By: Todd D. Milewski, Wisconsin State Journal
Peter Wilt carries with him an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport in which he has worked for more than 30 years. So of course he would know on command that Wisconsin is the most populous state besides Michigan that doesn’t currently have a professional outdoor soccer team.
Wilt is the person who’ll be tasked with changing that.
Having previously launched five pro soccer teams, Wilt will attempt a sixth as managing director of Madison Pro Soccer, a branch of the group that runs city-owned Breese Stevens Field in Madison.
Big Top Events plans to bring a professional soccer team to the stadium in 2019 after the Madison City Council on Tuesday approved contract changes that include $1.3 million from the city toward soccer-related facility improvements.
The hiring of Wilt, a Whitefish Bay resident who’s well-known in soccer circles for establishing pro teams in Chicago and Indianapolis, is what Big Top president Vern Stenman called a sign of the company’s commitment.
“This is not something that we’re just going to throw a soccer team out there and hope some people come,” Stenman said. “This is something that we think is going to continue to change the landscape of entertainment in this community for a long time to come.”
The council on Tuesday approved changes to the use agreement between the city and Big Top, including an extension through 2028 with a mutual option through 2033.
Wilt said he sees in Madison a “perfect marriage” of demographics — particularly young professionals living next to the Near East Side stadium — and an evolution of soccer that’s converting TV-watching fans of foreign teams into in-person supporters of the local teams.
“A lot of these soccer fans that are following the sport internationally, they want more than that,” Wilt said. “They want a team of their own. Certainly, if you ask some, they’d probably prefer that Real Madrid was playing in their backyard. But that’s not going to happen, even for Major League Soccer teams and markets. But they can have just as much passion — in some cases, more passion — for an American team and a lower-division team.”
Big Top chief operating officer Conor Caloia said that information on which league the as-yet unnamed Madison team will join will be forthcoming Thursday at a 6 p.m. public event at Breese Stevens Field to officially introduce Wilt. Stadium gates open at 5:30 p.m.
U.S. pro soccer is divided into three divisions, with Major League Soccer occupying the top rung and operating in stadiums much larger than Breese Stevens.
With the North American Soccer League on hiatus this season pending a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS about sanctioning, the United Soccer League is the country’s only sanctioned second-division group.
Last year, the USL announced plans to form a third-division pro league in 2019, targeting cities with populations between 150,000 and 1 million. In U.S. Soccer Federation sanctioning, Division III leagues don’t have strict requirements for geography and market-size minimums that are found in the higher tiers.
Lower levels of the U.S. soccer pyramid include amateur leagues. Teams, including the current Madison 56ers, have played at those levels at Breese Stevens since 2005.
Wilt, 58, had been the co-founder of the National Independent Soccer Association, which was organized in 2017 to try to form a third-division pro league. But he said his involvement with that group was done as he transitioned into his role with Madison Pro Soccer.
Since Big Top Events won the bid to manage Breese Stevens in 2015, it has sought a soccer team to be the anchor tenant of the stadium, a city landmark that opened in 1925 and was home to the WIAA state soccer tournaments from 1988 to 2003.
Stenman said that early plans were for a Madison pro soccer team to try to replicate the atmosphere created by the Madison Mallards at Warner Park, where the game is surrounded by a carnival-like feel. Big Top also runs that summer collegiate baseball team and others around the state.
Now, however, the vision is for a more authentic soccer experience, free of what Wilt called “jock rock” over the speakers during the game.
“We understand what this market is and what the fan base is going to expect,” Stenman said. “And that’s the path that we’re going to go down.”
The $1.3 million in capital expenses by the city will go toward a new speaker system to better contain noise inside the stadium, improvements to player facilities, new hospitality spaces and seating additions. The latter is projected to raise seating capacity from 2,800 to 5,000.
Big Top is planning for a March 2019 debut for the soccer team.
That gives Wilt about 10 months to put things together, a little longer than he had to launch the MLS’ Chicago Fire in 1997 and 1998.
Wilt wants to have a coach hired by November but he said he plans to start immediately in building “emotional connections with the community at large.”
He already has those ties to the state, which is a big reason Big Top put its soccer operations in Wilt’s hands.
“It just felt like a natural fit,” Caloia said. “There’s not a current outdoor pro team in the state. And if there’s going to be one, I think Peter’s the logical fit to lead it.”
“This is something that we think is going to continue to change the landscape of entertainment in this community for a long time to come.” Vern Stenman, president of Big Top Events