Saturday mornings, Badgers deck out in red and head over to Camp Randall, ready to jump around with 70,000 fellow fans. The very same evening, another crowd is often spotted on the east side of the city at Breese Stevens Stadium, this time thrilled to go “Full Mingo.”
Forward Madison FC, the city’s first professional soccer team, launched in 2018 and just wrapped up its inaugural season. The squad’s logo, located in the top corner of its Dairyland jerseys, features the team’s brand identity: a forward-facing pink flamingo.
Having led the league in average attendance and clinched a spot in the playoffs, FMFC has set a high standard for itself right from the start. As FMFC Head Coach Daryl Shore put it, the club is only one year old and will continue to evolve, but what will not change is the team’s constant strive for high-quality performance on the field and its strong connection with the fans.
“What we’ve always said is that whether we win, lose or draw, when our fans leave, the one thing I want them to be talking about is ‘when is the next game, when can I come back to see Forward Madison play?’ That’s the one thing as coaches, and as a staff [we want to see],” Shore said. “If we got fans doing that, we know we are doing a good job of keeping our fan base engaged.”
Putting it all together
Forward Madison’s Managing Director Peter Wilt is no stranger to domestic soccer fans. Wilt is the former President and General Manager of MLS team Chicago Fire, and has successfully launched five professional soccer teams before Forward Madison.
Building a sports team from scratch has never been an easy task, but to Wilt, with more than three decades of expertise in the business, the process is filled with excitement.
Right from the planning stage, Wilt aimed to closely involve the community. He said inviting the public to witness and take part in the development of the team is what helps cultivate ownership and pride among the local community. One important way to achieve this, he said, is to first identify community influencers and give them a voice.
“One of the first things I’m doing … when I started that team, is meeting morning, noon and night with influencers … in the community. So that I can hear from them what they would like to see from the professional soccer team in town. I can also share what our vision is,” Wilt said during an interview with Madison365. “By doing that, I get a better sense of what will work, and what won’t. Also, hopefully I’m able to connect with people in the community who will then spread the message for us.”
The public was invited to participate in helping the club choose its team name, colors and crest.
According to Forward Madison’s website, the voting procedure followed the World Cup format that soccer fans are already familiar with. Thirty-two potential team names were organized into eight groups of four. Every Wednesday from May 30 to June 20 last year, two groups — eight names in total — were revealed to the public for one week of voting. The winning name from each group then proceeded to the knockout round.
Voting for team colors and crest was also added at the knockout stage. The public then cast votes for four quarterfinal names and two semi-final names. The final team name was announced at the Wisconsin State Historical Society last November.
As introduced by Wilt at the name revealing event, the name “Forward” “reflects the team’s continuous drive to be a national leader,” and the pink flamingo on the crest further strengthens the club’s tie to the city of Madison, according to the USL League One website.
The idea of incorporating a pink flamingo on the club’s crest traced all the way back to Sept. 4, 1979. That morning, University of Wisconsin students climbing up Bascom Hill on their first day of class were greeted by 1,008 pink, plastic flamingos dotting the lawn in front of Bascom Hall.
Intrigued by the scene in front of them, students walking past the hill started to uproot the unique lawn ornaments, and by 2 p.m. that afternoon, all of the flamingos had found new homes. Students then placed the birds as decorations in their dormitory rooms, apartments and other places on campus, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society archives.
As recorded in the archives, the incident was soon known as a prank orchestrated by James J. Mallon and Leon D. Varjian, the then-president and vice president of the Pail and Shovel Party, as a gesture to celebrate the party’s reelection to head the Wisconsin Student Association, the official student governing body.
Former Director of UW Archives David Null said as the years passed after the prank, people living in Madison started to embrace the pink bird as a representation of the city, as it helps to portray Madison as a strange — yet fun — place to live, according to the FMFC website.
Wilt said the flamingo, which functions as a “motif” for the team just as it does for the city, “reminds us that life, especially in Madison, should be fun and a bit irreverent,” according to the website.
Indeed, the club has lived up to this idea and is dedicated to providing fans with the most vibrant and fun experience possible.
Between welcoming a cow named Lionela Bessi to the team, promoting a Watermelon Cocktail Tiki ticket package where fans could drink a White Claw out of a flamingo straw from a watermelon, inviting actor Leslie David Baker (Stanley Hudson in “The Office”) to one of the home games in August and hosting a live dating show on the field during a September half-time break, Forward fans could not ask for more.
Staying grounded and connected
Having Wilt on board as part of the team’s upper management further guaranteed the team’s success in its inaugural season, and helped create what Wilt referred to as one of the most vibrant fanbases in the league.
The group is the one and only — The Flock.
The epitome of the club’s devotion to exceptional fan engagement came in the form of an “Irruption Tour.” According to an introduction video about the tour posted by FMFC, an irruption usually means an irregular migration of a large number of birds to areas where they are not typically found. In this case, irruption refers to the large number of Forward supporters, known as flamingos, traveling from Madison to Richmond, VA where FMFC played an away game against the Richmond Kickers on Sept. 14.
The group of supporters departed from Madison two days before the game on Sept. 12 and made stops in Chicago, Indianapolis, Columbus, Asheville and Raleigh before finally reaching Richmond.
Soccer, as termed by Wilt, is essentially a “territorial battle,” and fans see players on the field as representing the community they come from.
