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.
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.”
By the numbers
Number of teams in USL League One: 10
Average game time: 2 hours
Number of months it took to renovate Breese Stevens Field to get it ready: 6 — ground broke in October 2018
Cost of renovations: $3 million
Seating capacity (for soccer): 5,000
Number of season tickets sold: Nearly 600
Price of a single-game ticket: $16–$45
Number of total games (home and away) scheduled for first season: 28 regular season games, 14 home and 14 away, with 3 exhibition matches scheduled so far
For more information on the team and its schedule, visit forwardmadisonfc.com.
For all the connections Stenman and Caloia have with the Madison Mallards, Stenman is quick to point out that this isn’t just going to be the Mallards doing soccer. That might be an adjustment for the local community, but it’s a reflection of the level of product that will be on the field.
“That’s one of the things that I think is going to be interesting for people because the skill level of the players on the field is going to be really impressive,” Stenman notes.
Despite playing in U.S. soccer’s third division, Forward Madison is a professional team and this is every bit a professional sports organization — something Madison doesn’t have much experience with.
“It’s a very different fan experience and it will replicate more of a European feel for soccer, and we think that’s what the market really wants,” says Stenman. “Based on the research we’ve done, people care in the soccer world a little more about the results on the field, whereas in baseball with the Mallards we’re all about fun.”
For instance, the entertainment side at Forward Madison games is going to be led by the supporters’ section — already over 600 members strong — which will be chanting, singing, and standing the entire game in the east end zone of the stadium in custom-made bleachers.
“We won’t play any recorded music,” notes Stenman. “Mallards games have all used recorded music, kind of a very highly choreographed entertainment that we lead as the team. Soccer’s going to be kind of the opposite — no recorded music but with acoustic instruments in the supporter’s section, fun songs, fun chants, and a little bit more of a focus on the actual game than I think we have with the Mallards.”
On the field
As a long-time Wisconsin resident, Wilt may have been eager to usher in professional soccer in Madison, but he was also probably the best choice for the job regardless of where he called home.
After college, Wilt worked for the Milwaukee Admirals hockey team, and that’s where he learned the sports business. He got his foot in the door in soccer with the Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer team in 1987 and hasn’t looked back since. After the Wave, he led the Chicago Power, winning the league championship his first year there, and then he was recruited to the Minnesota Thunder in their transition from an amateur to professional soccer team. When the MLS’ Chicago Fire started in 1997, Wilt was brought on as the team’s general manager, and in his seven seasons there the Fire won one MLS Cup, three U.S. Open Cups, and one Supporters’ Shield. He’s also been a part of three other Chicago teams and a professional squad in Indianapolis.
In building Forward Madison’s coaching staff and roster, Wilt says everything starts with the team ownership. “They supported our desire, they had a vision to have a team that competes for championships every year, and they’re investing in that.”
Wilt’s head coach of choice was Daryl Shore, a former goalkeeper turned coach who had head coaching experience at soccer’s lower divisions as well as in the MLS, which appealed to Wilt. “He understands both sides of the aisle and the network for securing players and talent,” says Wilt.
The team itself comes from various places, statewide, regionally, nationally, and internationally. Earlier this year, Forward Madison signed J.C. Banks, one of the top players ever in the state of Wisconsin, and in early February announced its signing of Carl Schneider, the club’s first Madison native who played at La Follette High School, UW–Madison, and for the Madison 56ers before traveling overseas to play in Sweden for several years.
Wilt hastens to add it isn’t just a local all-star team but a quality club that can compete with teams across the country. “When you put a team together, if you want to win — and that’s our goal — it’s important that it’s not just a developmental team, it’s just not a U-23 team of kids that may be good someday but right now maybe are still learning. You also want to have some experienced veterans who know how to look professional.
“There are guys in this league who are going to be making $5,000–$7,000 a month and guys who are making less than that,” adds Wilt. “These aren’t the guys who are million dollar bonus babies. For the most part, these are guys who are working hard for a living.”
What’s in a name?
When it came to selecting a name for Madison’s first professional soccer team, there was never really any doubt in the minds of club President Vern Stenman and COO Conor Caloia that it would be a community process.
Beginning in June 2018, the team held a naming contest via social media and its website, allowing local residents and supporters to both nominate potential names and then vote on the top 32 in a bracket-style elimination contest.
“We went into the process not knowing what the team was going to be called,” admits Caloia. “We felt confident the public would point us in the right direction. It became pretty clear fairly early on in the process what the name should be. The fan vote was pretty strong toward Forward Madison. That materialized pretty quickly, but then figuring out what the actual mark or logo was going to look like took a little bit longer.”
“We really wanted to focus on local stories,” notes Stenman. “Forward Madison FC and Madison Flamingoes were two very popular submittals during our name-the-team process, and the idea that we were able to take two of our most popular name submittals and tie them into one logo, and then work with Planet Propaganda, a local advertising agency, to develop the branding that’s really gotten buzz nationally and beyond in the soccer world, was pretty fun and something we are extremely proud of.”
“The fans, the supporters group, had already kind of given us the nickname the flamingoes, so if we were going to be known as that, we might as well just go with it,” Caloia says. “It’s very similar to the naming conventions of a lot of English Premier League teams or other teams across the globe.”
Considering Stenman and Caloia’s connection to the Madison Mallards, fans might wonder if a part fearsome, part friendly flamingo mascot in the same vein as Maynard G. Mallard is in the works.
“Having an actual costumed mascot is something that makes a lot of sense,” says Caloia. “This is going to be a community team and in order to fully execute that, I think having a mascot to connect with youth and be out in the community is important. That’s something that’s still in progress right now, but it’s something you can plan on us having.”
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