The First Fan: Reflections on 10 Years Without Peter Wilt
Ten years ago last week, news broke that the first President and General Manager of the Chicago Fire was leaving the club. Despite Peter Wilt’s departure from Major League Soccer, his influence in the North American game remains.
In an age of “Circle the Wagon” franchise mentality, Wilt is a champion of fan culture, corporate accessibility, and organizational transparency. Among other accomplishments, Wilt has plied his trade as CEO of the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars, established the Milwaukee Wave soccer club, and is currently President of NASL’s Indy Eleven.
Some of OTF’s favorite soccer personalities were kind enough to answer the prompt:
“What are your reflections on Peter Wilt ten years after he left the MLS?”
(submissions appear alphabetically)
Nate Abaurrea – World Soccer Talk Radio Host
Peter Wilt represented a grassroots mindset in American Soccer, a mindset that is vital in the growth of this game in our country.
What made Wilt special is the fact that he was responsible for the well being of a top flight club, not some 5th division local side.
Yet he acted like a small town city-councilman. He was a blue whale that conversed with shrimp, never acting like he was better than anyone.
Wes Burdine – Journalist, Author, co-host of podcast The du Nord Futbol Show
My favorite story about Peter Wilt was the first time I learned that the dude who I sometimes watched soccer with at the bar was “Peter Wilt.” I had lived in Milwaukee only a few months and took to watching Tottenham Hotspur matches at the Highbury (still the greatest soccer bar in the country). The Highbury is stocked with bizarre characters such as “Jesse Marsch’s Brother Craig,” “Matt the Rat,” and a guy who I think was actually named “West Ham” or that’s what people called him there. One of those characters was this Godfather type figure who everyone knew and who could work the room without leaving his station at the bar.
One day, after a match I was sitting around chatting soccer with a few folks who wanted to drink off their morning buzz. Peter and I started talking about Thierry Henry possibly coming to MLS. It was rumored that Seattle might bring him in. I argued–with a remarkable level of assurance–that no way would Henry go to a city where he has to play on turf. Peter responded that turf has come a long way and that he certainly could go to Seattle. Still confident in my genius, I continued, “nope, it’s still turf, he’ll hate it.” Peter wasn’t phased and at some point it came out that he knows a thing or two about stadium construction.
“I helped build Toyota Park in Chicago,” he said. It wasn’t a power move, just an addition to the conversation.
“Oh really?” I started to let up on my rock hard assurance. “Are you an architect?”
“No, I was President of the Fire.”
“Oh.” I said.
“Like I was saying, I think that it won’t be something like turf that will keep Henry away from Seattle. He’ll probably go to New York, though.”
At some point later I think I asked someone else about this mystery guy. “Yeah, that’s Peter Wilt, he was President of the Fire.”
I always remember that story about Peter because of the gentle way that he kind of coughed up his authority on the issue. Obviously, I was just a dude at the bar talking out of his ass and Peter “kind of knows something about the subject.” But he just gently ushered me to the realization of our relative positions.
I do want to add that Henry never played on turf, so I was completely right and Peter was wrong.
Jeff Crandall – North American Soccer Journeyman Journalist
Growing up without an MLS team in metro Detroit, nearly from day one, I attached myself to the Chicago Fire. I’d be lying if I said I knew much about the front office operation in the first few seasons, as an early teen in those days, it didn’t matter compared to the success occurring on the field.
As I matured and sought out more soccer coverage, a name associated with the club, but not a player or coach, kept surfacing in articles and on a popular internet message board. I soon became more familiar with Chicago Fire GM (and future President) Peter Wilt.
Though I only attended a couple Fire games a year back then, I started to feel a real connection to the club and specifically, an understanding of how things operated because of Peter’s openness and transparency in the public forum. In an era before club executives like Sporting KC’s Robb Heineman and New England’s Brian Bilello found success engaging supporters through Twitter, Peter perfected the craft on BigSoccer.
Beyond that, he was a guy that encouraged actual supporter activities in an MLS climate that was still catering to soccer moms and families. Simply put, the scenes you see around North American soccer stadiums today owe at least some credit to his working with Soldier Field and Cardinal Stadium to allow more vibrant support. Hell, he even shirked the orthodox role of a front office executive, joining and taking part in vocal and visual support of the Fire during matches.
And though he was wildly popular with the fan base, it was impossible for him to always make the popular decision—the business of sports just isn’t kind enough for anyone to be so perfect.
The trades of captain Piotr Nowak in 2002 and all-time leading scorer Ante Razov in 2005 are two instances of decisions that, when scrutinized, Peter easily could have ran and hid from like so many in his position often still do.
That’s not Peter’s style, however.
