Forward Madison is the latest entry into a vibrant American soccer community– one that’s miles away from MLS
On September 4th, 1979, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison headed to their first day of classes, when they were met with some unusual campus visitors. 1,008 plastic pink lawn flamingos covered Bascom Hill, the epicenter of campus, a flood of delightful kitsch planted by student members of the merry-prankster Pail & Shovel Party. The flamingos appeared around campus in the years that followed, and in 2009, just shy of the 30th anniversary of the notorious prank, the Madison City Council voted to make the plastic lawn flamingo the Official Bird of Madison, Wisconsin.
It’s June of 2019, just shy of the 40th anniversary of the great flamingo invasion, and the marketing team for Forward Madison, the city’s new USL League One side, are four days out from matchday and trying to put butts in seats. The brainstorming session ended with grabbing a plastic lawn flamingo, drilling some holes in it and filling it with beer. Captain Connor “Turbo” Tobin even got to pound a celebratory Fla-mug-o in front of the supporters section after the club’s victory over North Texas.
“For all the gimmicks and all the promotions, a lot of the club’s brand identity was steered by supporters,” says Andrew Schmidt, President of The Flock, Forward Madison’s Independent Supporters Association. In 2018, the city and community helped develop the club’s name and the crest, which naturally, features a pink flamingo, in profile. “Maybe that’s a metaphor for what we have going on here,” Schmidt says. “We’ve taken something really silly and made it into something cool.”
North American soccer is growing bold, unique cultures and communities. Perhaps the most compelling hotbed of the movement is in the Midwest, across the entire soccer pyramid. Minnesota United has scarves and tifo influenced by Midwestern demigod Prince; Detroit City’s Northern Guard Supporters are known as much for their distinctive aesthetic and boisterous smoke shows as they are for their vociferous support of the community (NGS raised $26,000 in the month of June for Detroit’s Ruth Ellis Center). And then there’s Forward Madison, who in their inaugural season, have amassed a cult following that extends well beyond Dane County, from Utah to Florida to Switzerland and the Francophone world.
Forward’s aesthetic is certainly distinctive and a kinder, gentler approach—the motif of bright pink and flamingos, the curse-free chanting (“flocking” makes for an easy substitute). But the digital voice of the club, which feels contemporary without being try-hard (the crest was introduced in part via meme), unusual promotions and passionate support have made their inaugural season one of the most fascinating “how to build a Club” stories .
Forward Madison’s inaugural season ended on October 12th with a 2-0 road loss in the first round of the playoffs to North Texas SC. A handful of Flock faithful made the trip, and the match was given yet another amusing derby nickname, El Plástico. But in the months that preceded their first USL League One playoff outing, this third-division Midwestern outfit built a community and charmed footy fans all over the world, an effort that required thoughtfulness, creativity and passion from the club as well as its supporters.
Mac and cheese, promo generators, and Hacksaw Jim Duggan
Every club has its characters, and Forward Madison certainly had a vibrant cast in its first season, including Leslie David Baker (Stanley from The Office), ‘80s wrestling icon “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and a 1-year-old dairy cow named—sigh—Lionela Bessi (yes, really).
Of course, the most important character in the Forward inaugural season saga is serial club-starter/erstwhile soccer Bill Veeck Peter Wilt, who served as Managing Director of Forward up until late October, when he accepted another role within USL.
“What we’ve built here this first year is really unique in the American soccer landscape,” says Kuba Kryzostaniak, the Director of Fan Engagement for Forward Madison. “Madison is a very quirky, fun place. The Onion was started here. I think our club is built in that tradition of this city. Outwardly, it’s probably a little weird, but we have a really good sense of community with players and supporters.”
Forward Madison garnered a lot of attention in its inaugural season for its boisterous, minor league baseball-esque promotions. First came the themed booze-and-swag packs with your tickets (“Pool Party” with an inflatable flamingo and can of White Claw; “Bro Pack” with a muscle tank and a can of Natural Light Shandy), then pink mac and cheese for ‘90s night and a visit from Stanley Hudson. The joke was driven further home with Twitter contests to let fans pick the next promo night and a randomized interactive “promo generator.”
The crown jewel was September’s MingoMania, an ‘80s pro wrestling night with a promo called the “Hacksaw Pack,” which included a match ticket, a 2×4, an American flag and a pink feather boa. Of course, Hacksaw not only made an appearance in the stands, but hyped up the players in the dressing room beforehand.
The promotions were a development that came later in the season, as the club began to assert its brand and voice. Forward’s Chief Operating Officer, Conor Caloia, is also the COO of Big Top Sports, which oversees four minor league baseball teams across Wisconsin. This would lead one to draw conclusions about where Forward’s promotional style came from, but Caloia says this was not a copy-paste job from one sport to the other.
