If you were to survey supporters groups from clubs around the globe about their biggest gripe with their clubs, I’d be willing to wager that the leading complaint would be that there isn’t enough communication between themselves and the club’s executives. Take a walk around the American soccer landscape, and you’re bound to hear it too. And while there might be other popular gripes — such as ticket prices or on-field management — the avenue for the fans to have those complaints heard often isn’t even there to begin with.
So when you see clubs that actively engage with their fans, asking them their opinions and looking for input on a variety of club matters, it’s usually applauded far and wide. The close relationships that exist between club and fans in Orlando, Seattle and Philadelphia are well-known, but until rather recently, were far from the norm. But the lessons learned in those markets isn’t falling on deaf ears, and more and more clubs are slowly starting to reap the benefits of working closely with their most ardent fans to help grow the team’s popularity and stature. But where did the idea come from in the fist place?
The man many would pin as the pioneer of this emerging trend in American soccer: Peter J. Wilt.
Best known as former president and general manager of the Chicago Fire, Wilt has attained legendary status for the transparency with which he runs his clubs and the open communication channels he holds with supporters. A frequent participant in discussions on fan message boards and an ardent Tweet-a-holic, there’s arguably no other executive in American soccer that the average fan has an easier time gaining an audience with.
Case in point? After recently launching the successful bid to make Indy Eleven the latest franchise to join the rapidly growing NASL, I reached out to Peter to see if he might be interested in an interview. He accepted my request in less than five minutes.
So with the Milwaukee native’s ear at my disposal, I asked Peter to dish on his plans for the newly formed Indy Eleven, the state of the game in North America, and even on his hopes for the beer that will be available at the club’s future matches.
D.J. @ WSOTP: You’ve helped to launch and run professional sports teams in Chicago, you’ve run a another in Milwaukee, and you’re now launching and running yet another in Indianapolis. All of these were soccer teams. Could you ever see yourself working in another sport, or is soccer your cowbell?
Peter Wilt: Most of what I learned about managing a professional soccer teams I learned in professional hockey during my first post-college position with the Milwaukee Admirals. The general leadership and management skills I implement in soccer are transferable to any sport – and frankly most are transferable to any business, organization or situation. That being said, at this point in my career, it’s unlikely the ownership of a baseball, basketball or even kabaddi team would risk hiring someone with my soccer-heavy resume.
D.J. @ WSOTP: In your experience, what have been some of the major similarities and differences between the launching of the Fire in Chicago to your getting Indy Eleven up and off the ground in Indianapolis?
Peter Wilt: The process is very similar – outreach to potential stakeholders, secure their support and enable them as advocates and evangelists. The market similarities include the pent up demand for pro soccer, strong desire of the soccer community to see the teams succeed and strong support from ownership. Prevalence of social media, soccer industry experienced staff and increased general awareness of professional soccer is all different – and better – now than in 1997.
D.J. @ WSOTP: The demand for professional soccer in the United States seems at an all-time high, and cities with strong traditions in the sport like St. Louis, Milwaukee and Detroit have all expressed interest in landing a coveted franchise. What factors convinced you that Indianapolis was the city to throw your efforts behind?
Peter Wilt: [Indy Eleven owner] Ersal Ozdemir and the Brickyard Battalion.
D.J. @ WSOTP: I’ve mentioned a few already, but are there any other cities that you think are primed and ready for professional soccer in the country?
Peter Wilt: I believe lower division leagues should look seriously at the largest markets in the US and Canada that have neither MLB or MLS. There are dozens of top 100 US and Canadian markets I think should be considered including, San Diego, Sacramento, Austin, Nashville, Omaha and Louisville.
While there may be a natural inclination to seek out the largest markets, evidence shows that the smaller markets with less entertainment clutter are doing better in attendance. Attendance success in Portland, Vancouver, Montreal, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and our early success in Indianapolis is all evidence that lack of MLB in a market provides a void in the sports landscape that can be filled with professional soccer. Demographics, ownership, venue and management obviously also play into the opportunity for success.
This recent article written by Tom Dunmore regarding potential growth in 2nd and 3rd division soccer in the US and Canada is enlightening on this subject
D.J. @ WSOTP: I know that you like to immerse yourself in local culture, and as a former non-native Indianapolis resident, I can assure you that you that Indiana residents take their games of Euchre very, very seriously. How would rate your ability at the card game, and have you had the privilege of “milking the cow” yet?
Peter Wilt: Sadly, I am not much of a card player- euchre or any other form. Despite three plus decades of residency in Milwaukee and looking over the shoulders of older card playing Milwaukee County Stadium ushers prior to hundreds of Brewers games in the early ’80s, I never was able to pick up on the rules of Sheepshead either.
