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Kickstarter Q&A: Peter Wilt, Indy Eleven President

Pro soccer has never found its footing in Indianapolis, but this man thinks the new team can succeed. Is he tripping?

On May 26, 2012, Peter Wilt and Ersal Ozdemir had a lunch appointment at Detour American Grille in Carmel. On the agenda: how to establish “The World’s Game”—soccer—in Central Indiana.

The chairman of the North American Soccer League, a second-tier series below Major League Soccer, had introduced the men earlier that year. Ozdemir, the CEO of Keystone Construction Group, was a passionate fan looking for an investment opportunity. Wilt, a 53-year-old former president of the MLS Chicago Fire, had experience starting new franchises. Together, they hoped to bring Indianapolis its first serious professional soccer team since the Indiana Blast folded in 2004.

Their meeting was set for noon. Wilt had driven from his home in Milwaukee to see Ozdemir. “I waited at the bar until 12:20 without any sign of him,” he says. “I was afraid that he had forgotten about the meeting and that I had made the five-hour trip to Indy for nothing.” It was an inauspicious beginning in a state where one might reasonably believe, judging from the history, that pro soccer is cursed (see sidebar, next page).

As it turned out, though, Ozdemir had mixed up the location and was just around the corner at another restaurant, and within moments the two were engrossed in a conversation that would kick off months of market research and planning. On January 16, they announced that their new team would play its inaugural season in the NASL in 2014. And before the club even had a name, a group of fans calling themselves the Brickyard Battalion was pledging its support. Many of the enthusiasts gathered at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on April 25 to witness the official unveiling of the club’s name and colors. Before the ceremony commenced, a gale blew back a sash covering the team’s crest, prematurely revealing the name: Indy Eleven. The crowd responded with polite clapping, and the Battalion broke into a chant. As word of the moniker circulated, it was widely panned as unimaginative—soccer matches field 11 players per side—until Wilt and company explained that it actually referred to Indiana’s famous 11th Infantry Regiment from the Civil War. Quiet resignation seems to have replaced some fans’ early criticism, while others have come around to embracing it. (“Didn’t like the name much at first but I kinda like it a little more,” tweeted one supporter.) Another crisis averted.

Hopscotching the Midwest to build teams in Chicago, Milwaukee, and, of course, Indianapolis, Wilt is like an earnest, substantive version of the Music Man, more soccer evangelist than con artist. But for now, the full-time Irvington resident has found a permanent home in Indy, where he’ll run the Eleven’s day-to-day operations as team president. Wilt recently met with IM and—flashing his gold ring from the Fire’s 1998 MLS championship—gave us the inside story on forming the Indy Eleven and how the city landed the chance to host a marquee International Champions Cup event at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 1 (which pairs English powerhouse Chelsea FC and Italy’s legendary Inter Milan in a world-televised match). More importantly, he explained why in the world he thinks pro soccer can actually succeed here this time around.


IM: Soccer was still a fledgling U.S. sport when you were a kid in the 1960s. How did you fall for the game?

PW: I grew up in McHenry, Illinois, 55 miles northwest of the Loop in Chicago. I was a White Sox, Blackhawks, and Bulls fan. I didn’t play soccer, because they didn’t offer it. But when the Chicago Sting [a pro team that folded in 1988] won the North American Soccer League championship in 1981—that was a big deal. By that time, I was actually at Marquette University, where my roommate and I listened to the championship game on the radio and celebrated Chicago’s first sports title in our lifetime.


IM: After launching the Chicago Fire in 1997, you brought home an MLS Cup, built a devoted fan base, and scored the league’s first publicly funded soccer-specific stadium, Toyota Park. Then, in 2005, the team’s owners, Anschutz Entertainment Group, forced you out. What happened?

PW:
In 1998, our first season, we actually won the “double”: the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup. That’s why I proudly wear this ring. I was there eight years. I think I was the longest-serving general manager both in MLS and among general managers in the city of Chicago. There had been a leadership change with our owners’ sports division. I had worked to get a stadium deal done [on the southwest side of Chicago], and I was very proud of that. But AEG’s leadership wanted new people in to “monetize the asset.” I hate terms like that. I understood what they were saying, but it’s a people business. I moved on.


IM: After your exit from the Fire, you bounced around the Midwest, attempting to start an MLS expansion team in Milwaukee (which fell through), among other ventures. What prompted you to look at Indy?

PW:
When Ersal brought me down [last year], I was doing some consulting and writing a book, and the soccer community here intrigued me. I’ve started teams before, and I know how the process goes. He brought me here to do two things. One was to analyze the market and do feasibility studies; the other was to get feedback from the community and ultimately find out whether it made sense to move forward.


