No matter whether they win or lose in Game 1 of their second-round Major Arena Soccer League playoff series against the Missouri Comets on Friday night, all the members of the Milwaukee Wave will remain on the field long afterward, seated in folding chairs on the synthetic black turf, signing autographs for each fan and putting smiles on every face.
It’s one of the coolest of many Wave traditions, an endearing game-day interaction that fans of other sports don’t get. The players do this, of course, because the Wave is a professional indoor soccer team, lacking the rich salaries, high-profile publicity and comparatively restrictive access of major-league organizations. They build their brands and the franchise increases its exposure by selling not only the excitement and athleticism showcased on the field, but also the offbeat promotions, intimate public contact and unique fan experiences that are offered off the field.
Ian Bennett, a charismatic and dynamic forward who led the team in scoring this season with 44 points, says the postgame signings epitomize what the Wave tries to be.
"In what other professional sport can you meet your favorite athlete if you want? Bucks, Brewers, Packers, I mean, we’re not as big as those guys, but if you’re a soccer kid, it’s perfect," Bennett says. "I think that’s awesome. Just in that sense, it’s worth coming. That’s huge. It’s a lot of time for us, but we don’t mind doing it; that gets people in the stands and gets kids going. You get to really interact with these kids."
Some of my fondest sports memories growing up are those autograph sessions at Wave games. Of course, I idolized Glenn Robinson and Brett Favre and whoever might have qualified as a Brewers star in the late-1990s. But as a youth soccer player and avid fan, my heroes were Milwaukee’s professional indoor players – Michael King, Victor Nogueira, Steve Morris, coach Keith Tozer and others – who helped win championships, pack the Bradley Center and make Wave games the place to be for soccer fans.
It’s a new generation of players, obviously, and a new era of entertainment options and consumption. The indoor game has receded further from the sports landscape, and there have been several different iterations of its league; most Wave matches at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena now draw only about 3,000 spectators (in last week’s first-round playoff win over the Chicago Mustangs, the home attendance was 3,475).
But the best thing about the Wave has never changed: the players. Their availability, involvement in the community and commitment to delighting fans continue to make indoor soccer fun, compelling and engaging. Wave players build authentic relationships with their fans, which makes the games – particularly in the high-stakes playoffs – mean more, especially to young kids. Even after the game is over, a child can see his/her favorite players. Kids can hang out with Bennett at a camp; be taught by SportsCenter highlight-maker Tenzin Rampa, revered veteran Pablo Da Silva or one of numerous other youth club coaches; even have a player or mascot Brad Beach visit their school as part of an education campaign.
"We’re in the community. It’s us," Bennett says. "The Wave are a huge part of it. It goes hand in hand; you help us pack the stadium, and we’ll make ourselves accessible.
"And in the games – the energy, the lights, it’s crazy. MKE Sports, the owners, the staff, they put on a great show. You’ve just got to come in the building and you’ll see it, you’ll feel it. And we feed off that energy."
A fan favorite since he joined the Wave in 2009, Bennett says he understands and embraces the performance aspect of his job.
"You get to see some dancing, guys taking off their shirts, so it’s always good for the ladies, too," he says laughingly when asked about entertaining the crowd. "I try to. I enjoy it. I get everything. You’ve got to score goals, you’ve got to keep them entertained so they come back."
The team bills itself as the best family fun in the city, and being in the stands for a game, it’s hard to dispute the claim. And that’s all great, players say, but now it’s playoff time. In Milwaukee, which has won six professional indoor soccer championships, there’s a legacy to uphold.
The quest for title No. 7 continues Friday night in the first game of a home-and-home series against the Comets, who captured the Central Division with a 17-3 record during the regular season. The Wave is giving away an assortment of Flashback Friday items at the door, including bobbleheads, soccer balls and retro merchandise. It’s first come, first served, while supplies last, in an effort to boost the home support.
New era, same goal
In their second year under new owner Mike Zimmerman and head coach Giuliano Oliviero, the Wave have played a more ball-control style, building their attacks through sustained possession rather than relying on long balls from the back to the front. They started the season slow, dropping multiple games that players say they shouldn’t have lost, but finished with wins in their final four contests to earn a record of 13-7, tied for second in the Central with the Mustangs.
Last weekend, with the series level at 1-1 in Chicago, the Wave dispatched the Mustangs in the Mini-Game 3, an exciting 15-minute match immediately following Game 2 to determine who advanced.
As some of the team's high-impact players, Oliviero points to Bennett, Brazilian-born midfielder Marcio Leite, rookie Sean Totsch and new midfielder Max Ferdinand – who the coach says has been "dynamite" in his first year in Milwaukee. Defensively, there's Rampa, who earlier this season had the top play on ESPN’s "SportsCenter," and seasoned goalkeepers Nick Vorberg and Marcel Feenestra.
Bennett says the Wave started "hitting their stride" down the stretch of the season and players are now "all on the same page."
Midfielder Marcelo Fontana, in his 15th season, expressed a similar sentiment. He says the group – a mix of rookies, veterans and new players from other teams – is "really starting to click together" and the chemistry has been improving recently.
"I’m confident the way the last few weeks have been coming. Momentum is important. This season, we are peaking at the right moment," Fontana says. "Milwaukee created a reputation through the years of always being one of the top teams in the league, and we are always trying to do that."
Besides Fontana and a few others, Bennett was a player that was on the team the last time it won the league title, in 2012, and he said there is championship pressure in Milwaukee.
"It’s always been a winning tradition here," he says. "We don’t even talk about getting into the playoffs; it’s almost like, when are we going to win the next one? I think the owners have done a great job, (Oliviero) is a fantastic coach, the owners really put a lot into us, and all the players see that and see how hard they’re working, and we want to give that back to them and the fans.
"This is not a rebuilding year. We’re trying to win it. I don’t know about for fans, but for us, it’s championship or bust. It’s not going to be a successful season otherwise."
Oliviero, who played for the Wave for 13 years before taking over as coach last season, agreed there are high expectations.
"There’s a lot of legacy behind the Wave brand; we have standards," he says. "The standard has been set. Our goal is to compete for a championship every year, and this year is no different."
At 7:05 p.m. on Friday at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, the Wave’s quest for title No. 7 continues; and afterward, professional athletes will sign for happy spectators until there are no more programs left to autograph and no more selfies left to take. Because that's the tradition this team has built: winning championships and pleasing fans.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.