Indy Eleven GM stays close to fans to connect team to community

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One of the problems with producing a print publication is there never seems to be quite enough space. That’s especially true when the subject is as colorful as Peter Wilt, general manager of Indianapolis’ North American Soccer League team, the Indy Eleven.

In this week’s special Interview Issue of the print IBJ, Wilt was one of 29 people profiled. I’m using some of the infinite space on The Score to reveal more of Wilt’s introspections on sports business, fandom and connecting with the community that couldn’t make it in print. I’ll add a few side notes for color.

First thing to note about Wilt is that he loves to eat and drink. I think he’s been to as many Indy area restaurants in the year or so since he’s lived here than I have living here basically my whole life. Here’s what he had to say when I asked him where he liked to get some grub or swill a beer.

IBJ: What is your favorite restaurant?
Wilt: I love Indianapolis’ restaurants. I really enjoy the blue collar places; John’s Famous Stew and Working Man’s Pub. Golden Ace Inn is a great Irish bar and it has some good food too. The clam chowder is fantastic. I’m not a Notre Dame fan, but watching a Notre Dame football game there is a special experience. It’s halfway to my home in Irvington, so it’s a convenient stop on my way home. But if you ask me anywhere, any place, any time, last meal it would be Club Lago in the River North area of Chicago. It’s an Italian joint from the 1950s. Fantastic pasta and camaraderie.

Wilt’s initial tour of the area with team owner Ersal Ozdemir, naturally started at another restaurant, the Detour Grill in Carmel.

Wilt doesn’t hesitate to say how much the early local support for the Eleven has surprised him. The Eleven are averaging more than 10,300 per home game and leading the league in attendance. He says the team’s primary support group, the Brickyard Battalion, rivals any in Major League Soccer. No doubt he’ll be waving that banner when he goes before state lawmakers in the coming months to plead the team’s case—again—for a new downtown stadium.

IBJ: If you were to take the Brickyard Battalion and the equivalent of that in Chicago when you started the [MLS’] Fire, was the fervor as great here among the core fans as it was in Chicago?
Wilt: The group in Chicago developed into one of the very best fan bases and support groups in terms of size, quality and organization in the entire MLS. It took some people by surprise that this expansion team would have stronger support than almost any existing MLS team. It was similar here, though the Brickyard Battalion was larger in numbers than the early Chicago Fire supporters group. In fact at our games now with 2,000 people standing for 90 minutes, that’s more than Chicago has then or frankly has now among their active supporters.
One of my favorite exchanges with Wilt came when I asked him about his accessibility. An abbreviated answer made it in our print edition. Here’s the whole exchange—which gives more insight into the philosophies Wilt uses to run the Eleven.

IBJ: You’ve been known as a very fan-friendly general manager.
Wilt: That’s what I’ve heard.

IBJ:  Why not remain a bit more cloistered off from the noise created by fans?
Wilt: You learn a lot by talking to fans. Any company should want to learn from their customers; what’s working, what’s not working, what makes them happy, what makes them angry. In the other direction it’s important to communicate when decisions are made that are not well understood, when there are concerns by the fans why a certain policy or decision was made. It’s common sense to me. I don’t know why you would ever want to be separated from your audience. It’s also about creating emotional connections. What sports are ultimately is tribal. You’re trying to get fans to feel they are the team. The goal of any sports team is to reflect the community. That’s one thing I think we at the Indy Eleven have done very well. This community really does believe this team is theirs, and it’s because we have included them in the process. What we need to do to maintain that is avoid hubris. We cannot be arrogant thinking that it will always be this way or it’s this way because of us. It’s been a community effort and we need to respect that and continue in that direction.

IBJ: What is one of your best instances of fan interaction?
Wilt: After I was let go in Chicago, I was watching a college soccer game at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was sitting by myself in the bleachers and a dad walked up to me, introduced himself and said ‘I just want to shake your hand and let you know …’ he was at the game with his 9-year-old son, he said he had been taking him to Fire games since the kid was 1 year old and said that experience has been a bonding experience for him and his son and he appreciated what I did to make that possible. That hit home for me, that I had been part of something that had an impact on a human level. I remember that well and I try to keep that perspective, that a soccer team can positively impact relationships for people like that.

IBJ: What has been the most negative experience you had with fan interaction?
Wilt: I’m sure there have been a lot of them. Again it goes back to Chicago. Our most popular player was a Polish midfielder named Peter Novak. He was our captain and a captain of the Polish national team. A real hero in the Polish community and a real hero among the Chicago Fire fans. After five years with the team, he was probably 38 years old, and we were well over the salary cap. We had to move several players to get in compliance with the salary cap. One of the moves I made was to get rid of Peter Novak. I was hoping he was going to retire to make it easy on me. But he said he didn’t want to retire. He said he wanted to play one more year. I ended up taking less to trade him to the team he wanted to go to. In the end, he didn’t go. He retired because his wife didn’t want to move. I wish he would have just retired up front. It was the hardest thing I ever did professionally. He was a friend as well. I cried when I did it. But it was only one of a handful of big moves we had to make in that off-season. We needed to do that to get back under budget. The fan base was up in arms. I sent a letter, posted it on our web site and emailed it to our whole fan base, explaining each trade individually, why it happened … and importantly what the alternatives would have been if we would have kept any of those players. The serious fans of the Chicago Fire understood there really wasn’t much of an alternative. It was either get rid of the youth, the future of the team, or some of the popular older players. Then in the last paragraph, I wrote, “If you chose to no longer support the Chicago Fire because we traded Peter Novak, to me that means you were never a Chicago Fire fan, but just a Peter Novak fan. And that line was polarizing. Most people understood it in the spirit it was meant and embraced it, and the letter overall was received fantastically for an open, honest communication from a team executive. But there was a segment of our fan base that was personally offended because they were Peter Novak fans and they didn’t appreciate being told by a team executive whether or not they were ever a fan of the Chicago Fire. I received a number of responses from very angry fans … And that stung me.

IBJ: If you had it to do over again, would you include that line?
Wilt: The sentiment perhaps I would have kept, but re-phrased the wording. As a side not, I happen to be a Green Bay Packers fan. Brett Favre was in a similar situation as Peter Novak. Toward the end of his career, the Packers wanted him to retire and he didn’t want to retire. They traded him to the New York Jets. And I ended up being that angry fan. I sided with Brett Favre. I became a New York Jets fan. And then I became a Vikings fan for a couple of years when he played there. I was aware at the time of the hypocrisy, that I had been on the other side, and now I saw what it was like. I recognized that being a fan was different than being a team executive. I’m back to being a Packers fan.


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