Tales From the Dark Ages of American Soccer

Peter Wilt used tricks that would impress the Harlem Globetrotters to help pull American soccer out of the Dark Ages.

Peter Wilt used tricks that would impress the Harlem Globetrotters to help pull American soccer out of the Dark Ages.

Last week Benjamin Kumming wrote a salient column for this site detailing the “Dark Ages of Soccer” in the United States.  He correctly used the 1984 death of the North American Soccer League and the 1996 birth of Major League Soccer to bookend the era.  It marked a dozen year period without Division 1 soccer in this country.  The only 12 years out of the last 42 without it, in fact.

I was fortunate to be a witness to the Dark Ages from a front row seat.  I guess you could even say I had a seat on the bench…and even got in the game and maybe scored a couple goals that helped return the sport to the mainstream in American soccer’s mid-1990s renaissance.

As Benny points out in his piece, professional soccer was relegated to indoor arenas and minor league outdoor venues for more than a decade, while on a parallel path, the seeds sown by the NASL on suburban parks from Miami to Tacoma were sprouting millions of youth soccer players in places that had never before seen a soccer ball.

Indoor soccer, first with the Milwaukee Wave in 1987, then with the Chicago Power in 1990, was my entry ticket to the game.  In 1994, the Minnesota Thunder allowed me to go outdoors with a Division 2 team in one of the country’s nicest, albeit still minor league, soccer specific venues.

The sport’s descent into the Dark Ages surely allowed me a lifelong career in professional sports.  Without it, I would not have been accepted in soccer and would have had a difficult time advancing beyond the entry level position I maintained with the minor league Milwaukee Admirals hockey team.  The existence of the indoor Milwaukee Wave – not only an indoor soccer team, but a MINOR LEAGUE indoor soccer team - gave me the opportunity to showcase my abilities at a management level.  When I was interviewed for the position of Director of Marketing and Publicity for  the Wave, I confessed to not knowing anything about soccer, but knowing a lot about operations and marketing second tier sports in Milwaukee from my Admirals experience and viewing the Wave as local competition for the entertainment dollar.  The team’s president and co-owner told me that was exactly what he was looking for, because he was tired of “soccer people” who didn’t know anything about sports business telling him what to do.

The staff member I replaced at the Wave was Dan Currier, a veteran sports PR guy who I knew.  When he found out he had been replaced, but before he knew by whom, Dan called to tell me he was being let go and they were bringing in “some marketing whiz”. Awkwardly, I had to admit to him that I was the culprit.  It was a moment that brought me into the sport’s Dark Ages and in a deja vu experience would similarly take me out of the Dark Ages ten years and three months later.

The dearth of sports executives with soccer experience allowed me to climb the ladder rapidly during those years.   Using business strategies and tactics that I learned from Mike Wojciechowski, my boss at the Admirals, we grew our average attendance from 2,300 per game in 1987 to almost 9,000 per game when I left the Wave in December, 1990 to become the Chicago Power’s General Manager.  Despite having sub-.500 teams each season with the Wave, our sponsorship revenue more than tripled, we signed the franchise’s first television and radio agreements and our exposure in the market place led to relevancy for the first time.  The methods are now common place, but were relatively new to professional sports at the time: saturate the community with player appearances, sell field time to youth soccer groups for games before, during and after the pro game, create attention catching promotions, use lights, fog and loud music to enhance the fan experience and ads like the one below.

The success we had in Milwaukee gave me the opportunity to return to my boyhood home in 1990 as GM of Chicago’s NPSL team.  The Power had players leftover from soccer’s earlier glory years like ex-Chicago Sting stars Pato Margetic, Teddy Krafft, Batata and Bret Hall.  Those players coached by Margetic, former Sting star Manny Rojas and current Chicago Fire assistant Mike Matkovich gave me my first, and in some ways, most cherished championship ring.  We went on to win the NPSL’s regular season championship again the next season and achieved tremendous business growth over the next few seasons.

This was a time in American soccer when various professional indoor leagues were pulling dirty tricks à la Donald Segretti, to sabotage each other’s growth in hopes of carving out larger pieces of the limited soccer pie.  It was an alphabet soup of indoor leagues.  The original MISL had great players like Tatu, Preki, Fernando Clavijo and Steve Zungul, but it was dying.  The AISA was transforming into the NPSL and the CISL was emerging as a summer alternative.  I played a small role in growing the NPSL at the expense of the over-salaried MISL via covert propaganda and information dissemination to MISL owners and potential expansion teams in Detroit and Buffalo.  It seems a bit nefarious now, but at the time it was simply promoting a better business model.

My final stop in soccer’s Dark Ages was the Twin Cities as President, GM and part owner of the Minnesota Thunder.  The Thunder had operated as an amateur team for five seasons before bringing me in to launch its professional era after the team’s remarkable 1994 season when it went 18-1 in a schedule made up mainly of professional teams.  The exclusively Minnesota based roster included future MLS players Tony Sanneh, Manny Lagos and Amos Magee. Local stars like Gerard Lagos, Don Gramenz, John Menk, John Coughlin, John Swallen, Tim Foster, Chris Foster, Matt Holmes, Mark Abboud and Tony Peszneker had all played club or high school soccer on the same fields for years.  Coached by Thunder co-Founder and Minnesota soccer legend Buzz Lagos and enhanced by French transplant Pierre Morice, the Thunder was a true family that represented its community as much or more than any soccer team this country has ever had.  The ownership group was a who’s who of Minnesota based business leaders such as Medtronic’s Bill George, Norstan’s Richard Cohen and HB Fuller’s Tony Andersen.

We capitalized on the local ingredients to the team’s successful recipe and marketed the Thunder as “The World’s Game and Minnesota’s Team”.  Attendance and sponsorship revenue led the USISL in 1996 when we were named the League’s organization of the year.  That year we also became the first American professional soccer team to travel to Japan to play J-League teams — a 2-1 loss to Shimizu S-Pulse and a 3-2 win over Gamba Osaka).

The following spring, while i was being considered for the Chicago MLS team’s first general manager position, I received a phone call from John Borozzi, a Columbus Crew sales and marketing executive who I knew from his indoor days with the original MISL.  Not knowing my interest in the same position, John told me that he was up for the Chicago GM job.  He told me that he thought he had all the qualities and experience they were looking for except for knowledge of the Chicago market and he was wondering if he could pick my brain, because he knew I knew Chicago well from my days with the Power.  I told John that I would be happy to answer any of his questions and give him my insights about Chicago as a soccer market, but there was something he needed to know. As I told him about my candidacy, I could feel his heart sink and memories came flooding back from the conversation a decade earlier that ushered me into the Dark Ages of American soccer.

A month later I was introduced to the media as Chicago’s first general manager amidst a sea of television lights and flash cameras at a news conference in Chicago’s five star Drake Hotel.  I knew then that soccer and I had finally emerged into a bright new era for the sport.

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