The Designated Player: The Curious Case of Peter Wilt

I like to think that somewhere in deepest Wisconsin there’s an equivalent of the Bat Signal, but bearing the logo of the defunct Miami Fusion. It’s linked by Bluetooth to the Big Soccer message boards, and now and again, in cases of dire emergency, enough frenzied postings from MLS fans will send its beam arching into the sky while a siren made of old Ray Hudson samples yells ‘Peeeeeeetaaaaaaaa!” into the night …

Peter Wilt is a curio within the world of MLS. To a certain vintage of fans, he’s an iconic figure who stands for a perceived Golden Age of club-fan relationships — setting a romantic standard that subsequent generations of execs can only fall short of as the game grows. As former general manager and president of the Chicago Fire, Wilt helped usher the first MLS expansion team into the league, to great success on and off the field. He was at the forefront of, if not a downright pioneer of, many of the tropes we now associate with MLS 2.0, from dedicated stadia to supporters’ sections — and even a prototypical version of the designated player, in signing Hristo Stoichkov before such a thing as a designated player existed. Yet despite the fan clamor for him that always arises when a senior management position opens up in MLS, Wilt hasn’t held a senior MLS position since being forced out of the Fire in 2005.

When I spoke to the man himself last week, he ruefully acknowledged that in terms of getting back to a position of genuine power, he may be popular in all the wrong places:

“You go on the message boards, it’s almost humorous. Whenever a team’s general manager or president is let go, or things get really contentious between the fans and a team’s leadership, my name often comes up. This is hyperbole, but I mentioned to my wife the other day that, if it was up to the fans, I could likely be running 19 different MLS teams.”

It is hyperbole, but not by a huge stretch. Just a few weeks ago, when former NBA exec Chris Heck failed out of the New York Red Bulls, it took about five minutes before fans on the main New York message board were calling for Wilt as a replacement — more in hope than expectation, it should be said. The Red Bulls, as emblems of a top-down global lifestyle brand, are probably anathema to Wilt’s very particular philosophy — one that’s built on local context and a sense of shared ownership and transparent communication with the fans.

Perhaps to the alarm of would-be corporate employers, Wilt’s style is all about transparent communication. Within hours of that first “get Wilt hired” post going up in New York, the man himself had not only been alerted to the existence of the thread, but was contributing to it: defending his record, answering questions, and linking to articles he had written on how to run a front office, how to create a sense of tribalism, and how to build a team that people will connect with. For anyone else, it would have been a remarkable and probably ill-advised move — and as the thread unfolded and Wilt persisted, some posters were indeed questioning how advisable it was for a would-be senior exec to apparently be touting himself to the groundlings — but Wilt has always done this. Even as president of the Fire, he would routinely appear on message boards, or at fan forums, to argue or explain a point of team policy, or just exchange views, as part of a personal credo of transparency that dated back to his own childhood encounter with an earlier Chicago sports figure.

“My personal hero, as a kid growing up &#8212 and in some ways my mentor &#8212 was Bill Veeck, the owner of the Chicago White Sox. His engagement with the fans was my inspiration to do the same thing. I wrote him a “nastygram” when I was in school, complaining about the White Sox hiring a former Cub as a manager, and I expected it to go in the garbage can. I was just being a kid writing out of spite and I never expected a response, and then he wrote me back … and I wrote him back … and he wrote me back. And it inspired me. I made a mental note that if I would ever be in a position to address fans’ concerns, I wouldn’t ignore it &#8212 I would write back to them in whatever was the medium of the day. And it was really because of Bill Veeck.”

As the story suggests, Wilt wasn’t originally a soccer fan. Casting around after college for a career, he’d abandoned an early desire to be a sportswriter in favor of the more lucrative PR and business side of sport, but soccer hadn’t been on the radar till a chance encounter with the game. As it turned out, Wilt’s first pro soccer game was an epic and infamous 6-5 Chicago Sting victory over the New York Cosmos, in the Sting’s 1981 NASL Championship season. It’s an iconic game for Chicago soccer fans — a then-record crowd of 30,501 showed up at Wrigley Field (though rather like the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, if you added up all the people in the city who later claimed to have been there, you could multiply that figure several times over). Wilt was hooked, and via stints at the indoor Milwaukee Wave team, then the pre-MLS A-League side Minnesota Thunder, found himself interviewing for the mooted Chicago MLS side in summer 1997. In a neat piece of symmetry, the recommendation to future Chicago Fire owner Phil Anschutz came from original Chicago Sting owner Lee Stern.

