By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 07, 2008 at 5:26 AM

Brady Street's Nomad World Pub is a teenager now and has been a haven for Milwaukee soccer fans since the day it opened. It's since been joined by Bay View's Highbury Pub, St. Francis' Carleton Grange and other venues where footie fans can pull up a bar stool and watch the action unfold.

And it seems that even on free TV there's more soccer than ever, with Channel 7 showing English football games, TV Azteca (Channel 38) and Telemundo (Channel 63) broadcasting games from around the globe but with special emphasis on Latin American leagues.

"There is no doubt that Highbury and Nomad have made it easier for people without access to televised futbol to hook up with others in the community," enthuses Mike Eitel, who owns the Nomad, as well as other area restaurants and taverns. "Like any televised sport, its always more fun to be around others who share a passion for the game so these cable channels -- and our bars -- provide the combination necessary to continue building that community."

Despite Eitel's enthusiasm and that of other fans of the beautiful game, soccer appears to have stagnated in Milwaukee, at least on a professional level. A bid for an MLS team is dead in the water and while a visit to a Wave game is enough to witness the enthusiasm of the team's fans, attendance has, according to the team, hovered around 5,000 per game since 2004-05.

So, are these bars and broadcasts making a difference? Milwaukee Wave Chief Operating Officer Mike Lafferty says yes, but offers a caution.

"Certainly they do," he says. "We're living in a global village now, thanks in large part to cable and satellite dishes. All those things help grow the game, just a little bit at a time. It's not a tidal wave."

And says Marquette alum Peter Wilt, one of the forces behind the bid to bring Major League Soccer -- and build a stadium for it -- believes that the popularity of soccer bars and broadcasts and the rise in popularity of the game are intertwined.

"The rise of soccer bars in Milwaukee are both a cause and a byproduct of the increase of soccer's popularity in the area," says Wilt, who is president and CEO of Chicago Pro Women's Soccer, which kicks off in spring 2009.

"The atmosphere of a pub packed with passionate soccer fans creates more soccer fans. The relative ease of watching high level soccer on television compared to a decade ago allows people who played the sport as kids to continue their interest as spectators as they grow up."

A recently New York Times article noted that more than 600,000 high school boys and girls play soccer in the United States. Last year US Youth Soccer launched its National League, with the top 16 teams from its Regional Leagues competing from September until April. The inaugural season wraps up soon.

"Popularity of this game is increasing on a variety of levels," says Lafferty. "Youth soccer continues to grow, and we look forward to giving it a tremendous boost beginning in 2009 with the Milwaukee Wave Premier Training Academy, which is in the works in Cudahy. The exposure of the Wave and the MISL is increasing with our television deals, locally on Time Warner Cable and nationally on Fox Soccer Channel. The opportunities ... to watch leagues from all over the world can do nothing but help interest in and understanding of the game -- two elements which go hand in hand."

And Eitel notes that interest in the international game is bigger than ever here.

"We have seen a steady increase over the last 13 years of televising soccer, not so much domestic games, but European league play and international matches," he says. "Every four years the World Cup is the busiest month of business we have. Now, even tournaments like the European Cup and Copa Libertadores are gaining popularity in Milwaukee. Most of our fans are internationals, students, and intrepid travelers who have experienced ‘the beautiful game' while abroad."

According to Wilt, a key to building on that popularity, especially in terms of transforming soccer-playing kids into soccer-watching adults, is overcoming the disconnect that currently exists. And, he says, Major League Soccer has been a great success at short-circuiting that problem.

"It's about creating emotional connections with players, teams and leagues," he says. "A lot of people care about Major League Baseball, but few people care about college baseball. It's the same game, but there is no emotional connection to the players, teams or history. The soccer kids have converted into spectators in American cities where there are players and teams that they have allowed them to develop connections.

"Major League Soccer has grown from a 10-team league to a 16-team league in eight years. Average attendance in MLS now rivals both the NHL's and NBA's. Over time, the League will continue to develop its own histories, traditions and stars that will resonate with more and more people."

Is there no hope, then, for Milwaukee soccer fans unless we can land an MLS team? If so, then Brew City soccer die-hards are in trouble, it seems. Neither Lafferty nor Wilt sees a team here anytime soon.

Even though the Milwaukee MLS bid had calculated that it could kick off with 8,000 season ticket holders -- more than the Bucks have -- the package just didn't sell to Major League Soccer brass, thanks in large part to the struggle to get a stadium deal done.

"As far as I know there is no future for an MLS bid in Milwaukee," says Wilt, simply. "There are no hopes for a stadium and without a stadium, there are no hopes for an owner or a team."

Although no one interviewed for this story otherwise suggested that other popular sports have affected soccer's draw, Lafferty thinks that the wide range of options available to fans of pro sports in the area could hinder the arrival of a professional outdoor soccer squad.

"The economics of both Milwaukee and MLS would just make it very difficult for the league to succeed here. Milwaukee is a small metropolitan market, and already is trying to support the NBA, the Wave and minor league hockey, along with the Packers, in part. An MLS entry needs $40 million just to sit at the table, a soccer-specific stadium that is probably a nine-figure endeavor, then salaries and operational costs. I'm just not sure where that's going to come from at this point in time."

As fans continue to crowd some area bars to watch matches and as the Wave continues to draw enthusiastic crowds, soccer seems set to continue to grow in Milwaukee. Add in more and more kids and adults playing the game at venues like Brookfield Indoor Soccer Complex and in leagues like Milwaukee Kickers, which boasts more than 8,000 players on 650 teams and more and more soccer on TV. Then consider that the Latino and Eastern European -- and other ethnic -- communities in the city are populated by soccer fans of all ages, and it seems soccer is ripe for continued growth.

"I believe the depth of soccer interest locally is increasing," affirms Wilt. "Most Milwaukeeans under 40 have played soccer. Most of those in their 30s played soccer recreationally, while many more of those in their 20s played it competitively. Each decade the sport is edging more and more into the public consciousness.

"A lot of people talk about a soccer revolution, when it is actually a soccer evolution. The globalization of society positively impacts the level of interest in soccer in Milwaukee and that will only continue to grow in the decades ahead as the world becomes a smaller place and the world's game becomes more mainstream."

Lafferty agrees and takes a similarly measured approach. He, too, thinks the game will continue to grow, and like Wilt, he thinks it will be more evolution than revolution. He points to the need for the MLS to improve and for fans' knowledge of the game to make a similar leap.

"Some observers seem to expect that soccer is suddenly going to erupt as a spectator sport. For a variety of reasons, in this country, that never will happen. The game is not culturally entrenched; MLS is not the best league of its kind in the world; too few fans understand the nuances of the game, limiting their enjoyment.

"But that doesn't mean soccer doesn't have fans, or is some kind of failure as a spectator sport. Is soccer watched more now than a generation ago in this country? You'd have to say yes. Will that interest increase in one more generation? Most likely, yes. But it's not going to be like hitting a button on your microwave." 

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.