By: Todd D. Milewski, Wisconsin State Journal
USL Division III executive Steven Short describes the projected fan base for his nascent pro soccer league as millenials living in a city’s downtown core.
From the playing surface at Breese Stevens Field, a look to the east or west shows apartment towers whose young professional residents could provide a Madison team a good start toward building that base.
Madison Pro Soccer’s franchise was announced Thursday as one of the founding members of the USL Division III, with play starting in March 2019.
The league is an offshoot of the United Soccer League, a second-division pro league.
“We knew from the beginning that Madison was potentially a great market for us,” said Short, the senior vice president of USL Division III. “And once we met the group from Big Top Events, we knew this was going to be a tremendous opportunity to bring pro soccer to Madison.”
Big Top Events, which operates city-owned Breese Stevens Field, officially unveiled its Madison Pro Soccer group at an event Thursday evening complete with smoke bombs, scarves and a supporters group.
The team, whose name and colors will be determined through a community engagement process, is owned by Vern Stenman, Conor Caloia, Jim Kacmarcik and Steve Schmitt.
Peter Wilt, the longtime soccer executive who has been hired to be managing director of Madison Pro Soccer, said the USL is in a strong position in a fluctuating minor league market.
Wilt was a member of a previous incarnation of the USL board while he led the Minnesota Thunder in the 1990s in what was then known as the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues.
“While the satellites around it might be moving about, this league — and I think it played a big part in (Big Top’s) decision to go that direction — is very stable,” Wilt said.
In 2017, the USL announced plans for a companion to its Division II league that would fill a gap at the Division III level. There have been no leagues sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation for third-division play in the past two seasons.
USSF standards for Division III leagues are relaxed as compared to the higher tiers. At least 75 percent of teams must play in population markets of 1,000,000 or more at Division I and 750,000 or more in the second division.
Stadiums need to seat at least 15,000 in the top division and 5,000 in Division II.
There is no market floor for the third division, and stadiums need to hold only 1,000 spectators to qualify. USL Division III, however, will require a 3,500 minimum capacity.
The USL, based in Tampa, Florida, has been targeting cities with populations between 150,000 and 1 million for its Division III entity. Three markets had already been revealed as entries: Statesboro, Georgia; Tucson, Arizona; and Greenville, South Carolina.
Short said the league, whose season will run from March to October, likely will start with 12 to 16 teams, with regional competition the focus. Wilt said the Madison team is selling tickets for a 17-game 2019 season, with some of those contests being exhibitions, playoffs or U.S. Open Cup matches.
The franchise entry fee for USL Division III has been reported at $500,000.
In Madison, officials at Big Top Events have been seeking a soccer anchor tenant since contracting with the city to operate Breese Stevens Field in 2015.
On Tuesday, the Madison City Council approved a reworked use agreement for Big Top at the stadium, which opened in 1925 and has been undergoing upgrades in recent years. Part of the agreement involves city funding for new seating to expand the soccer capacity from 2,800 to 5,000.
Renderings shown at Thursday’s event indicated a temporary standing section with drink rails being constructed behind the east goal. That area is where the stage is placed for concerts at the stadium.
Caloia, the Big Top chief operating officer, said that in the past two-plus years, the group has been close to making associations with leagues but has “taken a step back to make sure that we’re making the best long-term decision.”
Announcing associations with USL Division III and Wilt fit that qualification, he said.
“We think now that we’ve found the right home for the franchise,” Caloia said, “and we’ve found the right leader for that franchise.”