Peter Wilt is a name that brings smiles to the faces of not only Chicago Fire fans, but of anyone who has followed the sport in this country over the past decade. Mr. Wilt is one of the "good guys" of the sport; a man whose main focus first and foremost is the fans.
Now, almost a year removed from his tenure as the Fire's general manager, Wilt is back at it again, this time pushing an expansion effort in Milwaukee.
ESPNsoccernet: Mr. Wilt, thank you for joining ESPNsoccernet to discuss the Milwaukee expansion effort, MLS and the upcoming World Cup.
The governor of Illinois declared March 31 "Peter Wilt Day." How did this come about and tell us about the events of the day?
PJW: Chicago Storm General Manager Brian Loftin arranged it. Prior to the game Brian and Storm Head Coach Frank Klopas presented me with proclamations from the Governor and Mayor and a very nice plaque and personalized jersey from the Storm.
It was humbling and gratifying. The best part was how well the team played that night in victory. After the game, I joined a group of Fire fans and we drove all night and arrived in Frisco, Texas just in time for the Fire's 2006 opener. I was kind of hoping since it was my "day" and all, the Governor would give us a pass on the tolls, alas we still had to pony up.
ESPNsoccernet: Since you left your post as the first general manager of the Chicago Fire, you have been actively involved in the promotion of Milwaukee as an MLS expansion city. Dating back to your days with the Fire, you had commented that the potential of a team in Milwaukee would "be the best thing to happen to the Fire." Why are you so high on Milwaukee?
PJW: I don't know about it being the "best" thing for the Fire. I think having a home of its own is probably the best thing for the Fire. That being said, a nearby rival would increase interest in the team and the League on both sides of the state line. The rivalry would generate passion among fans in a way that is common in the rest of the world. Similarly, expansion to Philadelphia and Queens would put five teams in the northeast within driving range of visiting fans.
ESPNsoccernet: Several months ago, the Milwaukee Pro Soccer organization that you head, landed a deal with the Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association that provides each member of the WYSA with a ticket voucher for a home game. In essence, this secures a ticket-base of approximately 7,000 vouchers per game for the potential franchise. What spawned this idea and how conceivable is it that this will become a reality?
PJW: It's not 7,000 vouchers per game. It's a commitment for a half million dollars per year in season ticket sales for three years, plus one ticket voucher for each of 56,000 members. Experience shows that about half of the vouchers will be redeemed with an average of two paid companion tickets each. About 10 percent of the tickets will be upgraded.
This will produce significant revenue from approximately 8,000 fans per game -- prior to going on sale to the general public. While assuring the team of the strongest base in the League, the more important aspect of the partnership is the connection it provides between the MLS team and the youth community. The partnership provides a spot on the team's board of directors for the WYSA, which will give them a voice in our business and will provide us with an ear into the youth community.
There are also dozens of partnership elements that will fully integrate the team with youth soccer in the state. The profit share giving the WYSA an ownership stake in the team is more valuable as a symbol that this will be a statewide team with grassroots support.
The general concept originated, while as president/general manager of the USL's Minnesota Thunder in the mid-90's, we negotiated a similar partnership with the MYSA.
ESPNsoccernet: Why have existing MLS sides not tapped into a similar alignment with the state soccer associations so as to broaden appeal and also tap into this viable market?
PJW: It takes two parties willing to set aside egos and personal interests. It's also easier to do when starting from scratch before a team has started. Several MLS teams, including Los Angeles, Dallas, Columbus, Kansas City and Chicago have created partnerships with state associations, albeit less involved than this one.
ESPNsoccernet: A common knock against Milwaukee is that it is a small-market franchise. Why should the league and fans not be concerned about this label?
PJW: Milwaukee has a rich soccer tradition that launched soccer here decades before. Much of the country discovered the sport. It has strong ethnic roots in the German, Italian, Polish and Irish community. New Americans from Mexico and Eastern Europe would also provide support.
With little advertising support, the Milwaukee Wave led its indoor league with an average of more than 8,000 fans per game back in 1990 when I last managed a soccer team in this city. The sport has grown exponentially in the 16 years since.
The MLS team, much like the Packers and Brewers, would be supported statewide. The Madison area and Fox Valley have strong soccer support and were the biggest supporters of the WYSA partnership.
ESPNsoccernet: What is the status of the ownership group for Milwaukee? In addition, how feasible is it to believe that a soccer-specific stadium could be built and readied for the potential franchise?
PJW: We have a solid group of investors in place representing a broad range of Milwaukee's social, civic and racial makeup. Our lead investor is waiting for the land to be secured prior to formalizing his commitment. Building the stadium remains the biggest challenge. Our plan always has been, and continues to be to finance the stadium through a combination of private funds and use of credit enhanced incremental taxes generated from the affiliated mixed-use development. The political environment in Wisconsin will not support traditional public subsidies, but we believe that it will support TIF for this project if we can secure an appropriate site.
