Thursday, August 29, 2013

Seven in Heaven with Peter Wilt

I attended a Build the Brickyard event at Loughmiller's dowtown last night, and the turnout was great! So great, in fact, that I had to share a space with some Reuben-loving strangers who were kind enough to offer me a seat at their table near the front, as it was pretty much the last seat left. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your long-term perspective), Juergen Sommer was doing some things out of state for the USSF, so I wasn't able to corner him into an impromptu interview. Luckily, Peter Wilt was available, and was gracious enough to grant me a half hour or so of his time. I don't fear any hyperbole in saying that I was both proud and honored to have been able to speak with the man one-on-one.

After stepping out onto the patio and sitting down, Peter stared off at the skyline as I hurriedly fumbled for my tape recorder and laptop. As I was doing so, he said, as if to no one but himself, “What a beautiful city we live in.” A few months ago I may not have agreed. But just like anyone else who's spent even a few minutes with the man, I'm starting to see things from his perspective. Below is our interview.

[DISCLAIMER: As some of you already know, this is my first foray into the blogosphere. I openly admit that I have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm just making this thing up as I go. I haven't settled into my style yet, and this interview is no different. I've never done any of this before, so if my questions seem convoluted, overly-complicated, or just plain stupid, please forgive me. Like Dan Savage would say, “It will get better.”]

ELEVEN HEAVEN: Juergen stated at the last Build the Brickyard event that Indy Eleven doesn't plan to create an academy, but that you'd partner with local youth leagues. Can you elaborate more on your plans for that and give us an idea of what you aim to accomplish?

PETER WILT: It's really early on. Right now, we're trying to focus on Indy Eleven's first team. I think reaching down and starting a U-23 team is a big, big step. If we're able to pull that off with an NPSL team, I think that's a very good start in the development program, and that's all we can commit to right now. Other than that, we'll do what we can to make all of the youth players in the area better, and be a resource to all of the clubs and all of the coaches. You know, when we put the team together and we end up with our roster – 25 guys or whatever – [that will be] 25 more people that know a little bit about soccer that can maybe help grow the sport in town, and maybe help coach some teams and be involved in the development of the game here. Each of the guys will have a role in giving back to the community and teaching the game to younger players. Down the road we'll look at other opportunities to grow the sport, and if there's something that makes sense, we'll embrace it. If not, we won't.

EH: You have a reputation as being very fan-friendly, especially with supporters groups. You've even written numerous articles on building a sense of tribalism and loyalty within a fan base. And we've seen the kind of effect that supporters groups can play in terms of international recognition with teams like Portland and Seattle. With that in mind, can you give us an idea of what role you expect supporters groups to play in not only the expansion of the fan base, but also the club's identity?

PW: The supporters groups are the lifeblood of the team. It's in their vibrancy and their connection to the team. On and off the field, they are what makes the team successful – if it's a strong supporters group. If it's not, it's really hard to have a successful team without them. At the home games, on the field, when the players see the supporters group, it can inspire them. Both the size, and the noise they make, and the passion. It can inspire them to work harder, play harder, and be more successful. Off the field, we've been so fortunate to have all of these voices of support who are influencing their group. It's not just the 1800+ Brickyard Battalion members, but it's all the people they affect when they talk about Indy Eleven. It's their network of influence. For some people, maybe it's a couple dozen people. For others, it's a couple hundred and others, a couple thousand. And it adds up. And supporters, when they talk about Indy Eleven, have a sincerity and a credibility that a paid staff member or a player can never have. Because the staff are coming from a biased viewpoint. (long pause) You know, sometimes I feel like we haven't misstepped yet. I know we have, but...

(I interrupt his train of thought here with my skeptical facial expression, and add “Yeah, I don't think so.” He laughed and nodded, as if to acknowledge that perhaps, no, maybe they haven't misstepped yet.)

At some point we'll make a misstep. And if we do mess up, I want our fans to be angry. I don't want our fans to be apathetic. That's the worst thing. If the fans are pissed, that means you've got a little bit of their heart and soul, and you're doing something right. If you piss them off too many times, you'll lose it, but worse than antipathy is apathy. And that's really what we're trying to avoid. The fact that there's this much passion already about a team that, in many ways, doesn't exist – we have no players yet – is a credit to the community that wanted this so much. That they're willing to support, what at this point, is a logo and a name. I can only imagine what it's going to be like in eight months when there are players filling those jerseys.