“We learned pretty quickly that soccer’s different from a target demographic and a culture standpoint,” Caloia says. “We started out thinking we were gonna do baseball in soccer. Everything we do with Forward Madison is more community-based, and even some of these promos, which may seem like something from minor league baseball, we’ve come about them in a way that’s different from a minor league baseball game.”
The inaugural season is a huge test for any club, as they not only have to fill a stadium, but supporters have to connect and build a relationship with their club. And Schmidt says for some fans, the quirky promotions may not be everyone’s cup of tea—er, can of White Claw.
“I’ve known people in Madison who give off this English old-boy persona,” Schmidt says. “They prefer their football pure and don’t want it muddied with all these silly nonsense. I was of that same mentality, but at the same time, Madison’s not really like that. We’re not a soccer town. It’s taken some doing to get butts in seats. I don’t really care what it takes if it means the stadium is full and we’re doing what we can to back the team.”
Kryzostaniak says the front office is also tasked with finding the balance between creating a memorable promotion to get butts in seats and reinforce the brand, and ensuring the gimmicks don’t imbalance the matchday experience or grassroots support. “I think it’s a pretty delicate line that we follow,” he says. “As much as we have fun and not take ourselves too seriously, we love the game and we want to keep that authentic soccer experience that’s important to so many supporters. We want to have open dialogue with The Flock and empower them to lead on gameday itself. For us, it’s about getting the more casual fans in the stadium. It’s hard line to follow to make sure we’re not overstepping in one direction.”
Kryzostaniak says the club takes The Flock’s opinion seriously. If they think an idea holds weight, they’ll often reach out to the group first, right down to promotional t-shirts. “A lot of the folks from the Flock are artists or designers,” Kryzostaniak says. “If they don’t like it, we’ll change it up on our end.”
“The club has always been focused on what the city wants,” says Kyle Carr, co-founder of the Featherstone Flamingos supporters group and a newly-elected at-Large Director of The Flock. “What the fans want has come first. They’re always willing to support us, try to help us out, whether it’s setting up another capo stand, making signs for people who have limited mobility, giving us a tent where we can sell merch in the stadium.”
From admiring overseas to supporting your local
Andrew Schmidt, a Madison native, and his friend Liam Geoghegan-Smith, first began organizing the local soccer community as fans of a club much further afield. As co-managers of the Madison Chapter of Arsenal America, they began organizing watch parties first in Schmidt’s living room before moving to a local pub. But after a while, they sought ways to engage communities beyond the watch parties. “We didn’t just want to show up at a bar and shout at a TV and drink beer on a Saturday morning,” Schmidt says. So ASC Madison began holding volunteer events and fundraisers for organizations like St. Baldrick’s and Planned Parenthood.
When Forward Madison entered the picture, Schmidt knew he wanted to grow the sort of grassroots support, service and social elements of ASC Madison with this local club. He says he knew grassroots support would be important and would take some community organizing, especially since Madison was not historically a soccer city. They founded The Flock, the club’s Independent Supporters Association, which not only organizes supporters, but operates a 501(c)3, which fundraises for matchday ops, grassoots soccer programs for underresourced communities in Madison and a monthly local charity.
Over the course of the first season, other supporters groups have formed under The Flock’s bright pink umbrella, including the ladies-to-the-front Mingo Ladies, La Barra 608, a group by and for Latino supporters; Featherstone Flamingos (named for lawn flamingo inventor Don Featherstone), a group celebrating and promoting Black culture; the politically-minded Left Leg and community service-oriented Forward Union.
“We still have a lot of work to do in terms of seeing real diversity in our stands, but I think it’s important that we give people a platform,” Schmidt says. “If you’re going to have an SG, we need to see you on the capo stand, coming to the tailgates, for people can see people that look like them in positions of leadership.”
As more Americans become enamored with footballing culture and the game expands to more cities, the discourse over what “authenticity” looks like in club and supporters culture inevitably follows. And when you’re a club without a century of tradition behind you, you draw inspiration from those who came before—Schmidt says one of the Flock’s capo leaders, a Chicago transplant, shared images of Fire supporters’ away days to Columbus to inspire their first trip to Lansing, and that inspiration for Forward’s songs and chants have come from clubs all over the world.
“We’ve been trying to onboard a chant from Besiktas for months, which is a challenge because most Americans like to transpose minor key to major key,” he says.” The songs and chants for the most part, he adds, have been a result of crowdsourcing within the supporter community.
Schmidt says there’s one key thing that The Flock could be authentic about from the jump. “Support around this club should be first and foremost about the community, sharing life with people outside of matchdays. I’ve made loads of new friends this first season alone, but that’s what we want to be our authentic culture, try to be as positive as possible, while taking very seriously our role as a 12th man.”
