Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Peter Wilt - The Exit Interview

My company during the preseason game vs Louisville
The time is fast approaching where the Indy Eleven's first President and GM officially steps down as a member of the front office staff and joins the ranks of fan like the rest of us. Section 111, Row A, Seat 1 will technically belong to just another season ticket holder, even if that holder's name is Peter Wilt. So before Slaughterhouse 19's Patron Saint takes his talents, (apparent) insomnia, and constantly-on-the-move Honda north to devote all of his time to creating us a regional rival in Chicago, I asked Peter if he would be willing to answer some questions about his time here in Indianapolis. I asked him questions about the business and soccer side of his time here, but also some more personal questions. In true Peter Wilt fashion, he answered all of my questions. In fact, and I'm glad he did it this way, he was more verbose on the questions that weren't directly related to the business and the team. Peter was not only a champion for this team, but he seemed to become a champion of the history of this state and its people and now probably knows more about the State of Indiana than most life-long residents.

I wanted to give Peter the opportunity to answer the questions without feeling like he would have to temper his conversation and could write as much or as little as he wanted so this interview was through email exchanges. Plus, let's be honest, I'm a writer (with three kids) and not an interviewer so it was helpful for me to do it this way too. I've included his responses to the questions below with only minimal proofreading edits, but I have taken the liberty to include as many links as I could to the people and places he referenced. Many of the links take you to Peter's Twitter account because he does an amazing job in that medium of documenting his substantial travels.

Thank you Peter for your time. Both in this interview and your work to help get this team off the ground and running.

1. When you and Ersal were considering the possibility of a team in Indianapolis, there was a relatively small group of fans discussing the idea of a team in Indy. What were some of the things you saw with that group, and beyond in Indiana, that made you believe that a team could succeed in Indianapolis?

PJW:  It came down to three experiences I had the first time I came to Indy to learn about the project.  I think there were 80 Likes on the BYB Facebook page when I first met with Josh Mason that evening to talk over a couple of beers about bringing pro soccer to Indiana at the Chatham Tap in Fishers. That conversation, and the time I spent with Ersal earlier that day, convinced me a team in Indy COULD succeed. As I told Ersal that day, there were a number of variables - some controllable, some not - that would determine if the club would be successful or not. The factors that convinced me it could succeed included the BYB's professionalism, commitment, and organization as described and exemplified by Josh. Ersal's vision, knowledge, and energy were also positive factors, and finally, Indy itself sold me.  The tour Ersal gave me of Carmel and Indianapolis showed me a beautiful and dynamic city ready to add another cultural property to its growing progressive identity.

2. Once it was determined that it appeared to make good business sense to move forward, what were some of the short-term and long-term goals for the team, i.e. 1-year, 2-year, 3-year, 5-year, 10-year?

PJW: From the beginning, Ersal wanted to build an important sports property for Indiana that he and the state could take pride in. He wanted to make sure it wouldn't be perceived as minor league. The target numbers and growth rate was never as important as the club's sustainability. Initial forecasts for tickets have been well publicized in the mid-four figures for average attendance. Similarly, a long term goal of an 8,000 seat soccer specific stadium was discussed. Those initial goals now look modest due to the sensational response of the community.

a. How many of those goals were met?

PJW: All of the initial revenue goals were met….and far exceeded in every area.

b. Which ones were not? Why do you think they weren’t met?

PJW: We certainly planned to be competitive on the field from the start. We weren't competitive in NASL until the 2015 fall season. There are two main reasons we fell short of our goals on the field. I made two bad decisions. The investment in Kleberson did not pay off due to injuries. His salary used up nearly one fourth of our player budget, which effectively put us in the lower third of NASL player budgets. Secondly, I hired a coach without proven head coaching experience. Juergen Sommer met and even exceeded many aspects of his job, but not the ones that meant the most.

c. How many needed to be altered after the team officially started?

PJW: The revenue goals all were adjusted upwards after we recognized in late January 2013 that the season ticket base alone would exceed the previous total attendance goals.

3. Does it disappoint you that you’ll be leaving before a soccer-specific stadium has been approved to move forward? Did you think that it would be an easier sell?

