Fire Goal in Return to Soldier Field? Revitalizing Fan Base

Five months late, Chicago Fire FC finally held their homecoming game.

Instead of a chilly March Saturday afternoon, a muggy August Tuesday night marked the team’s COVID-delayed return to Soldier Field.

The pitch, on the shores of Lake Michigan and—most importantly to new owner Joe Mansueto and MLS commissioner Don Garber—just south of Chicago’s Loop, puts the team within close proximity of the city’s corporate heart, transportation hubs and hundreds of thousands of workers and residents.

The Chicago skyline visible from SeatGeek StadiumTMR

Last July, Mansueto—who became the team’s vice chair following his 2018 acquisition of 49 percent of the club—helped longtime majority owner Andrew Hauptman make a long-desired move happen. They spearheaded a $65 million buyout of the remaining 16 years of the team’s 30-year lease at SeatGeek Stadium in southwest suburban Bridgeview, Ill.

By September, Mansueto had become the club’s sole owner acquiring the 51 percent stake held by Hauptman.

Somehow, even though you can glimpse the Chicago skyline from SeatGeek’s upper deck—the two venues are in actuality only a 14-mile drive from each other—you felt more like a million miles away from everything. The stadium was handcuffed by a location that left a lot to be desired. Families driving from northern suburbs would drive right by Soldier Field and then sit in another hour of traffic. Roads from the closest interstate were not built for the traffic volume, yet there were no convenient public transportation options. And did I mention it sits on a rail yard and barren industrial land?

To get back not just within city limits, but in the heart of the Windy City, the Fire, with full MLS support, worked with Chicago officials, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Tim Kelly, CEO of the Chicago Park District, the owners of the historic venue to carve a new deal. (The Fire previously called Soldier Field home from 1998-2005, except 2002 and part of 2003 when renovations forced the team to play at North Central University in Naperville, Ill.)

At an Oct 8 announcement event for media, partners and season ticket holders held on the Soldier Field turf, Mansueto explained the move was “about taking the club to the next level. I expect the team will make a major leap forward in our play—and in our fan engagement.”

Asked about a attendance goal, Mansueto said averaging 25,000 fans in 2020 was the number he had in mind.

That would require doubling last year’s average SeatGeek crowd of 12,324, the lowest in MLS. And it will require changing the mindset of Chicago soccer fans. In a city of endless sports and entertainment options, Chicagoans have tuned out the team for a while now. From 2016-19, the Fire finished 19th, 18th, 22nd and 24th in average attendance.

Chicago artist Dwight White’s Black Lives Matter-inspired art was visible on Fire jerseys and seats empty due to coronavirus restrictionsCFFC

Jumping back to the 2020 MLS season re-start, the Fire’s 3-0 shellacking of a lackluster FC Cincinnati club was a nearly perfect Soldier Field return.

No, there won’t be fans in seats any time soon, but frankly, the extra time may be a blessing while the team looks to improve the product on the pitch.

The minute the 2019 season ended, Mansueto began a complete overhaul of all club operations, and a turnaround doesn’t happen overnight—on the field or in the front office.

Starting at the top, Mansueto shifted team president Nelson Rodriguez from overseeing both business operations and player personnel to focusing on the business side only. The team added a new sporting director, Georg Heitz, and a new coach with Champions League experience, Raphael Wicky.

Including their lone win at the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, the shutout of FC Cincinnati was just the second victory (plus two ties) in nine matches thus far in 2020.

The easiest way to get more butts in seats? Win more. And that is certain to take time.

And now a quick Public Service Announcement for teams: never underestimate the impact of new digs on your office staff. As part of the overhaul, Mansueto moved Fire offices to Chicago’s Loop from SeatGeek Stadium, instantly simplifying staff commutes for the majority of the team’s young, urban-dwelling staff while improving office energy.

Every single staffer we have spoken with about the move noted an immediate, large boost to morale going from “feeling isolated” in Bridgeview to “now being in the heart of it with the big boys” as one staffer put it.

(And now a quick COVID-19 caveat to the above PSA: we need to get to our “new normal” and an understanding of what an “office” even is going forward before making any workspace changes. So you can keep that on the back burner…)

Also over the winter, Rodriguez beefed up ticketing staff and dedicated more resources to planning, research, business analytics and digital marketing. Team officials would not give specifics, one saying only that season ticket sales were up a “healthy” amount.

The one misstep in the offseason? The team’s November rebrand, with new colors, a new badge and name tweak from Chicago Fire Soccer Club to Chicago Fire Football Club, has drawn some very vocal opposition. (Don’t all rebrands bring out the pitchforks?)

Mansueto handled it pretty deftly, telling the Chicago Sun-Times: “As a practical matter, we couldn’t change anything in the short-term: merchandise, uniforms have long lead times. So the thought is, let’s gather feedback throughout the season, let people live with it a bit, see it in use. But our interests are totally aligned with our fan base. We want a great badge that’s fitting for a great club. Ultimately, if it’s not working, we’ll fix it. But we want something that works for our fans.”

In February, the season got underway and the team was tracking very well for the first game back at Soldier Field with ticket sales “well past 50,000 sold.” A sellout of the entire stadium at 61,500—not just a soccer sellout of 25,000—was a legitimate possibility.