Shore recounted how Wilt reached out to different European soccer supporters’ groups in Madison during the planning stage, something Shore said he has been known to be exceptionally good at, and brought them together.
“What was great is all those supporters’ groups, even though they still support their Premier League teams, they all bind together to form the Flock, so now you have all these people who support international soccer on their own, but now they have a team in the city of Madison to call their own, and they really did a good job coming together, and binding as one. That’s why you have such a vibrant supporters’ group,” Shore said.
As a result, though local fans continue to watch international soccer and associate themselves with supporters of other soccer clubs, when games are played at Breese Stevens, they once again all share the same identity — The Flock.
A hometown hero
After playing professional soccer in Sweden for three consecutive seasons, Carl Schneider received a tryout invitation from Forward Madison FC and was ready to return home.
Schneider played club soccer in Madison growing up. His first interaction with the sport began in kindergarten, but things only started to get more serious when he made it onto a Madison 56ers Soccer Club team in fifth grade.
“That was the first indicator that I was good at soccer. That’s when I started to think about, ‘maybe this is my sport,’” Schneider said.
Leaving the Madison 56ers, Schneider continued following his passion for soccer and represented La Follette High School while studying there.
Before embarking on his journey to Sweden, Schneider played for UW, redshirting as a freshman, which gave him a fifth year to play for the team.
Now back from Sweden and representing his hometown, Schneider said he feels especially connected with the Breese Stevens crowd.
“I know a lot of people in the crowd because I am from Madison,” Schneider said.
As the first born-and-raised Madison native player who made it onto the team, Schneider’s presence carries even greater significance.
Wilt said Schneider’s signing shows how the team is building connections with the local community and could serve as an important source of inspiration for local youth to “play professionally in their hometown.”
Schneider himself also hopes his career path could help motivate young, local players aspiring to pursue soccer as a profession.
“I think it shows kids from Madison that if you push yourself, you can be successful,” Schneider said. “My best advice for any soccer player is just to keep playing. I could’ve easily stopped after college when I didn’t make any American teams, but I went to Sweden, took a chance, worked really hard in Sweden and everything came back to Madison. Now I’m really happy where my soccer career is at.”
Now that he has returned home and has played in front of a crowd he is familiar with, Schneider said he is motivated to work even harder to play on the field.
President of The Flock Andrew Schmidt witnessed Schneider’s improvements over the past season and is particularly impressed by how much he has progressed both physically and skill-wise.
“The club did not sign him just because he is from Madison. They signed him because they thought he can do the business. There are definitely big games this season I thought he played extremely well [in],” Schmidt said.
From Badgers to Flamingos
Besides competing in the league during the regular season, FMFC also establishes connections with UW by playing friendly scrimmages with the university men’s soccer team.
UW soccer player Elan Koenig played in these scrimmages and said it is always a good experience when his team has a chance to compete with professional soccer players.
“I think it’s a good learning opportunity. I also think it’s a test of where you are at because the players are at that [professional] level, as well as getting [the] opportunity to have people who have supported Forward Madison to come see us play,” Koenig said.
Shore said he has been friends with UW men’s soccer coach John Trask for a long time, and said there has been a good relationship between the two programs.
Shore said that by bringing a professional team to Madison, it exposes UW soccer players to what it’s like having a professional soccer environment in their own city, and could also inspire players to pursue soccer at a higher level.
“We have a vested interest in their program, we want it to be successful and I think it’s the same feeling from them, they obviously want us to be successful. It’s a good relationship that we have, it’s one that’s going to continue to build as the years keep going,” Shore said.
Having his team play scrimmages with UW, and watching UW play against other universities, serves as an easy scouting tool for Shore. UW plays in arguably one of the best conferences in college soccer, giving FMFC a good opportunity to scout potential players, Shore said.
However, Shore also emphasized the different level of competition expected from professional soccer compared to college. He reiterated that professional sport is not a “Sunday public,” and he expects players to perform at a professional level.
“We told a lot of people when we got here our league is not a Sunday public. It’s not something you can just come on Sunday and play,” Shore said. “This is professional soccer. These guys get paid to play, and this is their livelihood.”
For many more seasons ahead, Shore said the long-term goal for the team is to create a club and soccer culture in the city where years from now, Forward Madison can be celebrated as one of the top lower league clubs not only in the U.S., but in the world.
As the team’s head coach, Shore said his job is to continuously put out high-quality product on the field to keep Forward fans engaged and entertained.
UW senior Luke Borchardt played soccer growing up and has now become a loyal fan of FMFC. As Borchardt recounted, in the past season, he showed up to nearly every home game at Breese Stevens, joining The Flock to cheer on the team.
Borchardt also invited friends who rarely follow soccer to the game, and said it was an amazing experience even for them.
“… They have always thoroughly enjoyed the experience. They really like the energy of the crowd and the intensity of the games,” Borchardt said in an email. “Also, they really like how there is a community of followers that are there to support their team.”
For the new season, Borchardt said the fan base for the team will likely continue to grow, and he hopes to see continuously improving performances on the field as the team gets settled down in USL League One.
Looking to the new season, Shore said in lower league soccer, the roster continuously changes and there could be turnovers, but he expects an even higher level of engagement with the fans.
“We led our league in attendance this year in year one. We’d like to even break those records, and get more people out here, and get more fans engaged to what we are doing,” Shore said. “On the field, we still want to compete for championships, and our goal is to be the best team in our league every year. We’ve just got to continue to keep striving to be better and put a good product on the field.”