PJW: Yes, I am disappointed and no I did not think it would be an easier sell. While I did not originally expect a new stadium plan to be approved in the short term, as the effort in the 2015 legislation unfolded, my hopes were raised. I believe we did a good job educating the legislators and public about both the value the stadium would bring and the benign funding mechanisms to pay for it. I am confident that ultimately it will be built and I think the end result will be better than if it were approved in 2015.

4. You have helped start or worked with several teams, notably the Chicago Fire, the Chicago Red Stars, the Indy Eleven, and now the Chicago NASL team. How many more upstarts do you envision in your future or does the Chicago NASL start attempt to satisfy an itch to remedy any things that you have learned about running teams in Chicago since your time with the Chicago Fire?

PJW: I can't predict what the future holds, but I do know that I see an opportunity to make something special in Chicago and fill a void for soccer fans there.

5. What is the thing that you are most proud of helping to accomplish here in Indianapolis?

PJW: I'm proud that I was able to assemble and work with a talented, hardworking staff to create a culture of inclusion with so many varied interests in Indiana in support of Indy Eleven.

6. What surprised you most about bringing a team to Indianapolis and joining the NASL?

PJW: The universal love for Indianapolis and desire to work together to support Indy Eleven surprised me. It was wonderful to see all the youth soccer interests unite behind the team and see civic, cultural, social, media, and sporting organizations also support Indy Eleven as strongly as they did.

7. Was there anything that you experienced with the Eleven that you hope you can duplicate with Chicago NASL or future starts?

PJW: Certainly the passion and immediate emotional connection with the club is something that every organization should aspire to happen.

8. Were there ever any moments where you found yourself as Peter Wilt, the fan, and not Peter Wilt, President and GM?

PJW: Whenever I have the opportunity to sit in my seat or stand with the Brickyard Battalion and watch the game I feel like a fan.  And to some extent I think I always carry the fan perspective with me.  Two particular moments I recall being more fan than executive were when Mike Ambersley scored in our first game and when we finally won at home against Minnesota.

9. You seemed to make a concerted effort to learn the history of Indianapolis and Indiana, going so far as visiting each of the county courthouses and several high school basketball arenas. Which ones were your favorites?

PJW: Decatur County's courthouse in Greensburg will always be special due to the trees that grow organically out of its tower. Being able to tour and climb up to the top of the towers of the Johnson County Courthouse in Franklin and the Rush County Courthouse in Rushville made lifetime memories and they happened to be two of my favorite courthouses as well. Reaching the Perry County Courthouse in Tell City late at night July 9, 2014 to complete my 92 courthouse quest was memorable. The lighting of the courthouse and fountain outside it was inspirational.

The gyms in Knightstown, Westchester, Muncie, Marion, Lebanon, Newcastle, Loogootee, Southport, and Southside Turners were my favorite basketball venues for different reasons, but they all shared the commonality of local basketball history. My favorite memory was at Muncie, seeing players lift their disabled team manager on their shoulders to help cut down the net after a state tournament game. Like so many high school basketball games in Indiana, it was emotional and it represented all that is good about the people in Indiana.  

10. What are your favorite things (people, place, event, etc.) about Indianapolis?

PJW: The qualities of unselfishness and local pride are my favorite things about the people of Indiana. Mayor Greg Ballard; Slaughterhouse 19 leader Peter Evans; Golden Ace Inn co-owner Jim McGinley; and author, playwright, and NUVO beer critic Rita Kohn (who is an absolute treasure and one of Indiana's most amazing people) are just four Hoosiers who exemplify those qualities.

There are hundreds of wonderful places that I love in Indiana, but my favorite is the Shrine Room atop the Indiana World War Memorial. The building and its contents are beautiful, strong, educational, historic, and inspirational. The Shrine Room itself is a place that memorializes those who fought in war yet at the same time it is the most peaceful place in the state. I visited the Shrine Room once a week for the last several years. It was my church, a place I could clear my head, become grounded and think more clearly.

Editor's Note: This is also one of my favorite places in Indianapolis. If you have never made a visit to it, do it. Make multiple visits. There is so much to see that I have taken to focusing on a single area on a lunch hour trip. Use your first visit to get the layout of the museum and follow-up with key areas in subsequent visits. The sign over one of the interior doors indicates, "Enter with Reverence, Leave with Pride." I leave every time with pride and humility.

