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.


  1. Great interview, but I will challenge on oen thing: smoke bombs/flares. I'm excited to bring my daughter to matches as she gets a little older (currently 2, might be up for a match or two next year). But she has asthma and smoke can be a big trigger for asthma sufferers. That's one thing I'd like to NOT see at matches for that reason alone.

    At the very least I hope a that is taken into consideration at some point. It'd be a shame to make match day uncomfortable at best or not even able to go at worst for some fans with breathing issues.

    1. I'm against flares, as they can be dangerous, but smoke bombs will most definitely be present. If you don't sit in/near the supporters section, there shouldn't be any problems at all. But, really, if you're bringing your two year old to the game, I wouldn't recommend sitting anywhere near the supporters section anyway. Unless you're one of those progressive parents.

    2. Well then I hope none of the supporters int eh section have asthma. Or that the wind never changes direction and blankets other parts of the seating in smoke even if you're not near the supporters section. (Wind, how does that work?)

      It's a serious issue. I have 2 season ticket deposits, but if I go to games next year and find that it's unlikely I can bring my kid to matches for risk of her breathing, I may have to reconsider in the future.

    3. Yeah, jdb, it appears you're probably going to have to reconsider. It's really a shame, especially since you're already a fan, but I don't think it's fair to ask an entire stadium to accommodate, at most, a small handful of people. This is what the atmosphere is going to be like, and we understand it won't be for everyone. Hopefully you'll decide to come anyway, but we understand if you don't.

  2. Its a big enough stadium, I'd almost be certain sitting with the BYB would be an asthmatics worst nightmare, sitting elsewhere will be completely harmless! After all, city smog is probably bad enough, if she survives that, the stadium atmosphere will be fine!

    Also, FANTASTIC write up. I'm loving Peter Wilt more and more every day!

    1. he's the real deal. we're incredibly lucky to have him in our city, much less leading our team!