ESPNsoccernet: When Don Garber speaks about potential expansion sites, rarely, if ever, is Milwaukee mentioned as a serious contender. Is this a slight on Milwaukee as a franchise or is the possibility of a team in Milwaukee not seen as a stable feasibility?
PJW: I have kept the League up to date on our situation and they correctly believe that if we cannot secure the land for the stadium, then our chances are not good. We have proposed four sites to the city and been turned down each time. We have two remaining sites that we are relying on.
If we fail to either gain development rights or city support on either of those sites, we will likely forego our efforts.
ESPNsoccernet: Shifting gears, the original coach of the Fire, Bob Bradley, was fired by Alexi Lalas as the 2005 season drew to a close. Many fans of the team formerly known as the MetroStars were disappointed with the performance of Bradley's team over the course of his three seasons with the organization. What happened with Bradley's stint in New Jersey and were you surprised by not only his termination, but the results of his team?
PJW: The MetroStars qualified for the playoffs three times in their history. Bob coached two of those teams. He faced enormous challenges when he took over. I believe he had made significant progress and was the right man for the long term in that market. I wasn't surprised by the termination, because Alexi never seemed to support him and you could see it coming.
ESPNsoccernet: When you started the Fire in 1998, you had an abundance of name players such as Jorge Campos, Piotr Nowak, Lubos Kubik. All were savvy internationals with some drawing power. Today, MLS is lacking with regards to this name talent. Would a marquee player allocation/exception work and how do you foresee the system working?
PJW: Teams controlling the ancillary revenue streams of their stadia enhances the chances for a designated player rule to work economically. Now that most teams control their stadium revenues, teams would benefit from the increased value of naming rights, stadium sponsorship and suites. The additional ticket sales would also generate additional parking, concession and merchandise revenue.
Marquee players would also improve broadcast ratings and revenue. It's easier to justify the added expense now than it was five years ago. In general, wasted salaries in most sports aren't the high end ones paid to marquee players. They are the free agent driven mid-level salaries paid to mediocre, journeyman players who aren't "impactful" enough to win championships and don't have the name value to increase broadcast and stadium revenue.
Regarding the mechanism, I don't know how it would work, but I imagine it would be optional and limited to one slot.
ESPNsoccernet: It seems that every year, several big-name European clubs are touring the United States, in essence, barn-storming across the country, seeking an audience. Do these types of tours and promotions hurt MLS or do they enhance the image of the sport in this country?
PJW: The tours definitely shine a spotlight on the sport in the U.S. whether or not the tours are in connection with the League and that's a good thing for MLS. If the games are promoted or co-promoted by Sum or an MLS team, then it benefits MLS even more.
ESPNsoccernet: During a preseason match versus Real Salt Lake, one of your former players and now head coach of D.C. United, Piotr Nowak, was claimed to have uttered a racially insensitive comment. Have you spoken with Piotr about this claim and what do you make of the situation?
PJW: I have not spoken to Piotr about it, but knowing him as well as I do, I am certain that he was misunderstood.
ESPNsoccernet: You have been actively involved with youth development programs from your time with the Chicago Fire and your work with the USSF. Is the reserve system benefiting MLS and is it a viable option for young players?
PJW: Ask Chris Rolfe, Gonzalo Segares and Brian Plotkin. And that is just the Fire. Every MLS team can point to examples of players they could not find a senior roster spot for, but were able to keep on the expanded roster and develop due to the reserve teams. At a minimum, it provides 50-plus roster spots and a dozen additional games for young players who were on the bubble or who would have fallen through the cracks of professional soccer.
ESPNsoccernet: Now, with the 2006 World Cup, some are already beginning to eagerly await the next tournament. As part of this preparation, the USSF implemented a comprehensive develop program called Project 2010. Is Project 2010, a plan implemented by the USSF to win the World Cup by 2010, a realistically achievable goal?
PJW: Project 2010 was intended to make the U.S. competitive with the best countries in the world by 2010. That is a realistic goal.
ESPNsoccernet: Handicap the World Cup Peter, who will win it all?
PJW: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Spain and England all have reason to be optimistic, but I'll keep my money on Brazil again.
ESPNsoccernet: Will Arena be the national team coach in 2010?
PJW: I think it's more likely that he'll return to club coaching and come back to national team duty in 2014. I think he misses the daily challenge that coaching a club team offers. I think he would prefer to coach in England or Scotland. If that doesn't work out, a return to MLS in a major market with total authority may be a reasonable option.
ESPNsoccernet: Mr. Wilt, thank you for joining ESPNsoccernet for this exclusive interview.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet and the soccer editor for The NYC Sporting News. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com