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Firestarter: Wilt’s ceaseless impact on Midwest soccer

MU alum has started 6 soccer franchises, includes Fire of MLS

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Milwaukee almost had a Major League Soccer team.

Just 10 years ago Peter Wilt, a 1982 Marquette journalism graduate, spearheaded a movement to bring a club to the city. He and his group believed they had enough investors and fans to support a franchise. The biggest barrier was funding a stadium to play in, which was the plan’s ultimate downfall.

It was an intriguing proposition for Wilt, who historically has had no problem starting teams from scratch. In his career, he has launched three professional soccer teams and restarted three others across four different leagues.

“I love startups,” Wilt said. “There’s so much energy and passion and excitement in the beginning of a team. It’s the creative process that I love.”

Despite more than 25 years in the soccer business, Wilt got his start with the Milwaukee Admirals. He credits everything he knows – sports marketing, sales, promotions – to his training with the Admirals. When he left them in 1987 for the Milwaukee Wave, the city’s professional indoor soccer team, he was able to hone his craft.

“It was really just an opportunity to get a higher-level job running a front office, especially the revenue side of it,” Wilt said. “We had a good group of people, and we grew the attendance from about 2,500 people a game when we were playing at the MECCA Auditorium to almost 9,000 average when we were playing at the (BMO Harris) Bradley Center four years later.”

Wilt bounced around after finding success with the Wave, taking jobs with a Chicago indoor club and the now-defunct Minnesota Thunder of the United Soccer League. His rise to fame came in 1997, when he became the founding president and general manager of the MLS’ Chicago Fire.

“In Minnesota, our front office was two people including me,” Wilt explained. “So the change to Major League Soccer, where you have dozens of employees, was a bit intimidating. It was a different job. Instead of actually doing a lot of the work myself – handling the sponsorship, media relations, ticket sales – I hired other people to do it and gave them the resources to succeed.”

After hiring eventual U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Bob Bradley, the Fire pulled off the “double” MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup victories in 1998, their first season in the league. When Wilt left the Fire in 2005, he made sure to keep leaving his footprint in the Midwest. He became CEO of the Chicago Red Stars, a women’s professional team, before becoming the first president and general manager of the North American Soccer League’s Indy Eleven in 2013.

Wilt, a Whitefish Bay resident, has been so centralized in Midwestern cities because he believes there is untapped potential in reaching young adults in markets like Indianapolis, St. Louis and Milwaukee. He said there are three main demographics his team pitches to: millennials, “new” Americans  – first and multi-generational – and youth soccer families.

“Soccer’s the cool sport. When I was starting in the late ‘80s, it wasn’t,” Wilt said. “It’s got to be edgy … because the main demographic that we market to is millennials – the young, urban adult. That’s what made the sport so popular in markets like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. If it’s cool with the millennials, it’ll be aspirational for the kids.”

That was Wilt’s thinking 10 years ago when he tried to bring a team to Milwaukee. The city’s advanced soccer interest has been rooted in its youth and diversity over the past century.

“It’s interesting because Milwaukee and a market like St. Louis were early adopters in soccer in terms of participating. That’s because of the ethnic makeup of St. Louis and Milwaukee,” Wilt said. “The German population here, the Polish population, Croatian. The surviving ethnic soccer clubs are evidence of that … Milwaukee has always been ahead of the curve in terms of participation. I think from a spectator interest, it gave them a bit of a head start.”

Milwaukee’s budding soccer interest is perhaps best represented by the annual Marquette versus UW-Milwaukee derby. Last September’s men’s 1-1 final at UWM drew an Engelmann Stadium record of 4,030 fans in attendance.

“What’s wonderful about the college soccer scene here is that it’s not only increasing in popularity, but in passion,” Wilt said. “You see guys like the Milwaukee Barons (supporter group) and what they’re putting together to try to organize a supporters’ culture … They’ve taken their passion and, to a certain extent, they’re extending that to Marquette and UWM soccer. It’s a great way to grow the sport, to grow the passion and show the potential of the sport professionally in the community.”

Wilt is hoping he can find a similar group of passionate supporters as he moves onto his next venture. He’ll soon be leaving his role as general manager of the Eleven to start a new NASL franchise in downtown Chicago. Like Indianapolis and Milwaukee, Wilt wants to target the young, urban adult population that can use public transportation within the city rather than travel to the suburbs to watch the Fire.

“He’s the ultimate builder,” said Marquette head coach Louis Bennett, a longtime friend of Wilt from their days with the Wave. “Every franchise he’s gone to has gotten better … Some would say it’s like being a mercenary. He goes around, gets what he needs done and then moves to the next one.”

Jack Goods contributed to this story.

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