BY JOSEPH SIMS
Seattle native Joseph Sims, 21, will travel around the country during the World Cup in search of the heart and soul of soccer in the United States. Read about his journey in the Take 2 blog.
During my journey around this great country, I have heard people talk passionately about the beautiful game in various cities. They mention things they love, things they hate and people who have been influential.
One name kept cropping up, particularly in the Midwest, a name spoken in loving tones from Milwaukee to Chicago to Indianapolis.
That name is Peter Wilt.
Wilt was the first president and general manager of the Chicago Fire, one of the teams in MLS’ initial round of expansion in 1998. During his time with the club, Wilt endeared himself to supporters. Ben Burton, former president of Section 8 (the Chicago Fire supporters club), called him “the first fan,” and said watching Wilt interact with supporters in Chicago as GM taught him “a lot” about the importance of relationships between the front office and fans.
Pattrick Stanton, vice president of Section 8, remembered something that happened in 2006, one year after Wilt had been dismissed. Wilt stood at the front of Section 8 during the final of the U.S. Open Cup, cheering the team on as loudly as he could. At the end of the game, after the Fire’s victory, the goalkeeper, Matt Pickens, came over and put his winner’s medal around Wilt’s neck, reducing the former GM to tears. Pattrick credits Wilt with creating Section 8 and planting the seeds for good relations between the front office and supporters.
Asked to sum all the good Wilt has done, Stanton replied, “I don’t have enough breath in my life.”
Wilt was beloved outside of Chicago, too. In Milwaukee, he is known as the Patron Saint of Highbury, one of the city’s best-known soccer bars, and as the creator of the “Schlabst,” Milwaukee’s “black-and-tan.” Wilt also spearheaded the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring an MLS team to Milwaukee, trying to spread the sport throughout the Midwest.
But Wilt’s name came up most in the city of his most recent venture – Indianapolis. He played a critical role in getting Indianapolis‘ new North American Soccer League team, Indy Eleven, off the ground, and now serves as its president and GM. As in other cities, fans had nothing but positives to say about the man.
“Every time I’ve seen him, he’s in the crowd,” one said, noting how rare that is for club presidents. Another noted how Wilt always makes himself available to fans. Whether it’s thanking supporters for coming to every game (even after a loss), showing up at all the marketing events, or just frequenting soccer pubs (like the Chatham Tap, where I watched the USA-Ghana game) to mingle with the supporters, Wilt does whatever it takes to reach out to the fans and get them into the game.
The Indy Eleven front office also gave high praise to the club’s president. Tom Dunmore, the VP of marketing and operations for Indy Eleven, told me how Wilt helped make the club so beloved in Indianapolis. In the age of social media, a lot of marketing campaigns have become increasingly digital, and the face-to-face contact that can build a real connection between club and community is sometimes lacking. Not Wilt. Dunmore described how Wilt would drive around town, going to bars and restaurants to ask them to do promotions for the team. Wilt also went to hundreds of meetings and fan events, even going out to the suburbs and shaking hands with individual fans, all to give the people of the Indianapolis area a personal connection to the club that social media and conventional marketing could never achieve. Dunmore called it a “one man show” in the beginning, all to make sure that the team would be embraced by the community.
And the success shows. Despite being in the cellar of the NASL for the entire spring season, Indy Eleven had the league’s highest attendance by a margin of 4,000 fans per game. Every team that comes to play in Indianapolis comments on the fervor of its supporters.
Wilt’s soccer-first passion comes through even when asked for a comment on email.
“It’s so exciting to see the evolution of soccer in middle America,” he wrote. “It reflects the evolution of the nation itself. I’ve worked in professional soccer since 1987 and have witnessed the change from indoor soccer to outdoor soccer and college-based national teams, to European and domestic professional league-based national teams. The support has grown from a niche of small immigrant populations and youth soccer players with their ‘new to the sport’ parents to the mainstream audience of today. Having launched or relaunched teams in the Minneapolis/St. Paul, Milwaukee, Chicago and Indianapolis has given me the opportunity to see first hand the commitment to the sport that soccer fans have made in the Midwest. It is an important part of the lives now for the majority of people in these major urban areas. It’s gratifying to know I’ve had a small role in the growth as it has transitioned from an off-the-radar sport to one that is front and center in the lives of so many.”
The work of people like Wilt can leave a lasting impression on a club, its community, and its supporters, ensuring an enduring bond. Let’s hope that he and many others continue such work in other communities and continue to spread the beautiful game across our great country.
Joseph Sims, 21, graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla in May with a degree in politics. The graduate of Roosevelt High School in Seattle has an obsession with soccer that has taken him all over the globe, from the World Cup in South Africa, to the Emirates Stadium in London, to the Sounders-Timbers rivalry right here in Seattle. Follow his journey around the country during the World Cup to find the heart and soul of soccer in the U.S. in the Take 2 blog.
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