EH: As a member of a BYB affiliate, I think I speak for everyone when I say that we're all incredibly excited about what we're building together. The supporters have come out in droves, and the level of involvement and passion has been truly inspiring. We're creating something literally from scratch, and that's something you have a wealth of experience with. What advice would you give to BYB members and their affiliates as we continue to shape our culture?

PW: Well, the part I left out from your last question is that we're trying to create emotional connections. It's a tribalism you mentioned, where the fans feel that the athletes on the field are representing them. And if that's the case, then this will be a team of the community, by the community, and for the community. And it will be successful – whether it wins or loses a particular game or a particular season – it will become a representation of Indiana on the field. The supporter's role, in my mind, is literally that. It's to do, say, and feel things that will make this team more successful. Support the team. Help them achieve its goals. And its goals are to win championships, and make Indiana a better place to live, work and play. So if the supporters think of that as their role in every action they take, it will make their actions and decisions easier. You know, a couple simple examples: Should I learn the chants and sing loud?

EH: Yes!

PW: Will that help? The thought process shouldn't be “it will make me cool, thus I will do it.” It should be “it will help the team win, I will do it.” Now, should I take my shirt off and run out to the middle of the field during a game?

EH: No!

PW: “Will it help the team be successful?” should be the thought process. And in that case, no, it doesn't. All I ask of supporters is to do what their name is. And that's to support the team. And supporting the team doesn't always mean agreeing with management or the coach or players. Sometimes supporting the team is voicing displeasure. Hopefully in a respectful way, but respect is a two-way street and it has to be earned. If management, coaches and players don't respect fans, then in my mind, they've lost the right to be respected back. But if we're respectful and treat the fans right, and we fail - in any way - the fans should absolutely let us know. And not be happy about it. And change has to happen at that point, one way or the other.

EH: That sort of leads to my next question. I know that many supporters, myself included, are hoping to create the unique and kind of rowdy atmosphere that all great supporters groups are known for. There's a veritable cauldron of ideas being posted online, and it's growing pretty clear that Indy wants Carroll Stadium to be crazy on match day. Are you aware of any NASL rules that prohibit certain forms of...shall we say, fan participation?

PW: (laughs) There are no NASL rules that prohibit specific actions. Obviously, local police and fire departments have their own rules that dictate what you can and can't do.

EH: I mean more along the lines of drums, smoke bombs, and singing not-so-family-friendly songs. You know, your typical “rowdy atmosphere” stuff.

PW: Certainly any instruments, like drums, will be accepted in some parts of the stadium and not in others. Traditionally in supporters sections, they're allowed, and they'll be allowed in supporters sections at Carroll Stadium. And in certain areas throughout the rest of the stadium, they won't be. And that's just common sense for the fans. What's enjoyed and accepted in the supporters section – not only in Indianapolis, but everywhere – sometimes isn't in other sections. That segregation of rights and policy will be in place throughout the stadium.

EH: You mentioned today that you've secured a deal for the sponsor on the front of the jersey, can you tell us who it is or give us any more information on that?

PW: No, we'll have a big press conference hopefully in September to announce it, but we've already made agreements with several. It's amazing. You know, I've never had a situation before where sponsors are, on a regular basis, calling us. They want to sponsor us, and it's wonderful to see.

EH: You said at the last Build the Brickyard event that you want to have Indy Eleven games broadcast locally. I thought your perspective on that was both logical and refreshing. You said that you don't believe that broadcasting the games live keep people from going to the stadium. I know that probably every sports executive in Indy thinks you're mad, but you argued that visibility actually builds the brand, and could perhaps draw people into the stadium to experience all of the fun and excitement they're missing at home. I loved that response. But we know it's not as easy as just saying you want to broadcast the games, you have to have a deal with a local network. Has there been any progress on this front, and if so, can you reveal any details?

PW: A little bit. We've discussed it with four major broadcast outlets locally, and they all have an interest in it to varying degrees. We're seriously considering two of them. And hopefully we'll make a decision, again, in the next month or so.

EH: So a lot of news coming in September, it seems.

PW: Yeah.

EH: Okay, last question. The fact that you're speaking with me right now really illustrates how accessible and open you are. Most people see this as a really good thing, but it certainly has the potential to backfire. Given the outspoken nature of fans in Indy, and the knee-jerk reactions of American fans in general, do you see yourself always remaining this accessible, or do you feel there's a line that you'll eventually have to draw?

