The du Nord Question & Answer Session With .... Peter Wilt
Interview conducted & edited by Paul Demko.
Over the last two decades, Peter Wilt has been involved in practically every soccer league in the United States. Starting with the Milwaukee Wave indoor team, he's gone on to management posts with the Chicago Power, the Continental Indoor Soccer League, the Minnesota Thunder and the Chicago Fire. He's currently CEO of the Chicago Red Stars in the Woman's Professional Soccer league.
I sat down with Wilt on a recent Saturday morning at the Saint Paul Hotel to talk futbol, fan culture and his purported status as the "Patron Saint" of the The Highbury bar in Milwaukee. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
du Nord: You were the general manager of the Minnesota Thunder in the mid-90s. What moment sticks out in your mind from that era?
Peter Wilt: The 1995 USISL championship game at Mitchell Park in Long Island against the Long Island Rough Riders. It was the last top-level soccer game in the United States before Major League Soccer started the following year. You had the Minnesota Thunder, with an all-Minnesota team -- Tony Sanneh, the Lagos brothers, Amos Magee, Matt Holmes, John Swallen, Don Gramenz. We had a ringer, Pierre Morice, who played professionally in France, retired, married a Minnesota girl, moved to the cities and heard about the Thunder. He was like Stoichkov passing the ball. He could put the ball on someone's foot from 40 yards away.
You had that incredible team going up in the final championship game against Tony Meola, Chris Armas, Giovanni Savarese, Mike Masters. The game is 1-1 in the final minute. This was a year when the USISL was experimenting with a countdown clock. So it was true time. It got down to a minute, 30 seconds, 20 seconds, 10 seconds. The ball's heading towards our own end-line. Chris Armas runs to the end-line, saves it from going out, crosses it into the middle to Giovanni Savarese, who pokes it past John Swallen, game-winning goal with six seconds left and we lose. It was just an amazing game.
dN: How did you end up with the Chicago Fire after that?
PW: Everyone in soccer wanted to get into MLS. I interviewed with a series of people, finally with Phil Anschutz himself. It only lasted 15 minutes. It was almost rapid fire questions. He would cut me off after he'd heard what he wanted to hear, and then ask another question. Never giving his own thoughts, never giving his own comments. Then after 15 minutes his secretary came in and said Tim Lieweke was on the line and needed to talk to him. He excused himself, said I'll be right back. Forty five minutes later he comes back, grabs his jacket, says I'm sorry I have to leave, but I've heard all I need to hear, thank you for coming in. I'm thinking, that could be good, that could be bad.
dN: But you were ultimately fired from that job in 2005. Why?
PW: Over time I reported to five different people. I got along and impressed four of the five. The final one, really, I don't know that I had the opportunity to one way or another. He never attended a Chicago Fire home game during my tenure. He may have visited our office a couple of times.
dN: Who was that person?
PW: It was Shawn Hunter, now Chivas USA's president.
dN: The Fire are averaging less than 12,000 fans per game this year, roughly 30 percent less than last year. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?
PW: It's not any one reason. It never is. But certainly there's been a disconnect with the soccer community at large. I think there's been a large turnover from top to bottom in the organization, starting with the ownership. Unfortunately I think the Fire is in a position right now where they have some people who are talented people, but they're learning the soccer business, or at least the MLS business, on the fly. That will take them a little bit of time to get going again. I don't know that they're as relevant in Chicago as maybe they were a number of years back.
dN: You were integral to getting that stadium built. Was it a mistake to build it in Bridgeview, rather than a more urban setting?
PW: Certainly lack of public transportation is a negative for the current location. The current location is equally challenging to reach for both the suburban fans and the urban fans. Absolutely it would be better to have it in downtown Chicago. But in order to do that it would have cost AEG in the ballpark of $100 million. Whereas the village of Bridgeview stepped up.
We had a site, 35th and Shields, the site of the old Comiskey Park. The mayor was willing to make it happen for us. The White Sox ownership was willing to make it happen for us. We could have secured the land. There's an L stop right there. There's parking right there. People are used to it. But there was no supporting money. Is Bridgeview perfect? No. Was it a mistake to put it there? No. Because if not there I don't think it was going to get built.
dN: The WUSA failed after three years. Why is the WPS going to be different.