In both cases he was up front in open letters to the supporter base explaining the reasoning for shipping two of the club’s most iconic players away as he and his the technical staff worked to build the roster for more success than the year before. Beyond the obvious public relations aspect, Peter’s communication around the moves helped further the trust between supporter and front office.
The moves also served their purpose. In 2003, the club came one win short of the still yet-to-be-attained American “treble” and after missing the MLS Cup playoffs in 2004, made it to the Conference Finals in 2005. Though of course, after building much of the roster early that year, Peter soon departed the Fire.
It was around this same time I began to understand the career path I wanted to take.
All the way through steps at the Michigan Bucks, United Soccer Leagues and my five-year run with the Chicago Fire, it was Peter’s example in transparency, supporter relations and most importantly, genuine passion for the product, that guided me as I worked my way up the soccer pyramid.
And as I moved to Chicago, I actually got to know the man. Whenever a Fire history question popped up that even I didn’t know, Peter was my first call. Generous with his time and possessing a near photographic memory, he’d give detailed play-by-play of the thinking behind trades, draft picks and other decisions.
This past month, I was lucky enough to work with Peter and his current club Indy Eleven—we even traded obscure Fire trivia the day before the last weeks home opener. It’s really something else to have the opportunity to work with someone you’ve admired and, to some degree, modeled yourself after.
Down in Indianapolis, Peter, who often has a supporters scarf tied around his neck, leads up a talented and motivated staff that is busy creating another American soccer success story. As they do, he uses the same formula for supporter relations that he did with the Fire 18 years ago.
Back in Chicago, his love among the supporters was still evident on April 4 when Section 8 Chicago ran the “Peter Wilt: First Fire Fan” overhead up The Harlem End in celebration of all three goals against Toronto FC.
After 10 years away, let that show of support answer any remaining questions about Peter Wilt’s legacy with the club.
Jason Davis – Host of Soccer Morning at North American Soccer Network
Peter Wilt is like American soccer’s favorite ex-mayor, a populist who reached out to the little guy to give him a voice in what is usually a very exclusive process. Wilt made the fans feel involved, because they were and because he wanted them to be. Maybe no one else in soccer has ever done a better job of conveying the “we’re in this together” message than Wilt.
Ten years after he left the Fire, he’s become something of a folk hero—wandering the Midwest, starting new soccer clubs wherever he goes. When fans talk about the their club’s management and how they wished it would act, it’s usually not too long before they invoke Wilt. The success of Indy Eleven is just another testament to the fact that Wilt is incredibly adept at creating a welcoming, family environment around a team that builds loyalty and passion.
When Wilt left the Fire, that club and MLS became poorer for it. But it feels like in retrospect that the painful divorce he went through with Chicago was necessary to set him down the path that he’s still traveling now.
Joel Piktel – Long time Fire fan, former Chair, Vice Chair of Section 8 Chicago
Peter Wilt is a good friend to many and a great guy to have in your community. His enthusiastic approach to life is enjoyable to be around and pleasantly contagious.
Early on one of the great things Peter Wilt did was let the fans be themselves. From the rowdies in the BarnBurners, to the drum beating, flag waving, Polish fans in Ultras 98. Peter brought the two groups together in Section 8. Having all the supporters in one area he was able to keep customer complaints in check and, to some degree, keep security off our backs while we stumbled and fumbled through the process of building a unique supporter’s culture in Chicago. The flags got bigger, the displays more elaborate, the simple songs became strong standards, and Chicago earned a reputation of having some of the best support in the league.
In large part, the reason this worked so well was the genuine admiration and respect that supporters had for Peter, a notion that he was one of us, that the league was up and coming and we were in it together. This may be due to Mr Wilt’s superhero secret power: the ability to listen, engage and converse with just about all stripe of soccer fans. He is just as at ease when talking to soccer moms, kids and families as he is with hipsters and hooligans. He can always find some common ground, some nugget for conversation from his impressive knowledge of soccer, baseball, music, history, the Midwest, obscure places to find the best awful for you food, indeed Peter is hardly ever at a loss for words. More importantly, he listens and he cares about other people’s interests and opinions. That is why Fire fans came to love him and his name became legend. He is just one of the good guys. My wife and I just attended the Indy Eleven home opener this weekend and we were glad to see that Peter still has it and that the young NASL team is enjoying the type of fan friendly success that Peter’s can do attitude makes possible.
Eric Wynalda – Former USMNT player and soccer analyst on Fox Sports 1
Some call him a fan with access—I call him the best thing that can happen to a club looking for an identity.
OTF Editor-in-Chief Brian Howe Battle is a Chicago local and will now go buy a bottle of Pabst and Schlitz and give-it-a-go. You can follow Brian on Twitter at @OwenGoal.