D.J. @ WSOTP: In Chicago you were known to frequent the Italian spot Club Lago, and in Milwaukee you’re the Patron Saint of the Highbury Pub (which can be found in my WSOTP Soccer Pub Atlas). Have you found a spot in Indy yet where you think you might become a regular?
Peter Wilt: SEVERAL! My favorite though is McGinley’s Golden Ace Inn, the oldest family run pub in Indianapolis. It’s one of the few places in Indy that serves the basic ingredients of Schlabst, Milwaukee’s Black & Tan. Golden Ace also has a great atmosphere with genuine Irish hospitality from the all the generations of the McGinley clan that operate this fine establishment.
D.J. @ WSOTP: Clear and open communication with fans has been a main tenant of your philosophy over the course of your career, and you’ve built up a great reputation among supporters by engaging with them on Twitter and message boards like Big Soccer and Reddit. However, you remain in the minority when it comes to this kind of interaction with front office officials. Why do you think other clubs have been reluctant to embrace this ideology?
Peter Wilt: It can be distracting and if not done effectively, it can even be destructive.
D.J. @ WSOTP: On that same front, has there ever been a time where you felt that being open with fans has backfired, or that you learned an important lesson about how to communicate with the fans?
Peter Wilt: I’m sure there are times open communication has had unintended ramifications, but generally it’s all been good. The biggest negative reaction I ever received from a public interaction with fans came from a public letter that also elicited the most positive reaction from a public reaction. This explanation to my trade of Piotr Nowak in 2003 was appreciated by most, but the last paragraph was polarizing and resulted in many angry missives directed my way.
D.J. @ WSOTP: It would seem like the ultimate extension of this kind of fan-club relationship fostering is to allow supporters to have a greater say in the club’s affairs. Are there any plans to allow the fans any say in the running of Indy Eleven, similar to the way that the Seattle Sounders’s Supporters Alliance votes on the board?
Peter Wilt: We have not instituted anything along those lines formally, but our daily interactions with fans play an instrumental role in the development and direction of the organization. We plan to have an advisory board that will include representation from the Brickyard Battalion and other Indy Eleven stake holders.
D.J. @ WSOTP: Developing homegrown talent has become increasingly important to both clubs and the national team, and many believe it’s an excellent way to build loyalty to the club within the market. Are there plans to develop an Indy Eleven academy, or do you see the club partnering with existing youth clubs in the area?
Peter Wilt: We believe it’s important to support all the existing development initiatives locally. We will support the Indiana Soccer Association’s Olympic Development Program and any other umbrella development initiatives that benefit the soccer community as a whole. We do not have plans to create a team specific academy.
D.J. @ WSOTP: Professional soccer has been in expansion mode within the US and Canada over the last few years, and will continue to be for at least the next few as well. Where do you see the game in ten years’ time? Plateaued out or still expanding? Still three separate professional leagues, or a more unified structure? Producing most of it’s own players, or bringing in bigger-named foreign talent?
Peter Wilt: My prediction track record is not exactly spot on, but it’s pretty safe to suggest that the professional footprint will continue to expand at all levels over the next decade in the US and Canada. This article I wrote last year does a better job explaining why professional soccer will continue to grow here over the next decade and beyond. Professional soccer leagues have a deep record of instability over the last century, but I believe the relative stability of the last decade will continue over the next ten years. There may be some consolidation, but I can’t predict that with any level of certainty. Development of “domestic” players will continue, but many of the best will be foreign-born players who immigrate to the US and Canada at a young age and bring their passion for the sport with them to their new world.
D.J. @ WSOTP: While it appears that Indy Eleven are off to a flying start when it comes to things like pre-sales of season tickets, what else have you identified as major hurdles to the success of the new team, and what do you plan to do to overcome them??
Peter Wilt: The two biggest challenges will be developing a soccer centric venue and creating a great experience for fans. Working closely with supporters, vendors and IUPUI staff and holding a “soft opening” exhibition game will all be critical to the latter. The former requires thoughtful and consistent efforts to create a situation that will be beneficial to all constituencies.
D.J. @ WSOTP: And lastly, should we expect to see Schlabst served at home matches, and can we expect another Peter Wilt concoction based on Indiana beverages?
Peter Wilt: Indianapolis has a fantastic craft beer and brew pub culture. I’d love to see eleven different beers served at home games. I’ve retired from the beer creation business. After Schlabst there’s nowhere to go, but down!
D.J. @ WSOTP: Well Peter, many thanks for your time and for the opportunity to pick your brain!