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.

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.”

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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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