PW: When I was a kid, in school, I was a White Sox fan. I'm still a White Sox fan. And the owner at the time was a guy named Bill Veeck. He's in the Hall of Fame as a baseball owner and baseball promoter. And I was really upset once about a managerial choice he'd made, and I wrote him a letter complaining about it. I thought it was just cathartic to get it of my chest, and I was shocked when, two weeks later, I got a response in the mail from him. It was personalized, and he explained why he chose that manager. He even addressed the points I'd made, and it made an impression on me. Not that he'd made the right choice. In fact, I wrote him back and said I still disagreed with him, and lo and behold, he wrote me back and further cemented his viewpoint that he'd made the right choice. But it impressed upon me the impact an executive could have with a fan by simply responding, and I felt that if I was ever in a similar position, I would make myself that accessible. And through my 25 years in sports, I've always maintained that viewpoint. I see no reason to change now, or in the future.

EH: Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Wilt. I hope we can do this again some time in the future.

PW: Of course!

And that was that, really. There were two gentleman hovering over us throughout the entire duration of our interview – just waiting to have a chat with him. And it was clear from the outset that this is a man in demand. In demand of the people. And, by all accounts (especially my own), he truly is worthy of such demand. And not just Peter Wilt, but Ersal Ozdemir (with whom I had a brief, but inspiring chat with at the bar), Juergen Sommer, and every member of Indy Eleven's staff. This is a group of people that this city should be proud to say represents our state, our community, and our club. You may not know it yet, but you couldn't ask – or even dream – of any better.

I am hoping, and feeling optimistic about, getting an interview with our head coach, Juergen Sommer very soon. And perhaps I'll be interviewing players and even other supporters in the future! In the spirit and philosophies of this wonderful club of ours, I welcome any and all suggestions, criticisms and critiques. Just like the header of this blog states: This is your city. This is your team. And as such, this is also your blog. And as I (hopefully) grow as a writer, interviewer, and “ultra,” so too will our strong and passionate fan base. I really can't wait to share in this wonderful and community-changing experience with you all. I know Peter Wilt can't either.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why Soccer Can Save Professional Sports in the United States (Or At Least Indy)

This rather chatty Brit I know once told me an old English saying that goes “there are two things you don't get to choose in life: your family, and your football club.” For many Americans, that phrase rings true. But for a good portion of them, it doesn't. We love a winner as much as we love to hate a winner. But we all unanimously hate a loser. The fan bases of so many American teams rise and fall based on their success on the field of play. Sure, the hardcore fans will always remain, even if they couldn't imagine you winning in their wildest dreams. I'm a Cubs fan, I know better than anyone.

"And then they just started levitating over home plate. It was a wild dream."

But if you've traveled the country a lot, you've surely noticed a trend. No matter where you are, you'll see someone wearing a Yankees hat or a Lakers jersey. Or whatever team is recently hot and not from that area. People that can't even point out where those teams are located on a map consider themselves “fans.” Especially if their hometown team is a regular bust. Of course, if the local franchise does turn it around, they say they've been “fans” all along. You know what we call them. “Bandwagon” or “fair-weather” fans. And we have a lot of them. The fact is, aside from the hardcores, fans in the states tend to have little identity with their local club.

This guy is from Cleveland.

And it's not entirely their fault. The clubs often don't have much identity with the city. Franchises relocate in this country like they're playing musical chairs. Indianapolis should be plenty familiar with that. We've been reminded for decades by owners, managers, players, and sportscasters that this sporting thing “is a business, after all.” To the point where we've grown completely numb to it. We're jaded and cynical and expect the worst in the front office of whatever team we support. We know they're greedy and apathetic towards the fans, and we're basically powerless to stop them. It's just a part of our culture we've all decided to collectively accept.

Like we did with bacon.

But the culture in soccer is different. Sure, teams fold and sometimes have to relocate. And across the globe, you'll find plenty of corrupt and greedy management. But by and large, the game is still about the fans at its core. But more importantly than that, its supporters are often a big part of the identity of the club. Look at a city like Portland, who calls itself “Soccer City, USA.” The Timbers impressive number of sellouts make a strong argument for that moniker. But their rivals to the north have plenty to brag about as well, as they boast by far the highest average attendance in MLS. These teams have gained international recognition. And not for their play. For their fan base.

And also for their angsty rock music.

Those teams were smart and understood the culture of the game. Instead of focusing on marketing the game to the casual fans, or worse, trying to "Americanize" their marketing, they targeted the supporters groups. As our Commander-in-Chief Peter Wilt clearly understands, your fan base grows strongest when the branches stem from your existing fan base. Seattle and Portland both embraced the history of the team. The city. The culture of the supporters groups. They embraced the people. And the people embraced them back.

