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The Deep End
The Wave has all but drowned more than one businessman. Can Sue Black ride it?

The interns under Sue Black’s command at the Milwaukee Wave are going through three decades’ worth of team scrapbooks – keepsakes heretofore stashed away in the basement of longtime athletic trainer Larry Sayles. The project Sue has saddled them with: digitize every page, using a wand-like scanner the new team owner saw on QVC. “Boom, done,” she says of the “cheesy” purchase. 

Life has, in some ways, become simpler since County Executive Chris Abele fired the parks director turned soccer magnate in 2012. “I make the decision,” Black says, “it’s done.”

The painstaking work is all part of an effort “to reintroduce the Wave to the community and the community back to the Wave,” she says, as the team’s 30th season and the first under her ownership approaches. She takes over a team that has enjoyed plenty of wins on the field but a stubborn string of financial losses in the front office. The glow from the club’s golden era began to fade after the 1998-99 season, when average attendance peaked at 8,453, and last season marked the first since 2004 in which average attendance broke 5,000.

Which isn’t bad considering that back in 2009, the Wave was all but dead. Then-owner Charlie Krause, formerly of Krause Milling Co. and once a part-owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, warned that unless somebody stepped forward to buy the team from him, the nation’s oldest continuously operating professional soccer franchise (yep, you read that right) would go extinct.

Cue Jim Lindenberg, who rode to the rescue. The sale of his manufacturing company, World Class Wire & Cable, had reaped $62 million and a new degree of financial independence. The Wave was his, but like the man he relieved, the team lost millions under his ownership. And despite last season’s uptick, he wanted out of the soccer business.

Fade to Black. Before buying the team, she scouted about for other park system gigs, most notably in Dallas, all the while gravitating toward Lindenberg and the Wave’s plight. She came on in February 2013 as the team’s president and CEO, and by April, she owned it. Citing a confidentiality agreement, Black declines to reveal details of the transaction that made the Wave “100 percent” her own. Speculation is that, as when Krause gave way to Lindenberg, the price paid was miniscule, if there was even a price at all.

“It’s been a subsidized operation for a long time,” Black admits – with subsidies coming from the owners’ pockets – and she says that has to change. “I have remained in the black since I’ve taken it over. And it’s a sense of pride for me.”

She’s already revamped uniforms, logos, the club’s website and even the office layout. She’s secured deals to keep the Wave playing at the U.S. Cellular Arena and Keith Tozer, the winningest man in indoor soccer, as head coach. She’s enlisted the help of friend and former Gov. Tommy Thompson, as well as a slew of local business leaders, to run Wave of Hope, the club’s charitable organization. And, of course, she’s pounding the pavement to find new (paying) sponsors and fans.

Growing pains have stung. When Thompson spoke at a September press conference, the Wave logo attached to the front of his podium flopped onto the ground, and an unfinished media guide made its way onto the team’s website, crowing, “Sue Black is the owner schnizzit.” We can only guess that the copywriter meant “shizznit.”

But the team’s Dec. 7 home-opener will suggest how much progress she’s really made. Specifically, how many fans show up for it. “The proof’s in the pudding,” she says. But will future political aspirations ultimately distract her from riding the Wave? Not anytime soon, she says. “Seriously, right now, I need to focus on this,” she says.
Then she pauses. She has an addendum. “I think about it. Of course I do.”

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