The Milwaukee Wave are quietly putting together another fantastic season. They’re currently 14-3, clinched the Major Arena Soccer League Central Division title on Sunday and have a charismatic superstar in Ian Bennett, all without much local attention.
According to the MASL, the Wave have had an average of 3,713 people attend their eight home games this season. That number is the highest in the league, but it still pales in comparison to other sporting events in the area. Yet despite the relatively low attendance figures, the Wave put out a product high in energy, excitement and value, making their games among the best experiences a sports fan can have.
Admittedly, it had been years since I’d checked out a Wave game. I mentioned that to 19-year announcer and hype man Van "The Man" McNeil after Sunday’s game against the St. Louis Ambush, and he immediately responded, "It probably looks a bit different too, huh?"
He’s not kidding. The production value, entertainment and fan-first mentality of Wave games at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena was something I’d never experienced before.
The sleek, black-and-neon-yellow design on both the uniforms and turf gave the team a modern look that appealed to the many kids who attend the games. The blacklight that immersed the entire arena during player introductions and after Wave goals, paired with McNeil’s infectious energy over the microphone, added a level of excitement that was impossible to ignore.
The breaks in the game provided a wide array of entertainment for the fans. Staples of any sporting event like the Kiss Cam and a halftime act made appearances the game, but there were also some quirks only seen at smaller, minor-league events.
The Wave have a theme for every home game, and Sunday’s game was Hawaiian. With that theme came something I never realized I needed to see in my life until I actually saw it: a SPAM eating contest. Yep, they just lined up two willing participants to see who could eat the most SPAM in 30 seconds. In addition, there was a small volleyball net set up between two sections that allowed fans to knock a giant inflatable ball back and forth – some while also trying, unsuccessfully, to hold their soda.
It was hard to find a dull moment during breaks in the action, and we haven’t even talked about the actual game yet.
Indoor soccer is its own beast. The pace and energy on the field is unlike any kind of soccer you’ve seen before. The structure of the field and the boards gives the game a hockey element. The excitement that comes with scoring a goal in soccer is heightened at an indoor game because it just happens more often. Milwaukee averages a whopping 8.3 goals per game, and that offense is led by Bennett.
The veteran forward is tied for the MASL lead with 53 points and second in the league with 43 goals. I was told to watch him before Sunday’s game, but even if I went in completely devoid any knowledge of him, it would still be obvious who the best player on the field was. Bennett looked like a star in every way. He has quickness, ball skills, speed and a radiant charisma about him that everyone in the arena could see.
Bennett scored a hat trick in Milwaukee’s 7-5 win Sunday. After every Wave goal, the lights dropped to an arena-wide blacklight, McNeil waved a towel over his head as he stood on top of the boards yelling "GOAL! GOAL!" while the theme song for the show "The League" blared in the background. During all of that pandemonium, the scoring player signed a special ball before hurling or kicking it into the stands for a lucky spectator to take home.
The Wave are extremely focused on fan appreciation, and that commitment is on display not only during every home game, but afterward, as well. Still wearing their uniforms, players sit on either end of the field after the game – some while getting taped up or iced – and the team allows all fans to come down for a 20-minute autograph signing. Players, coaches and even Van get in on the signings and picture-taking with smiling kids.
With the Wave continuing to grow their brand in Milwaukee and poised to make another playoff run this season, why not go out and support the oldest continuously operating soccer team in the United States? Let’s show the Milwaukee Wave we appreciate them as much as they appreciate us.