Let’s get this out of the way right up front.
I was wrong.
Please forgive my transgressions.
No, I’m not auditioning for that Tiger Woods speechwriting gig. I’m officially apologizing to the Green Bay Packers.
A month ago, with the Packers sitting at 4-4 and fresh off a loss to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I wrote this headline: “Pack Can Forget Playoffs.”
I compared the Packers viewing experience to dental work. I took shots at their offensive line and special teams, then questioned their leadership. I declared them “an eminently average team.”
And all the Packers did was reel off four straight wins, including their two most impressive efforts of the season: Monday’s 27-14 win over Baltimore and the Dallas drubbing.
Suddenly, the line is keeping Aaron Rodgers on his feet (which is why he has 25 touchdown passes, tying Payton Manning for third-best in the league, behind Drew Brees and some dude named Favre). Special teams remains a work in progress (just ask Mason Crosby), but the defense is clearly making up for it. Green Bay has the league’s stingiest defense in terms of yardage allowed, and Charles Woodson is doing everything but pulling kittens from burning trees.
And yes, I’m believing again.
Not wholeheartedly, mind you. I wouldn’t recommend buying Super Bowl tickets, not with New Orleans and Minnesota still in the NFC. And it’s possible the Baltimore win was a slight mirage, considering the Ravens played without defensive stalwarts Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs.
But in the span of a month, the Packers have gone from an underdog to make the playoffs to a playoff team that others might want to avoid.
That’s a pretty good month.
Peter Wilt Waves Hello
When it comes to the average American sports fan, soccer’s reputation ranks somewhere between Al Davis and Tim Donaghy. And that’s without the ponytail pulling.
On good days, the sport’s detractors simply ignore it, dismiss it as boring and irrelevant, and go about their Brett Favre arguments. On bad days, those folks will actively campaign against it, calling it everything from a pansy sport to a communist plot for world domination. Unless it’s Jim Rome. Then things get really nasty.
This is the breach into which Peter Wilt steps every day, and one he’s been quite successful at closing. Wilt has made a career out of convincing people to watch soccer – be it with an MLS startup called the Chicago Fire or a women’s soccer startup called the Chicago Red Stars. Now he’ll try doing it one more time with the decidedly established Milwaukee Wave.
If you measure athletic success by winning championships, then the Wave is the most successful pro franchise in this city’s history. The indoor soccer team has four titles, most recently in 2005, and Wave coach Keith Tozer’s 604 wins is the most by anyone in the sport’s North American history.
But as the Wave learned over the summer, winning isn’t everything. The storied franchise was literally days from folding, victimized by a difficult economy and an owner who could no longer afford to foot the bills. Had new owner Jim Lindenberg not stepped in as an 11th-hour savior, there would’ve been one less soccer team for Rome to make fun of.
But Lindenberg, admittedly encouraged by his teenage son, put his money on the line to save the Wave, and one of the first things he did was hire Wilt as club president and CEO.
Smart man, that Lindenberg.
Wilt may very well be the best soccer ambassador in Wisconsin history. He’s practically soccer’s version of Tommy Lasorda, minus a few years (and the Slim-Fast commercials). His reputation is a national one.
I first met Wilt last month. He was playing bocce ball at the Hotel Intercontinental lobby with a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon draft in his hand. He wore business attire and pretty much looked like an average sports CEO. Right up until he removed a shoe to measure which ball was closest to the pallino.
So no, this is not your typical sports suit. Wilt is a personable everyman, so anxious to share stories that the words spill out of his mouth, stopping only to go throw a ball or sip on his Pabst. And man, does he love Pabst, Blatz and Schlitz. He can name the one Chicago-area bar that serves Blatz on tap (Tom’s Place). His smartphone is a treasure trove of beer memorabilia photos – shots of Schlitz globes and Blatz triangles and PBR bottle towers. When he shows you a particularly beloved beer snapshot, he ooohs over it with parental love.
Yes, this is a man the average sports fan would love, if only they’d get past that whole soccer thing.
Maybe Wilt can bridge the gap. He blogs often for a popular soccer Web site called pitchinvasion.net, and wrote a lengthy entry on why he accepted the Wave job. He has marketing ideas aplenty. He has the energy to make it happen. And he has a fast-paced, exciting product that’s nothing like the soccer you know and just might grow on folks if given a chance.
Already, the Wave’s season ticket sales have tripled, thanks in large part to its successful “Save the Wave” campaign, which remains ongoing. Corporate sponsorship has increased, and Wilt said Sunday’s home-opener at U.S. Cellular Arena brought in 50 percent more money than last year’s.
Still, there were lots of empty seats. I estimated the actual attendance at about 2,000, and though it probably didn’t help that Shaq and LeBron James were playing the Bucks across the street, there is plenty of room for improvement.
Wilt knows that. In fact, it’s one of the reasons he took the job. He likes the challenge of growing the Wave’s fan base. And he’s back home in Milwaukee, a place with plentiful kegs of Blatz, Schlitz and Pabst. And he’s among friends.
Here’s betting he makes a few new ones.