Wilt would stay with the Fire for eight years, during which time the team would win an MLS Cup and Open Cup double in their 1998 expansion year, plus two more U.S. Open Cups in 2000 and 2003 and the Supporters Shield in 2003. They would also finish as runners-up in MLS Cup in 2000 and 2003, as well as U.S. Open Cup runners up in 2004. This was a successful team. Perhaps the greater success, though, was the foundations laid off the field in building the side’s identity. As Tom Dunmore, Wilt’s co-host on the Pitch Invasion podcast, as well as the editor of the new soccer magazine XI Quarterly, and a former chairman of the Section 8 supporters group, points out, “Most importantly, it was a team that won. Nothing means more to fans than this … But equally important in the long-run for the club, the team’s identity had been shaped to have meaning and a lasting impact in Chicagoland.” This meant everything from the team logo to that fabled transparency about all aspects of the club’s culture.

Wilt again: “We created a real sense of tribalism within the front office, the players, the staff, where we all felt we were making an important contribution to the outcome of the team on and off the field and creating a sense of ownership. And that translated to the fans … The line in Chicago is ‘Tradition. Honor. Passion.’ And certainly because of what we did on the field, but also because of the honorable relationship with the community, and nurturing a young supporters organization, we were able to create that sense of tradition and passion in very short order.”

Wilt enjoyed a great deal of autonomy for many of his years in Chicago. The Fire were part of Phil Anschutz’s Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and he served as founding Chairman of their Soccer Management Council from 1999-2001, during a period when AEG owned the L.A., San Jose, Colorado, and Chicago teams. Wilt worked for several different bosses in his time at the club, without apparent difficulty, until the arrival of Shawn Hunter as head of Anschutz Soccer in 2005. Hunter and Wilt “never hit it off” and not for the first or the last time, New York would figure into his fate.

By 2005, AEG owned the MetroStars (the side that would eventually be bought and rebranded by Red Bull), and Bob Bradley, Chicago’s first and to-date most successful head coach, had already left for New York. But with the Chicago team themselves preparing to move to a new dedicated stadium at Toyota Park, in a $100 million deal significantly brokered by Wilt, the president unexpectedly found himself forced out by another New York connection — as Hunter favorite and MetroStars executive John Guppy took over, first as president, then as general manager. Having been AEG’s point person throughout the selection and building process and having overseen the ground-breaking on the only 100 percent publicly financed stadium in MLS, Wilt was on his way out less than four months later, in favor of a man from a larger media market, deemed to be more capable of monetizing the new home.

The move was greeted with dismay by many Chicago fans, particularly the hard-core of Section 8 — the supporters group that had been named for the dedicated standing area at Soldier Field, established by Wilt with original supporters group Barn Burners 1871. At the next home game after Wilt’s replacement was announced, Section 8 supporters wore black, waited until eight minutes after the game had started before taking their seats, and draped the entire section in black fabric, in a show of solidarity with Wilt. When I ask current Section 8 communication director Dan Martin about the vehemence of the reaction, he says, “The vast majority of all Fire fans, not just one supporters section, was one of total shock. He was just incredibly well-respected — he was like an open source club director. He’d talk to people on Big Soccer all the time. I’ve since looked into it and the longest threads on the Chicago Fire boards were Peter Wilt–related — because he was on them answering questions.”

Given his popularity at the time, it must have seemed that Chicago fans’ loss would immediately have been another MLS team’s gain, but instead Wilt found himself on the outside of the league looking in for the next seven years — a development he refuses to be bitter about, even as he speaks of a desire to have another shot. He’s worked continuously since leaving the Fire and is currently fund-raising for two start-up sides in two different markets, working with an investor on bringing an expansion team into the re-vamped NASL and “in discussions” with one MLS team (not New York) about helping on a consultant basis, as well as contributing to the Pitch Invasion blog and podcast and working on a book on his 25 years in the game. But he would like another chance at the top league and emphatically refutes any inference that his time has passed, or that his template for success is a purely parochial, non-transferable one (and short of an unlikely blackballing, that seems to be the prevailing explanation as to why he hasn’t returned elsewhere).

As it is, Wilt has watched any number of modish management ideas and MBA (and indeed NBA) sales gurus subsequently fail to replicate anything like his success, without getting another chance himself. As we’re speaking, because of one such high-profile failure, I ask him what he thinks the problem is with New York. He’s swift to offer the caveat that his perspective is an outsider one, but equally swiftly points out that “there has never really been a passionate and broad connection between the team and the community.” He cites the example of New York’s Empire Supporters Club (who were actually founded before the team was) — calling them “passionate and dedicated” — arguably more so than any group of fans in Major League Soccer because of the challenges they’ve faced in their support”, but points out that there aren’t enough of them, or that “more concerning has to be the apathy of the general market. You’d rather have the fans be angry with you, than apathetic … Supporters don’t care enough about MLS in that market and the goal should be to get them to care enough to call for the coach’s head or the president’s head if needs be.”