Forward’s diehards aren’t afraid of engaging in outright silliness, though. Back in April, the club played a friendly against UW-Madison, and the stadium PA announcer kept pronouncing midfielder Louis Bennett’s name as “Louie Beignet.” For the next home match, a supporter showed up in full cosplay as “Louie Beignet,” complete with a striped shirt and a bright pink beret. “It’s silly stuff but if it makes the players more into it and work harder, I’m all for it,” Schmidt says.
That community service element which Schmidt and Geoghegan-Smith brought to their first soccer organizing became a cornerstone of The Flock in its first season. Supporters volunteer at the River Food Pantry and with Millennium Soccer Club, a nonprofit bringing soccer to under-resourced communities in Madison. To date, The Flock have raised about $20,000 for different community groups and nonprofits in Madison, doubling their original goal for their inaugural season.
“The shining thing is that we have been really well supported by the people of Madison as a club, and I feel really proud to have been a part of that,” Schmidt says.
Players and supporters as traveling evangelists—with booze
Williamson, West Virginia is a town of 3,191 people, smaller than the capacity of Breese Stevens Field. It sits along the Tug Fork River, the epicenter of the great feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys (who doesn’t love a derby?). And on September 13th, Kryzostaniak and a throng of Forward Madison club representatives and supporters ascended upon Williamson, cases of Wisconsin beer in tow.
For you see, Williamson is the seat of Mingo County.
The Irruption Tour Origin Story is a two-parter, and both parts involve booze. There’s the story most Forward Madison fans know, where Kryzostaniak and captain Connor “Turbo” Tobin were chatting about Forward’s September 14th away match at Richmond. Some supporters from Turbo’s former club, North Carolina FC, were planning on making the trek to watch him play, and asked if they attended, if the club could hook them up with some Wisconsin beer. Kryzostaniak suggested they road trip down with a keg, and the concept of the Irruption Tour snowballed from there.
“I’ve never seen another club in North American soccer that has done something similar to this,” Kryzostaniak says. “There are clubs that help subsidize some away travel for certain matches for their fans, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a club engage fans of a totally different team, to come support them in an away game.”
Elsewhere, April Kigeya, Chris Fox and Kyle Carr, co-founders of Featherstone Flamingos, were planning to make the trip to Richmond to hang out with Elliot Barr, a Richmond supporter who hosts the Rivercity 93 podcast, and celebrate Richmond’s Heritage Night, as well as an ever-building and strengthening national community of Black soccer supporters. Ahead of the first clash of these clubs, a bottle of Hennessy was wagered between friends—and later decorated—thus fomenting a joyous cross-country rivalry now known as the Henny Derby. The Flock coordinated with the club to bring them and three other supporters on tour, everyone crammed into a minibus—with plenty of beer—for the trip.
“Only a Madison soccer team would go on a beer run to another state, going to tailgate with alcohol, and then the winning supporters group gets a bottle of liquor as the prize,” Carr says of what he calls the “Glorified Beer Run.”
Many of the tour stops had a connection to Peter Wilt—the Forward road crew met with the front offices of the Chicago Red Stars and Indy Eleven, two other clubs Wilt helped launch. Other stops ran the gamut of the North American soccer pyramid—they met with the Columbus Crew’s Nordecke supporters at (where else?) a brewery in Columbus, Asheville City SC’s South Slope Blues (‘nother brewery). “The hospitality that everybody showed us was phenomenal,” Carr says. “Everyone was really welcoming, whether for an hour or half a day. The Red Stars let us tour their office and gave us merch. When we got to Mingo County, they gave us a bottle of moonshine right off the shelf.”
And, Forward won the match against Richmond 1-0, securing the Henny Derby trophy’s journey back to Madison
For a club in its inaugural season, the Irruption Tour was a fun branding exercise. For supporters, it was a means of connecting across leagues and cities and genders, and allowing for a unique knowledge-sharing opportunity for supporters in an inaugural season.
Carr plans to apply the best practices of what he learned on the tour to continuing to build thee Forward supporters community. “For those of us who go to the board meetings and are heavily involved, we don’t want to only talk to each other when we’re at tailgates or matches,” Carr says. “We got great advice from the folks from the Nordecke, who said they make it a goal to talk to one person they’ve never met, to talk to newcomers at matches and watch parties. We all have some kind of similarity. They enjoy the sport of soccer, supporting a Wisconsin team. You don’t want to hide in the corner on your phone.”
Carr’s advice to someone who wants to build the kind of culture seen at Forward Madison is simple: “If there’s a soccer team in your city, do whatever you can to try to support it because that’s how this sport is going to grow. Teams fold all the time because they don’t have the support. And be as inclusive as possible. Make everyone feel welcome.”
Lindsay Eanet can be seen reading at live shows around Chicago and next to you at your favorite bar, skipping over all your songs on the jukebox. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Paste, SEASON, GrokNation and others. She is the host & producer of I’ll Be There for You, a new podcast about pop culture and coping. But enough about her, let’s talk about you.