By Steve Pastorino - SALT LAKE CITY, UT (July 2, 2008) USSoccerPlayers — Beginnings always feature halcyon days. The chicken tastes better at 4-nights-a-week community events. The budgets are still rosy. Like honeymooners who still have a twinkle in their eyes, season ticket holders are placid and not one has complained about a losing record or a hyperactive preschooler in their section.
Such are the days of the Chicago Red Stars – nine and a-half months before the team’s first game in Women’s Professional Soccer.
Team president Peter Wilt and his exuberant crew of a dozen are trekking soccer trails across Chicagoland – an array of house calls originating from the team’s office space affectionately known as the Toyota Park Annex in Bridgeview. From corporate sponsorship visits on Michigan Avenue to Rockford’s Watermelon Tournament, the breadth of “Hi, we’re the Red Stars” activities is impressive and constant.
Last month, the team unveiled its colors, sky blue and white stripes plus five six-sided stars in homage to the city of Chicago’s flag. Days later, Wilt and general manager Marcia McDermott introduced the Red Stars’ first coach, Emma Hayes, who appears to be well-qualified having won “every competition England has to offer” with the Arsenal Lady Gunners. The busy Red Stars have a website, Wilt’s blog, a landmark partnership with Illinois Women’s Soccer League and several hundred season ticket holders on the books.
All that appears to be lacking are acceptance, legitimacy, stability – and finding some players.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because Wilt has done this before – launching the Chicago Fire to a skeptical marketplace in late 1997 and early 1998. Then, Wilt was hired less than one year before Opening Day, leading to a breakneck acquisition of office space, staff, coaches and players.
This time around, Wilt has already been leading the charge for nearly a year. He announced the hiring of McDermott, former head coach for Northwestern University and the WUSA’s Carolina Courage, a year before the team would take the field. Hayes has six months longer than Bob Bradley had to prepare the squad for its first game.
There is one palpable difference that has Wilt sounding more relaxed than he ever was in the early days of the Fire.
“In 1997, everyone told me Major League Soccer was going to fail,” Wilt said this week. “Everyone was territorial and concerned that we were stepping on their soccer fiefdoms.
With WPS, everyone wants to help us. Everyone wants us to succeed.”
Now “everyone” might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but such is Wilt’s optimism. After more than a decade in Chicago’s soccer scene (Wilt ran the indoor soccer Chicago Power for several years prior to his 8-year stint at the Fire), he’s as well-known, and well-liked, in Chicago’s soccer circles as the city’s iconic figures like Frank Klopas, Chris Armas and even Cuauhtemoc Blanco. He intends to demonstrate that the passion, brand and organization he built at the Fire can be achieved yet again on the women’s side.
When the Fire launched, the team needed to be located in downtown Chicago, playing at the World Cup venue (Soldier Field) and connected to the city’s massive ethnic populations via high-profile players (Peter Nowak and Jorge Campos). They also needed a seven-figure marketing budget to keep afloat in a bitterly competitive sports and entertainment market. This added up to huge overhead.
Fortunately for the Red Stars, a much more size- and sport-appropriate stadium exists in 20,000-seat Toyota Park. The team is closer to the west and south suburbs where a core group of fans – soccer-playing teens – resides. What they lack in marketing dollars they plan to make up for in sweat and technology. Supplementing the strategy of relentless participation in community events, Amanda Vandervort, the Red Stars’ most recent hire, will find, aggregate and fan the passions of the team’s fans electronically.
The biggest hindrance to the Red Stars might be the young and unstable nature of WPS itself. The league launches with at least five start-up franchises. Only the Boston Breakers and Washington Freedom have maintained teams, market presence and some level of staffing since playing in the WUSA before its 2003 demise. Jersey Sky Blue has been fielding women’s teams in recent years, but Los Angeles, Dallas and St. Louis lag well behind. According to the WPS website, none of those three has announced stadium leases, team names and staff.
As a result, Wilt acknowledged he has spent much of his time on “league stuff.”
Still, he has found plenty of time to dote on his impressively experienced and hard-working staff. This past Monday, he launched an impromptu sales contest offering $50 cash to the staff member who helped the team surpass another ticket sales milestone. And he took it upon himself to make sure the “annex” could fit a foosball table – even if it meant the team has to go next door to Toyota Park for conferences.
The “annex”, it turns out, is the old trailer left over from the stadium’s construction.
“I thought I’d give my staff something to aspire to,” Wilt deadpanned. “Some day we’ll move into the (real) building!”
With humility, humor and hard work, the Red Stars appear to be on their way.
Steve Pastorino spent a decade in the front office of the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake. Steve welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.