For the New York fans glancing wistfully at Wilt’s résumé, his assessment pretty much tallies with their experience. When I speak to Brent Gamit, an Empire Supporters Club original and sometime chant-leader in their supporters’ section, he says, “From his Chicago days he seemed very fan-friendly from the outside and I was a little envious. It’s kind of astounding that Red Bull, or the MetroStars for that matter, didn’t have this kind of philosophy when it came to marketing the team, or even having the personnel in ticketing and marketing. If Peter Wilt, or someone with the same approach could run that part of the team, it might make the difference between having the stadium at 65 percent and 80 percent capacity and that 15 percent could be an extra revenue stream for the team. Since Red Bull Arena was completed, it seemed like it might be the last piece in the jigsaw, but it’s missing that marketing guy, that savvy guy — he [Wilt] may not be the ideal, perfect piece, but honestly I think he’s pretty damn close.”

As another ESC board member, Tim Hall puts it, “You need someone who gets supporter culture. You can’t market an NBA team like an MLS team — they’re two different beasts, especially in this market, which is one of the most competitive in the U.S., if not the world. You look at the purchases of Henry, Cahill — the on-the-field product has been greatly improved, inarguably. But we want more in terms of filling the stadium. It does reflect poorly on us when people tune in to the game on TV and you see the midfield empty and the area behind the goal (the supporters section) full. We as long-term fans can proselytize, but when you see a Wednesday 1 p.m. kick-off in July on the schedule, what incentive do you have?”

That lunchtime kick-off experiment was widely seen as the nadir of Heck’s tenure, for its misreading of both the cultural and physical aspects of the game. Yes, people take half-days for summer baseball games, but not generally for treks to New Jersey for soccer. More significantly, and unforgivably, top flight players run 10–12 km a game, with peaks of intensity for sprinting and making high impact turns and changes of direction. The game in question was one of three games similarly scheduled by Heck that week, and kicked off in 101-degree heat in intense humidity. It was potentially dangerous to players’ health and the senior players’ visible disgust at being asked to play in these conditions was probably the final straw for Heck — he was gone days later. He has been replaced, thus far, by a reallocation of existing staff resources, rather than a like-for-like appointment (which in symbolic acknowledgement of a structural problem, if not yet a long-term solution, may genuinely represent progress for the club).

It’s extremely doubtful such an all-round antagonistic experiment would have been attempted on Wilt’s watch, but of course, without a recent MLS record that’s speculation. And perhaps that’s key to Wilt’s particular folk appeal — there’s no doubt that his absence from MLS, coupled with the Fire’s competitive drop-off after his departure, has helped mythologize his contribution. While fulsome in his praise for Wilt’s achievements at Chicago, Tom Dunmore says, “Time certainly adds to it, and seeing many MLS clubs embrace supporter culture the way the Fire and D.C. United did early on (and let’s not forget Peter learned much from the example set in D.C., by the way) has certainly added to his reputation … And yes, I think that does mean he plays a role as a contrast to executives who get it wrong. Fortunately, many more executives in MLS are getting it right these days compared to just five years ago.”

Wilt himself mentions a couple of those executives and owners, such as Robb Heineman at Sporting Kansas City and Merritt Paulson at Portland Timbers. Of the latter’s occasionally abrasive Twitter style he says, “It’s easy to communicate with the fans when things are going well. It’s not so easy when the team are struggling and you’ve had to replace your coach — and Merritt has shown the willingness to communicate in the good and the bad times in Portland.”

Speaking of bad times, why does Wilt himself think he’s so routinely invoked by fans in times of crisis? He laughs when I mention the Bat Signal image, but after some back-and-forth on transparency and respect, he says “I think it’s a quality of common sense — and I don’t know why that phrase exists, because it’s not that common. You’d think it would make logical sense to be transparent and honest with fans, and communicate with them, and too often it’s not … taking decisions that are good for the fans or the team should be a redundancy. In virtually all cases, a decision that’s good for the fans is good for the team.”

And with that, he’s gone. Back to his life in Wisconsin, with one eye on the skies.

Graham Parker leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for The Howler.

Filed Under: Graham Parker, MLS, Soccer