PW: The WUSA didn’t fail across the board. It just failed as a business. On the field the product was terrific. It was more successful arguably than MLS from that standpoint because the product was the best in the world. WPS's challenge is to retain that success on the field, but also correct the mistakes on the business side.
dN: You are an investor in Chicago Red Stars, correct? What does that mean?
PW: I put in a little bit of cash and a lot of sweat equity. I've got about 10 percent of the team, along with seven or eight other local businessmen who have put in their capital and some of their sweat.
dN: What are the indicators of success you're looking at for year one?
PW: The indicator of success is that we survive for 10 years. That's ultimately our goal, survival. If we do that the value of the franchise will go up and we'll ultimately be a successful business. The favorite one people like to ask is what kind of attendance do you need to succeed? It's really not the right question. It's dependent on your other revenue streams and how well you're doing with cost-containment. The revenue streams for WPS -- while certainly less than Major League Baseball or NBA or NFL -- isn't just about ticket sales.
dN: What’s the biggest difference between men's and women's professional soccer in the United States?
PW: I think in women's soccer there's a sense that it should be promoted as a cause, a social cause for women's rights. Girl Power. That was never the case with MLS or men's soccer. WPS in general, and Chicago in particular, made a point of saying no, this is about entertainment. This is a great athletic sport. It's absolutely a good thing for women and a good thing for girls. But we really believe that the product as a sport, as entertainment, is worthy of your investment.
dN: Recently there's been some turbulence in Columbus between the hardcore supporters and management over profane behavior in the stands. You've always been viewed as an ally of the hardcore soccer fans. What's your philosophy for dealing with fans that are the most passionate, but also have a tendency to get out of line?
PW: The two most important audiences in American soccer are suburban families, which are traditionally conservative and sensitive to vulgarities and rowdy behavior, and young, urban, male, passionate fans who like and partake in extreme behavior. It's two extremes that are oftentimes seated side by side. It's ironic that they have this dichotomy while their end goal is the same: supporting the team they love to victory.
Throughout my time with the Fire, the key I found was communication. I get most credit for my dealings with Section 8 -- with the young, urban, passionate fans -- but I spent just as much time dealing with the suburban soccer community. It's important that both constituencies understand each other and that they're empathetic to each other. I remember the first time I sat down with the Polish Ultras. Frankly some of them were skinheads. They're more knowledgeable about the way things are in Poland at soccer games than they are in the United States. The fact that I sat down with them in a soccer bar and I bought the first round of beer, and I listened to them gave me credibility. So that when I made counterpoints, and explained things from the other viewpoints, it helped. It’s not rocket science. It’s a negotiation.
dN: Among MLS players, who sticks out in your mind as being under-rated?
PW: In 1998 there's no doubt that Chris Armas was the most underrated player in the league. Over time he became very much appreciated. Jesse Marsch was another one. He was underrated. Now it's like everyone pretty much gets Jessie Marsch. Ricardo Clark is probably a guy who does a lot of little things. I remember when he played for the Fire reserves in the PDL, when he was still in college at Furman, thinking this is going to be a great player.
dN: You were involved in an effort to get an MLS squad in Milwaukee. What happened to that effort?
PW: I don't think there's any realistic chance of getting an MLS team in Milwaukee now. We had a number of key pieces in place. We had the community support, in that we had a commitment from the state youth soccer association to buy, literally, thousands of season tickets. We had a good number of investors lined up. But it was all contingent on getting a stadium built. To get a stadium built we needed a public-private partnership, and the public part never came to be.
dN: According to Wikipedia, you are known as the Patron Saint of The Highbury bar in Milwaukee. Is that accurate?
PW: God knows Wikipedia is yet to make its first mistake. There have been people who have said that, yes.
dN: What have you done to earn that title?
PW: I think buying a round of shots after Fulham scores a game-winning goal is what qualifies me for patron saint status.