Yes. Exactly like that.

You see, the thing the unfamiliar American fan doesn't immediately understand about the beautiful game is that it's about so much more than the game itself. It's about feeling a sense of loyalty and belonging among thousands of people from all different walks of life. It's about singing and chanting and screaming your head off for two hours straight. It's about having a few beers with your friends and neighbors and shedding the stress of a long work week. It's about camaraderie. Family. Community. It's about your community's identity. This game isn't just 22 guys kicking around and chasing a ball. And it isn't just breathtaking golazo's and heart-stopping saves. It really isn't even about the chanting and singing. It's about being a part of something bigger than yourself. And having a purpose. It's about representing your city. Your home. And if you don't have any pride in that, maybe you should come to Carroll Stadium next season. We'll have plenty to spare.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Support Your Local Club

January 16, 2013 was a big day for the city of Indianapolis. They just don't know it yet.

You see, that's the day that Ersal Ozdemir and his Keystone Construction Group decided to bring the beautiful game to our fair city. Whether Ozdemir is crazy, brilliant, or an exciting combination of both, is yet to be seen. Either way, I couldn't be more excited that someone was willing to give this unpredictable small market a chance!

At least since this cuddly little teddy bear.

I'll admit, when I first heard the news on the radio, I immediately dismissed the plan. I'd lived here for about a year, and in all that time, I'd never met another soccer fan. Sure, I'd encountered a few people who were very casual “fans.” Or, rather, “Americans that at least didn't hate the game.” But no one I could actually talk about the game with. No one who studied it. Or got up at 7 am during the weekend to watch their team play. No one who ate, drank, and slept nothing but soccer. I thought whoever these guys were that decided to bring the game to Indy were admirable, but insane. Even if there were a few pockets of fans I missed, there's no way they could get the kind of support they need to stay afloat. They'd be underwater in two years flat.

And that doesn't exactly make for ideal pitch conditions.

Because, and let's just be real here, Indianapolis is not known for its rabid or even particularly loyal fan bases. Don't get me wrong, the Colts have certainly solidified themselves in the hearts of the city, but barely over a decade ago, they were a playoff team that couldn't sell out the smallest stadium in the NFL in enough time to avoid the game being blacked out. And don't get me started on attendances for the Pacers last season, which finished 25th in the league – while the Pacers themselves finished 3rd in the conference. Attendances at the Brickyard are dwindling to near-crisis levels, and only the Indians can boast attendances in the top 5 of their league (though it should be noted that Lucas Oil Stadium's seating capacity is what holds the Colts ranking back). This is a city that may get behind its teams in spirit, but not so much at the gate.

Pictured: the unofficial mascot of every Indianapolis franchise not named the Colts.

So I allowed myself the moment of daydreaming about a club I could support in my city; a club with loud and energetic fans. I thought of chants and songs and various tifo's. And then I resigned myself to reality and decided to let it go. But every time I tried, the words of a camera-magnet British visitor kept echoing in my mind. I asked him why he'd bother watching our league when his country's league was far superior. Hell, even I watch their league instead of my own. I couldn't think of any good reason to watch the game played here. He looked me square in the eyes and said “Because, mate. You support your local club.”

And then he just stared at me like this for several minutes. It was very uncomfortable.

I thought about it a lot over the next few days, as I watched highlights of my favorite club from thousands of miles away. And as I watched Theo Walcott slot home a beauty and run to the outstretched arms of the supporters section, it finally hit me. You support your local club.

Little did I know, there were thousands in Indy who had already gotten the memo. My initial gauge of how well professional soccer would be received here was...well, off by a little bit. I was floored to find that not only was there a great fan presence here, but it had already been here for a couple of years. The Brickyard Battalion was instrumental in bringing the game to this city, and they've already played a major role in growing it, too. Within a few months, the BYB has exploded, growing to over 2000 members (and counting), with thirteen (and counting) affiliates located all over the state. So it shouldn't be surprising that Indy Eleven sold over 5000 deposits for season tickets for 2014 - in less than five months, before even signing a single player.

I still don't know if Ozdemir is crazy or brilliant, but it's sure starting to look more and more like the latter.

Except in this picture.

Whether or not this team is ultimately successful here is anyone's guess. I know that plenty of market research went into the decision well before it was made, but you can never really predict fan reception until you actually get out there and take the pitch. I really only know one thing for sure: that I will be there, rain or shine, screaming and singing at the top of my lungs. Even if I'm the only one there. Because you support your local club.