IM: Why did you go through with the idea, in spite of Indiana’s spotty record supporting pro soccer?

PW:
History is a graveyard of professional soccer franchises. There’s close to a dozen pro teams that have come and gone [in Indiana] before our group. Each of them contributed a bit to the foundation we have today. On a collegiate level, what’s gone on in Bloomington [with Indiana University’s eight NCAA men’s championships] has helped create an environment for success that maybe other communities and states don’t have. So, we didn’t start this team in a vacuum.


IM: In that “graveyard” of pro soccer franchises is the Indiana Blast, which played at Kuntz Memorial Stadium on the west side of Indianapolis. Why did that team die?

PW:
One of the people I sat down with was Alex Morris, former owner of the Indiana Blast. He was open, honest, and transparent, and he gave me his thoughts on what happened. The general soccer community thought it was a poorly run business that didn’t connect. I think Alex will be the first to admit that when things didn’t go well early, he didn’t want to throw good money after bad. But he also pointed out some challenges they had that maybe the community didn’t recognize, and a big part of that was, quite frankly, the stadium situation. They were playing at Kuntz—which was not ideal from a number of perspectives—with the understanding that they would have a 5,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium built for them in Lawrence. That fell through.


From left: Brigadier General J. Stewart Goodwin, Wilt, Ozdemir, Mayor Ballard, and Murray Clark of Indiana Soccer (Photo courtesy Indy Eleven/Krugervisuals.com)IM: The Eleven will start out playing at IUPUI’s Carroll Stadium. Will fans be able to drink beer—a staple of soccer culture—even though it’s a college venue? Asking for a friend.

PW:
A lot of friends are going to want to have beer, including me. “Yes,” is your answer, and the university has been fantastic about working with us. The experience will be different for different types of fans, and this sport has three general demographics that support it. Traditionally, the youth-soccer community is a critical mass, and it will be here as well. This market has had the highest per capita youth-soccer participation in the country, and the Indiana Soccer organization, with 60,000 registered kids, partnered with us last week. New Americans are another important demographic. The ethnic population here is growing—not only the Hispanic community, which is what most people traditionally think of, but the African and broader South American communities also bring a passion. The third and very important demographic is younger adults, the “Millennial” generation, 18 to 35 years of age, who want a local team to call their own. We are marketing to Millennials. The team can be cool for young adults. In the past, the kids who grew up playing the sport became grownups and stopped following it because they didn’t have an avenue. But TV is now 24/7 with soccer channels—there are more televised soccer matches in the United States than in Europe—and they’ve been able to see MLS games in person in Columbus or Chicago. That’s the difference between now and five years ago, and that difference is why this team can be sustainable as opposed to previous teams.


IM: By June, more than 4,000 fans had already reserved season tickets. How big do you think the fan base can become?

PW:
I would love to get to 13,000 fans a game, and we can bring in enough portable seats to accommodate them. But really, 10,000 fans a game would be fantastic.


IM: Did the strong reactions to the name “Eleven” surprise you?

PW:
Not at all. I thought the response was very appropriate. It was interesting to see how the feedback worked. Twitter is such an immediate barometer that we never had in the past. The reaction was mostly negative, about 80 percent, but once we were able to post online the name’s connection to local history, the social-media reaction became 90 percent in favor.


IM: You selected former U.S. National Team goalkeeper and IU standout Juergen Sommer—one of the first Americans to play abroad in England’s Premier League—to coach the team. Was it important to bring in someone with Indiana ties?

PW:
We made a commitment to hire a locally connected coach. In Juergen, we have someone who knows this market. He is a very sharp soccer mind, and he’s well-respected, both for his playing career and his coaching ability.


IM: How did Indy score such a high-profile event—it’s going to be broadcast in 150 countries—with the August 1 Chelsea vs. Inter Milan match?

PW:
Charlie Stillitano, a friend of mine, is president of Relevant Sports, the promoter of the International Champions Cup for the past 15 years. They saw the support for the Indy Eleven from the season-ticket standpoint, and they liked that this was a new market. It’s interesting. You look at the markets this tournament is in, and to a lot of people, Indianapolis is an outsider, because it’s not a huge city, and it’s not a huge international community. New York, L.A., Miami, San Francisco, Phoenix—and then Indianapolis? We really made our pitch to Relevant, and they came out here and toured the venue. They met with us and Indiana Sports Corp. and Visit Indy. They saw that, yes, there is a network to make it successful here. 


Related: Missed Goals—11 Indianapolis Soccer Teams That Folded
 

Opening photo by Stephen Simonetto; Indy Eleven photo courtesy Indy Eleven/Krugervisuals.com.

This article appeared in the July 2013 issue.