Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A lesson in building a soccer team from Peter Wilt

Bringing a North American Soccer League club to Indianapolis reaffirmed that Peter Wilt is one of the smartest and most engaging executives in American soccer.

INDIANAPOLIS - Peter Wilt is back in a familiar place.

Not so much in the literal sense, as this city is still relatively new for him, but in a figurative sense.

On Wednesday, Wilt gave birth to yet another professional soccer team. No one who knows him well needed the reminder, but bringing a North American Soccer League club to Indianapolis reaffirmed that Wilt is one of the smartest and most engaging executives in American soccer.

The as-yet-unnamed club will begin playing in 2014. It will be the seventh team Wilt has worked for since the 1990's began. Four of them have been expansion teams. That's not a coincidence.

If you've heard Wilt's name before, it's likely because he spearheaded the launch of Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire in 1998. With Wilt as GM, club immediately became one of MLS' most successful on and off the field. The Fire won one MLS Cup and made two more finals in Wilt's tenure, and regularly drew some of the league's best crowds.

Then came the Chicago Red Stars in Women's Professional Soccer, and with Wilt's magic touch the Windy City got a women's soccer brand that remains alive to this day. He later tried to launch a Major League Indoor Soccer team in Chicago. Though that didn't work out, his reputation wasn't diminished. Now he's working in the NASL for the first time.

Indianapolis is not necessarily a city you'd associate with soccer right away. Football, certainly, with the NFL's Colts; and basketball with the NBA's Pacers and powerhouse college programs such as Butler.

But soccer? Well, now you can add it to the list.

"While soccer has been bigger in other places in the world than it's been in North America, there's a growing enthusiasm," Indiana governor Mike Pence told me. "You see youth leagues growing in Indiana as you do all over the country. I think the opportunity to have professional soccer coming here to the Hoosier State is only going to continue to advance interest in the sport."

Much of what Pence said was a series of sports-related clichés - and there weren't many mentions of soccer. He is a politician, after all.

(It also didn't help that some of the other reporters who asked him questions did so in remarkably bland fashion. One TV guy asked Gov. Pence what his favorite sports team is.)

But it's clear that this city is as passionate for sports as any in the United States. If soccer can make it here, it will have extended another tentacle into the American cultural mainstream.

I later made the same point to Wilt that I made to Pence. It might not surprise you to find out that I got a different answer, but the specific nature of that answer might surprise you somewhat.

"The demographics [here] are closer to Kansas City and Salt Lake City than Portland, Seattle and Vancouver," Wilt said. Those are five of MLS' most successful markets, and they have not all achieved that success in the same way.

"You've seen what happened in Salt Lake and Kansas City when they were given the game in the right atmosphere, the right environment," he continued. "I believe the same thing can happen here."

So I asked Wilt a question that is at once simple and loaded. What does it take to build a soccer team?

His answer:

A lot of outreach, a lot of listening. The last three or four months, I did a lot of talking, but I think - I hope - I did more listening than talking.

It's really about creating advocates and then creating evangelists. Because I'm one guy. Ultimately, this team will have 10, 12 staff [employees] if we're lucky. That's not enough to get it done.

You need to convert leaders and stakeholders in the soccer community and the business community, and let them give the message. They're going to be more credible than I'll ever be, because I'm getting paid to say what I'm saying.

So it wasn't coincidental that Wilt was joined on the presentation stage by members of the Brickyard Battalion, a supporters' club founded in 2011 for an Indianapolis team that was barely a dream at that point.

Does that narrative sound familiar? It should. The Sons of Ben took a very similar path in convincing MLS to give Philadelphia a team of its own.

"If I can get those 70 guys on the stage behind me to give the message to their networks of influence, that's going to be strong, and that's going to multiply over and over," Wilt said. "And it's not just that audience - it's every audience. If you get leaders in those communities to spread that message, then you get that emotional connection where you feel part of the team."

Ah, that word "emotional." It connotes something different from the simple business aspects of running a sports team. No matter how stone-hearted a front office may seem, at some point it has to create a culture that truly resonates with a fan base. Philadelphians know that full well.

I did have one business-related question though. I wanted to know whether it's different building a team in the franchise-based NASL compared to the single-entity structure that defines MLS.

"In a way, yeah," Wilt said, and then he had a story to tell.

It's a numbers game. I did this with the Minnesota Thunder [in the 1990s], which was in the [then-USL] second division at the time. We had two full-time staff, including me.

When I got the Chicago Fire job, and I got a month or two into it and was finally staffed up, I remember telling my wife: "The difference here is that in Minnesota, I did at least half the work myself. There, I delegated, I managed, I gave them my insight, but the key to success there was hiring people who could do their jobs better than I could do their jobs."

It is absolutely different. You have more resources, but the expectations are higher. If you sell 9,000 tickets [per game] in MLS, you're a disaster. If we sell 9,000 tickets per game in Indianapolis, I'll be doing okay.

Wilt then called the difference between a franchise-based league structure and a single-entity league structure "overrated."

"In MLS, the teams had incredible autonomy if you took the autonomy," he said. "When I started with the Fire, D.C. United was basically the only team that said, 'That's okay, MLS, we've got it handled.' "

Wilt admits that he "learned what to do from D.C. United, and kind of what not to do from some of the other teams, but it was that autonomy that was so important."

Nowadays, he says, all of the teams in MLS are autonomous in that way.

Though I've never lived or worked in a city where Wilt has run a team, I've known him for a few years now. He's a great guy and he has earned all of the praise that he has won in his career.

I'd be willing to bet that if you asked all 19 fan bases in MLS who they'd have as an ideal GM, the overwhelming majority of responses would be Wilt.

(Certainly in Toronto and New York, where rumors have long swirled that Wilt has applied for GM positions and been turned down. We've all seen what has resulted from those decisions.)

He gets what it means to be a soccer fan and a soccer businessman at the same time, and there aren't many people involved in the game in this country who get it as well as he do.