When you drive, bike or walk around town, you can see it: city youth soccer leagues in parks all over the suburbs; adult leagues kicking it around along Lincoln Memorial Drive with Lake Michigan as a lovely backdrop; huge membership in the Milwaukee Kickers, one of the largest youth soccer organizations in North America; warm-weather crowds enjoying outdoor A-league Milwaukee Rampage soccer at Uihlein Field; and winter crowds inside the Bradley Center cheering on the three-time NPSL-champion Milwaukee Wave.
Soccer is huge in this town. So is Milwaukee ready for a new MLS expansion team?
We just might be, and Milwaukee Loves Soccer is prepared to make it happen. The group has been working since 1998 to lure an MLS franchise to Brew City.
Major League Soccer, the highest level of U.S. professional soccer, is adding two expansion teams to its existing roster of 12 for the 2003 season. Milwaukee is a leading candidate for a franchise and Milwaukee Loves Soccer, LLC is heading to San Jose for the MLS All-Star Game next weekend hoping to tip the scales further in Milwaukee's favor.
Besides Milwaukee, markets like New York, Winston-Salem, Houston, Seattle and Rochester, NY, are vying for one of the two available expansion franchises. Milwaukee has a few advantages: the ethnic makeup of the city, for example. Milwaukee identifies very strongly with its European heritage and possesses a burgeoning Latin American market; many cities have one or the other, but not both.
The economic structure of Major League Soccer is such that all team owners and investors share revenue as a single entity, eliminating any market-size disadvantages (e.g. Milwaukee versus New York). In addition, the high level of participation and interest in soccer leagues, events and the existing professional teams in Milwaukee indicate strong potential fan base for the new team.
If a team comes, it will play in a new outdoor professional soccer stadium slated for construction downtown. While no site has yet been determined, some lots near the Bradley Center are being eyed for potential construction.
The stadium design would draw inspiration from European-style venues, utilizing an open-air field while the partial roof keeps the crowd dry on rainy days. Planned capacity is around 20,000, with future expansion projected for an additional 6,000. The new stadium could require a 1-by-2 city block footprint and accommodate street-level retail and restaurants.
"It will be the premier venue for professional soccer in North America," says Jeffrey Remsik, spokesperson for Milwaukee Loves Soccer. "We want to make Milwaukee a destination for soccer and attract teams from all over the world for games and events.
"Ideally, we can host teams from other countries in matches that coincide with their summer ethnic festivals, such as the German National Team playing during German Fest, the Irish National Team during Irish Fest, and so on. We would also have the opportunity to host the MLS All-Star Game, NCAA Championship games for both men and women and any other teams that would like to make use of the facility."
Remsik added that the stadium could also be used for concerts and other outdoor events. There are no plans to appeal for public money for its $50-$55 million price tag; all arrangements are through private investment, including banks and equity investors.
What would happen to the Rampage if Milwaukee lands an MLS team? The Milwaukee Rampage is an A-league team, serving as a farm club to the MLS Chicago Fire. Rampage officials express excitement about the possibility of an MLS team arriving here, as it would only further entrench soccer in the state market. They would likely relocate the team to Madison, Green Bay or another Wisconsin city.
All of this isn't limited to men's soccer, either. The WUSA professional women's soccer league is in its inaugural season and features stars like Mia Hamm. It may look to expand into more markets by 2004. That means if Milwaukee's stature in the soccer world achieves its potential level, Brew City could also have a pro women's team.
As a precursor to its trip to San Jose, Milwaukee Loves Soccer is hosting a rally on Sun., July 22, at Pere Marquette Park beginning at 1 p.m. The event coincides with the closing day of Festa Italiana and may render many Milwaukee Italian-American soccer fans unable to show their support.
Rally festivities include free food, lemonade, popcorn and prizes. Among the soccer players and personnel expected to be on hand are Eric Wynalda of the Chicago Fire, Peter Wilt, the Fire's General Manager, Brian Loftin and Todd Dusosky of the Milwaukee Wave, and a number of Milwaukee Rampage players, including "Digital" Takawira, Dan Popik, Ollie Ellsworth, and Peter Henning. Pere Marquette Park is located along the Milwaukee River's west bank between Kilbourn and State Streets.
Prizes will include box seats for Chicago Fire games, tickets to the MLS All-Star Game in San Jose, player jerseys, team-autographed balls and player autographs. Everyone who lends their support will get a soccer beach ball.
Remsik reports a strong surge in fan interest, especially at the group's website. More than 1,000 commitments for season tickets have been placed via the website in just three weeks. The site features an online petition, opportunity to reserve season tickets and more. A 12,000-piece direct mail campaign is also going out this week as part of the marketing and support effort.
More information can be found on the Milwaukee Loves Soccer hotline, (414) 231-1501, or by going to the web at www.milwaukeelovessoccer.com.