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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.

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The other factor is the growth of the sport nationally has been the internet, and more to the point digital advertising and social media. “It’s so much more direct, intrusive, and inexpensive,” says Wilt. “Now, 20 years after we started the Fire in Chicago, you don’t need to spend a fraction of what we spent then in traditional advertising in order to have a similar impact, and you can target it toward the audience most likely to support the team. You can communicate dynamically and engage your audience so it’s not just a one-way direction of advertising and communication, and that’s critical to getting that emotional connection with the fans.”

According to Wilt, fans need to be a part of the process and have a sense of community that this is their team. “You need to give people a reason to care, not only so they spend money on your team but more importantly so they’re willing to spend their valuable time on your team. The reason isn’t going to be because it’s the best soccer in the world. You could put a Major League Soccer team in Madison and it still wouldn’t be the best soccer in the world. It wouldn’t be the cheapest soccer available in the world, either, because they can turn on the television or their laptop and watch much better soccer for a lot less money.

“So you have to have that engagement, that communication going both ways to make that team not your team but their team, so it’s owned, at least psychically, by the community,” Wilt continues. “That’s what the internet allows you to do easily. In the ’80s and ’90s, before the internet, it was difficult. Player appearances, autograph sessions, mascot appearances, that one-on-one engagement, that was the best way to do it back then. Arguably it’s still the best way, but there are limits to how much of that you can do, whereas communicating online is limitless.”

While Greater Madison already has a strong soccer culture, Wilt says Forward Madison will be proactive in helping to grow it further.

“A lot of that education and building of the sport happens organically by just being here, by just having the games and getting fans more involved,” notes Wilt. “But we’ll have soccer camps happen in some locations in the first year, we’ll have soccer clinics, which are more one-off type of things, and will be further outside of the Madison area, and that will help. There’ll be some coaching education as well as player education. We’ll be inviting youth soccer clubs to have their coaches come to our team training session at Breese Stevens Field, watch our training sessions, and then go out to lunch with our coaching staff afterward to talk about the sport, the training sessions, coaching in general, and develop relationships with the coaches that way.

“However, I think a better way, frankly, that we can help the soccer education in the market is just building the culture, making it more mainstream from a spectator standpoint,” adds Wilt. “Having these 20 home games a year in Madison and attracting upwards of 100,000 people every year to come see the team play live, and then interact with the team and fans online and on social media, will make soccer mainstream among a growing and broader audience.”

For more on how Forward Madison FC was built and its upcoming inaugural season, read our upcoming feature in the March 2019 print issue of In Business magazine.

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