More history, culture, and art can be discovered in Indiana's cemeteries. Some of the best have beautiful statuary, trees, and hills. Crown Hill, of course, is the greatest of all with one of the city's highest points at James Whitcomb Riley's grave and final resting place of John Dillinger, Alexander Ralston, James Baskett, Benjamin Harrison, Zerelda Wallace, and dozens of other historic and cultural luminaries. Hoagy Carmichael's grave in Bloomington, Eugene Debs in Terre Haute, Tony Zale in Portage, Ryan White in Cicero, Frances Farmer in Fishers, Oscar Charleston in Floral Park Cemetery on Indy's west side, the Chevrolet Brothers in Holy Cross Cemetery on Indy's south side, and James Hubert "Tarzan" Pierce in Shelbyville are just some of the other famous graves in Indiana that are on my list of favorite places.

In Indianapolis, my favorite events include any Indy Fringe performance, especially the annual kickoff at the Athenaeum, any charity event at the beautiful Indiana Rooftop Ballroom, any low budget pro wrestling matches at WCWO Arena (an automotive garage on Kentucky Avenue), and any play, concert, beer tasting, or book reading I would attend with the aforementioned Rita Kohn. Outstate (and at Indy's Speedrome) I discovered the fun of watching small oval racing. Dirt and asphalt tracks from Kokomo to Lawrenceburg to Terre Haute's Action Track all provided wonderful entertainment with sprint, midget, and modified car racing. The best out state event I attended by far though was the Schnellville, Indiana Sesquicentennial Parade. There were more floats than Schnellville's population of 170. The community spirit at the parade was wholesome and fun. I attended that parade with BYB leader Andrew Retz and that same day we sought out and found five of Indiana's six moon trees - trees that grew from seeds taken to the moon on Apollo 14. We later filled our bucket list item by finding the sixth Indiana moon tree near Cannelton.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few other places around Indiana that made my time here truly feel like home. My adopted home neighborhood of Irvington has great history, restaurants, and locally owned businesses. Fair Oaks Farms at I-65 mile marker #220 always provided a respite on my commute to and from Milwaukee for a warm grilled cheese sandwich or cold dish of delicious vanilla ice cream and the opportunity to watch the cheese and ice cream being made! And Whiting, an Indiana Lake Michigan shore community that has a feel of a rural Norman Rockwell town with an annual pierogi festival, weekly hot rod shows on its main street in the summer, and the oldest single screen movie house in Northwest Indiana.

The Landmark For Peace Memorial at the site of Robert Kennedy's most famous speech where he told a crowd of his African American supporters about Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4, 1968 is one of my favorite places. I didn't visit it quite as often as I did the Indiana World War Memorial, but it was definitely my second most visited historic Indiana destination. I enjoyed taking people there and telling them the story about RFK's insistence on going through with the planned stop on his presidential campaign, giving the incredible speech extemporaneously and being credited with preventing violence in Indy that night.

Editor's note: Address of memorial - 1702 Broadway St. Indianapolis, IN 46202

All these places and all these people in Indiana always made me feel at home and for that I will always be grateful.

11. One of the things that I’ve always been impressed about by you is your approach-ability and interactions with the fans. I’ve heard others say they are surprised to find themselves having in-depth conversations (not just soccer related) with someone who is so well-known in the soccer business. As you head off to a competing NASL team, how do you want the Indy Eleven supporters, and even casual fans, to remember you and what would you like them to know about you that they might not already know?

PJW: I hope they remember me as someone who cared about their state and worked hard to add a quality team to the Indiana sports landscape. I don't think most fans realize that leading a team is like being a goalkeeper - I get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things go poorly. It really is a team effort and the successes of Indy Eleven are due to everyone on the team, starting with Ersal Ozdemir and including every team and front office staff member.


Jeff C. said...

Thanks so much for that interview (and thanks to Peter for agreeing to do it). I'm really saddened by his departure. He was not an unalloyed success--he seems to have underestimated what it would take to be successful on the field in the NASL, and two years later the team is still struggling to overcome some of the missteps that grew out of that misperception. But his enthusiasm, his embrace of Indianapolis, and his regular engagement with the fanbase were vital to building the team--something that our current president (whom a friend refers to as "Silent Jeff") could learn from.

Don said...

Great interview.

Peter will be missed.

peter wilt said...


Came across this article today while searching something Indy Eleven related. It is a great read and reminded me of the terrific experience i had in Indiana. Just a month after this piece, we were holding up our first trophy (platter!).