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Sep 15, 2009

Wilt feeling bullish on MLS, New York

Peter Wilt, the first president and general manager of the Chicago Fire, remains one of the most popular executives in MLS history. He's now involved with Women's Professional Soccer, but rumors have Wilt coming back to MLS in a management position with the New York Red Bulls. Never one to mince words, Wilt was gracious enough to sit down for this interview. ESPNsoccernet: As someone involved with WPS who also has a wealth of experience in MLS, do you see the leagues as competing interests? Peter Wilt: There is an offset. While acknowledging that there is some cannibalization of fans, media and sponsorship as some people will choose to attend one over the other, it must also be recognized that the existence of both leagues generates more overall awareness and interest in professional American soccer. Both leagues benefit through the increased corporate support, media and game attendees. There is certainly an overlap just as there is between MLB and MLS or NBA and NHL or any other pair of professional sports leagues, but I think the overlap between MLS and WPS is smaller than many people think. The WPS audience is primarily suburban dads and daughters as well as other family members, which has some overlap, but most of this group is attending WPS games, because they have girls in the family that play and would not otherwise be attending MLS games. WPS' secondary audiences of ethnics, gay and lesbian and the young urban are relatively small and have not cannibalized MLS by any means. The overall soccer-interested population in the U.S. is huge and is nowhere close to being fully captured by WPS or MLS teams. Too many soccer-interested people in the U.S. care only about participation or non-U.S professional leagues. Both WPS and MLS need to work to attract a greater percentage of the non-attending audience and not worry about stealing each other's fans. To put it in edible terms, there's a big cherry pie out there and WPS and MLS are only taking a few small slices right now. We need to increase the size of our slices, not worry about taking a few cherries off each other's plate. Sharing resources and coordinating promotional efforts will help both leagues.

MLS Game of the Week
Friday
San Jose vs. Colorado
11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com

ESPNsoccernet: Any time that there is a prominent management position in MLS, say general manager or sporting director, your name is eagerly bantered around by fans. Why do you think you've achieved such iconic status with the fans in this league? PW: I think my honest communication with fans online and in person has helped fans across the country get to know and trust me. In the past I used BigSoccer and my own blog to communicate directly to fans. Recently I've been using my weekly column on PitchInvasion.net and Tweets from twitter.com/RedStarsCEO to create a forum to communicate with soccer fans. Through this communication, they see that I have a pretty common-sense approach to things, I'm willing to listen to others respectfully and acknowledge when I've made mistakes. It's also very tempting to translate past successes to the future and my teams have earned six championship rings in three professional leagues over the last two decades. As public-offering disclaimers say, however, "Past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future success." ESPNsoccernet: Near and dear to your heart during your time with Chicago was relations with the supporters clubs behind the Fire. Over the past two years, supporters clubs have seen tangible growth in this league. PW: At the core, the credit goes to the dozens of volunteers in the supporters organizations themselves. They have worked very hard for many years with no pay to improve the atmosphere within their groups and at the games and have shown MLS and its teams the value they bring. To MLS' credit Don Garber and individual teams have recognized the direct and indirect benefit of successful supporters groups and have worked with them to promote growth and safety. This represents a sea change in the league's approach from the early years. It seems obvious, but I recall at the first MLS game I ever attended (Kansas City, 1997) Wizards and Arrowhead management ejected supporters for throwing confetti -- I'm not kidding. Fostering communication between all the league's supporters groups and between supporters groups and their team's upper management is very important to continued growth. ESPNsoccernet: Do clubs view the presence of supporters as somewhat of a nuisance? Would they rather cater to the soccer moms and the youth clubs or is the presence of these clubs really something that teams want to embrace? PW: I think many teams used to view supporters groups as causing more problems than they solved, but the growth of supporters culture in MLS the last few years has convinced every team of the potential and real benefits of strong supporters groups. I don't believe any teams now believe soccer moms and youth club support needs to be sacrificed for supporters groups. Both audiences are critical and many teams have now shown that catering to both is not a mutually exclusive proposition. ESPNsoccernet: Recent rumor has there being some interest in a role with New York. PW: My partners at the Chicago Red Stars have known from the beginning that I would like to return to MLS some day, but I'd prefer not to comment on any specific positions. ESPNsoccernet: What are your thoughts on the state of that franchise? New York certainly hasn't developed into the league's flagship franchise like it had been hoped it would when the league started in 1996. PW: The New York and New Jersey market and new stadium give them the potential to be MLS' flagship team, but I think there are a few other teams which can credibly stake that claim ahead of the Red Bulls. Lack of consistency in personnel on and off the field has been their biggest challenge since the beginning. The most successful organizations in MLS have found ways to retain their best staff and players over long stretches of time. That's done by creating good environments, doing the little things right and treating people with respect. You look around the league and the clubs that have used that formula are the ones that have been successful. ESPNsoccernet: Finally, Peter, as someone who has been able to look at this league from the inside and the outside, the designated player rule, is it good for MLS? Do you want to see the "DP" become permanent and should it be expanded? PW: It's absolutely been successful. Some of the individual choices have been more successful than others obviously either from a marketing or technical standpoint, but overall the designated player has improved the level of play and the awareness of MLS domestically and globally. As a group, MLS' designated players have easily generated more revenue and team value than the investments that have been made. David Beckham's signing alone directly generated untold millions in jersey sales -- 300,000 plus units, ticket, broadcast, exhibition and team, league and stadium sponsorship revenue. The greater value of his signing, however, is in the indirect value gained by the increased asset value of the Los Angeles Galaxy, now at $100 million, and all other MLS teams and the new respect given MLS globally . It can easily be argued that the expansion fee and demand for expansion teams have increased significantly as a result of his signing. The signing along with that of the other designated players has made the league a more desirable place to play. I would absolutely like to see the designated player made permanent. Not even half the teams have used their designated player option, so I think it's premature to push for a second designated player slot per team. Rather than expanding it, I'd prefer to have a reduction or exclusion of a designated player's salary on team salary caps. I think this would improve the quality of play for teams that invest in the designated player and "incentivize" more teams to use their DP option. Quote of the Week "Right now we just worry about ourselves. We've said that all along, that this stretch of home games is crucial for us. We built everything up to this point and said that if we stay close we control our own destiny. We don't watch anyone else but ourselves." -- D.C. United head coach Tom Soehn. The club has taken eight points from their past five matches. Stat of the Week Talk about being fit to be tied. The 1-1 tie between Chicago and Salt Lake this weekend was about as even of an affair as you can find. The teams had the same number of yellow cards (two each), each registered five shots on goal and each side's keeper had four saves. The similarities continue -- Salt Lake was called offside just once while Chicago was not flagged for the offense at all during the game. Salt Lake also one-upped the visitors in fouls committed, being whistled 10 times by the referee while the Fire were called only nine times. Quick Kicks • Chivas USA 's Carey Talley and New England 's Edgaras Jankauskas were given matching red cards in the 70th minute of Sunday's 2-0 win by Chivas. • United States U-20 Vincenzo Bernardo is currently a free agent and is in discussions with expansion club Philadelphia about joining the team. Expect that if Bernardo doesn't sign with a European club to see him playing in front of the Sons of Ben next spring. • Saturday's 2-1 win by Seattle at R.F.K. Stadium was the first time that D.C. United has lost at home all season in league play. • At BMO Field on Saturday, Toronto's Nana Attakora and Colorado 's Mike Holody scored their first goals in MLS. The boys from the north beat the Rapids 3-2. Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and writes for the New York daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KDyer@RutgersInsider.com.

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