Set to kickoff its inaugural season this April, Madison’s first professional soccer team is a passion project for the team’s leaders and the local soccer community.
Forward Madison FC co-owners Conor Caloia and Vern Stenman (center) announce the team’s partnership with Minnesota United FC.
Photo provided by Forward Madison FC
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
For additional coverage of Forward Madison FC, read our web-exclusive story at IBmadison.com/prosoccer.
Eleven months. That’s how long it’ll take from the time Big Top Sports and Entertainment, the operating group behind the Madison Mallards, announced it was bringing professional soccer to Madison and when that team — Forward Madison FC — will kick off the first game of its inaugural season at Breese Stevens Field.
If that seems like an aggressive timeline to put together a professional team in any sport, you’re not wrong, but this was in the works since Big Top took over management of Breese Stevens a little over three years ago. That it’s happening now can be chalked up to perfect timing.
“We always saw the best long-term potential for Breese as soccer,” notes team President Vern Stenman. “Honestly, a few years ago we were close to bringing a lower division team to Madison than we ended up actually bringing.”
The delay was a result of turnover in the U.S. soccer hierarchy. About three years ago, the North American Soccer League (NASL) was in place as U.S. soccer’s second division and trying to compete with Major League Soccer (MLS), U.S. soccer’s top division. The NASL proved unsuccessful and went on hiatus after its 2017 season, starting a domino effect among U.S. soccer’s lower divisions that remade the landscape.
The United Soccer League (USL), long established as soccer’s third division in the U.S., appealed to the U.S. Soccer Association to become the second division league, filling the void left by the NASL. That move was approved and the USL split into three leagues — USL Championship, the second division; USL League One, the third division; and USL League Two, a developmental league.
Originally, Stenman says Big Top was looking to bring a soccer team to Madison that was comparable to the Mallards — a summer collegiate team — but with the reorganization of the U.S. ranks, “we realized maybe we want to look at this being a professional soccer club that would be a little bit more in line with the size of Madison and the demographics that exist here. We learned how soccer is doing really well in markets like Portland, that are kind of these young, liberal, progressive communities. We said maybe this soccer thing is a little bit bigger than we originally expected it was going to be.”
“It seems like that was years ago,” says Forward Madison COO Conor Caloia. “I think that sums up the amount of work that has already been done and in some ways the amount of work that still needs to be done. We were very deliberate in making sure we got the right league and brought soccer here at the right time.
“Once we got the lease agreement [for Breese Stevens Field] finalized, then we could announce with the league that we were bringing a team here,” Caloia continues. “But then we really had to figure out what’s the day-to-day, what are the budgets, how are we going to build this staff? With our background between our other properties, we’ve sold sponsorships and tickets, we’ve created events, and done food and beverage, but we didn’t really have a soccer expertise.
“That’s where Peter Wilt [Forward Madison managing director] really fit in. He brings a level of knowledge of soccer and soccer startups that we just didn’t have internally. So, he was really the first piece, and from there we’ve built out the rest of our staff and improved Breese Stevens Field.”
Wilt tells a slightly different story.
“I was actually recruiting Vern and Conor to join a new league I was working to start called NISA [National Independent Soccer Association], which was an open system with promotion and relegation, but we weren’t able to secure the necessary teams to get off the ground,” explains Wilt. “Vern and Conor told me they were going to go forward with USL League One. 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, so I left NISA and worked it out to work with Vern and Conor to launch this team.”
Wilt’s passion to be involved with Wisconsin’s only professional soccer team — Big Top is also starting a USL League Two team in Green Bay this year — is indicative of how Forward Madison has been put together from day one.
From the beginning, the team has courted local soccer fans who were part of supporter groups for English Premier League (EPL) teams and really made them a part of the team’s decision-making process. Those fans, who have since organized a Forward Madison supporters group dubbed The Flock, are the first wave in what Caloia sees as the club’s relationship with the Greater Madison community.
“I think it’s reflective of how we view our businesses,” Caloia explains. “While they’re privately held, they’re very much community entities. In order for them to have success, the community needs to feel a sense of connection and ownership. For us, there wasn’t much discussion about it. It was kind of a no brainer.”
When Breese Stevens Field was built in 1926, the type of use that Big Top Sports envisioned for the facility when it took over management three years ago was never anticipated. That meant renovations were in order to secure a USL League One team and get the facility ready to host up to 100,000 soccer fans each season.
“What drove the facility improvement was the specifications and requirements to get the stadium up to the standard of professional soccer,” says Caloia. “The USL League One requires 5,000 seats, so that was the first set of improvements we had to make. The second was we’ve been able to operate Breese for the last three years, but we haven’t had a licensable kitchen. It’s all been temporary. We needed improved and enhanced kitchen facilities and additional restroom facilities. The third was making sure we have some venues that were good for hospitality, client entertainment, and employee entertainment.”
Ground broke on those renovations in October 2018 and work continues on pace for completion in time for the first home game at the end of April. However, work began months earlier during conversations with the city of Madison and the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association.
“We’re in the middle of a pretty densely populated neighborhood — over 35,000 people live within two square miles of Breese Stevens Field — and the type of programming we wanted to do here was dramatically different than what had been here the rest of its entire life,” says Stenman. “So the neighborhood and the city had to learn again about what would work there and what wouldn’t.”
Caloia credits Madison alder Ledell Zellers and Patty Prime, who is the president of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association. “It was a collaborative process of us telling and showing them where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do with Breese Stevens, and them telling us the concerns or issues or challenges it may present for neighbors. I think we reached an agreement that works really well for both parties.
“The reality of the situation is we want to be a good neighbor; we have to be a good neighbor in order to have success,” Caloia adds. “We try to be very responsive — most residents in the neighborhood have either Vern’s or my cellphone number and can reach out to us if something’s not right. It’s a very collaborative environment, and we’re appreciative of the neighbors. They’re some of our best customers, and we really want to make sure we create something that’s a benefit to the neighborhood, not something that’s a challenge or deterrent.”