams in Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Milwaukee. He knows what it takes to build a winner. Madison presents a new experience though not only in the size of the market, but more importantly the timing of the launch and the makeup of the local soccer culture.
“No two startups are the same,” explains Wilt. “Population difference is among the variables, but it’s really maybe the least of the differences. I was with the Minnesota Thunder in 1994 and the Chicago Fire in 1997, and starting up pro soccer teams, regardless of market size, in 2019 is a huge difference because of the level of soccer education among the population.”
In the 1990s, and going back to the ’80s when Wilt started, he notes many communities in the U.S. were still fairly soccer ignorant and needed to be educated. “It’s a very sophisticated marketplace now, whether it’s Madison, Chicago, or Indianapolis. It’s interesting now comparing the markets we’re working on in Madison and Green Bay. They’re very different. It’s really about how passionate or knowledgeable or committed the potential audience is. In Madison, we have a population that is very knowledgeable about soccer. It’s young and progressive, and has a lot of demographics that are similar to Portland, Oregon, which obviously has done very well with soccer. I think that age and exposure to the sport both nationally and internationally plays into it more so than the population. Obviously, if you have a bigger market, you have more opportunities to sell tickets and sponsorships, but you also have more to compete with. There’s more clutter in a bigger market, so there’s advantages and disadvantages.”
People have always been expecting and predicting an American soccer revolution going back to Pele and the New York Cosmos, states Wilt, but what’s ended up happening is instead of a soccer revolution, it’s been soccer evolution.
“Interest goes up when a spotlight is shined on the sport in the U.S., normally the World Cup or Olympics, or Major League Soccer starting, the Women’s World Cup, or even players like Freddy Adu or David Beckham signing,” says Wilt. “The interest goes up and then it tends to wane a bit and goes down, but it doesn’t go down as far as it went up. Over time that interest level has grown and then something as simple as video games and 24-hour soccer channels has made the sport so much more accessible from a spectator standpoint over the last 10 to 12 years.
“There’s a participation part of soccer that’s been here for 30 years, though playing the sport doesn’t equate to watching the sport or having an interest in watching the sport,” continues Wilt. “However, it does provide the seeds for it. The fertilizer has been these big events that have come and shined the light on the sport and the accessibility to it through video games and the 24-hour soccer channels.”
Wilt acknowledges a lot of the increase in U.S. interest in soccer has come via an age-based wave. “Pretty much now if you’re under the age of 40 in an urban area or suburban area, soccer is a mainstream sport. I hear a lot of people my age — I’m in my upper 50s — asking me when soccer is going to make it. It already has made it if you’re under the age of 40. For those of us over the age of 50, it’s never going to be mainstream. We’ll be dead and then it’ll be mainstream for everybody in urban and suburban areas.”