Then just two games into the season, global pandemic. Despite all the unforeseen hurdles and delays thrown at them, club staff worked hard (remotely) to keep fan excitement up around a potential new return date.

How? Relying heavily on utilizing all team digital and social platforms.

And one thing Joe Mansueto deserves more recognition for: the Fire did not lay off or furlough a single staffer. Talk about an amazing morale boost.

To help stoke excitement, the Fire had actually begun producing a web series titled “Road to Soldier Field” in January to document the build-up to the home opener. The webisodes—presented by kit sponsor Motorola—range from three to 13 minutes in length and contain behind the scenes video and interviews. The series culminated last weekend with this slick recap of the home opener in the tenth webisode:

While awaiting word from health officials about the viability of a “bubble” environment and perhaps even a return to home stadiums, 2020 challenged us again. The senseless death of George Floyd and resulting outrage meant we had to not only find a way to defeat a novel coronavirus, but to deal head-on with 400-plus years of systemic racism.

MLS and teams like the Fire embraced that challenge.

A powerful, timely, local touch was having former Northwestern football player Dwight White, now a Chicago-based designer and street artist, create a custom Black Lives Matter badge that all Fire players wear on a jersey patch and is featured on the captain’s armband, as well as on the prominent section cover next to the player tunnel.

This Fire-produced video features artist Dwight White explaining his art and inspirations:

On gameday, the team released a stellar piece voiced by NBC Sports’ Premier League presenter—and honorary ChicagoanArlo White, closes with a nod to the team’s “Stand for Chicago” tagline: “We will have our day together on the Lakefront, shoulder to shoulder, voices united, celebrating Chicago and its people. You’ve been there for us, we’ll continue to stand for you.”

The Fire also peppered their social media accounts encouraging watch parties with suggestions on how to make them happen in a socially-distanced world.

And what is more fan frenzy inducing than free swag? Nothing. That’s why the Fire held tons of giveaways for their followers that included 2021 tickets, MLS is Back t-shirts, autographed team merchandise (including match-used items), personalized player greetings, game-used balls, a captain’s armband (with White’s custom badge on it) and much more.

#FireWatchParty showed up BIG for our Soldier Field debut.

Posted by Chicago Fire on Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Social was not only geared at fans, but also clearly, but not obnoxiously, calling out sponsors like Echo in posts.

As for the game presentation, the team pumped crowd noise, including Fire-specific chants, at the players rather than at (fanless) seats, made PA announcements with full pizzazz and cranked the music up during breaks with the presentation coming off very well.

Virtual banners recognize Fire partners on empty at Soldier Field sections during the ESPN+/WGN-TV broadcast on Aug 25. This screenshot was taken just prior to kickoff as all players took a knee.

That includes what the few of us in attendance could not see in person, but fans watching at home saw flawlessly: virtual sponsor banners. The team worked with Melville, N.Y.-based ChyronHego to display the team’s corporate partners on the broadcast carried nationally on ESPN+ and locally on WGN-TV.

The only hiccup? When the Fire’s Fabian Herbers scored just two minutes into the game, the video boards and PA congratulated Robert Berić instead. That was quickly corrected, and the rest of the night went off smoothly.

“We wish that today there would have been 50-60,000 people here and the team would have been able to celebrate,” Wicky said after the game. “I only can imagine how it must be to win games here and score goals in a full stadium.”

The unanswered question: is the team staying at Soldier Field long term?

Under their agreement, the Fire pay the Park District usage, operating and facility fees. The two share food, beverage, merchandise and parking revenues. And the Fire keep all ticket and team-generated advertising revenue.

There are two very different views regarding football (and in N.Y., baseball) stadiums for soccer in the U.S.

There’s the “cozy is comfortable” crowd who argue that the packed 20,000-seat stadium is the superior environment for fans and players. Plus, the optics of  two-thirds of a stadium’s seats sitting empty on a “good day” for ticket sales, are bad.

Whether watching in person or on TV, the fan experience at a stadium technically “sold out” yet 30 percent full says “minor league” to a lot of folks. (Just ask A’s or Rays fans.) In MLS you have Yankee Stadium (NYC FC 2019 average home attendance: 21,2017), Gillette Stadium (Revolution 2019: 16,737) and likely Soldier Field games definitely falling in that bucket. Even the two teams playing in football stadiums lauded for big, energetic soccer crowds—Seattle (Sounders 2019: 40,247) and Atlanta (United 2019: 52,510)—have entire swaths of the stadiums empty at many games.

Then there is the “location, location, location” crowd, which currently includes Mansueto and Garber, who insist it is better to be in the heart of it all in a less than perfect venue.

Mansueto summed up his choice pretty convincingly when he said during announcing the move, “Our club needs to be located centrally where all of Chicago can enjoy it. Soldier Field is the perfect location. In my view, part of being a world-class city today is having a professional soccer team located downtown. You see what’s happening in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Their Major League Soccer teams are bringing their cities together and have become an important part of the cultural fabric of the city. We will make that happen for Chicago, too.”

Adding to the uncertainty, there have been recent pushes for soccer stadiums in Chicago that have not gained traction. Most recently, developers of the huge Lincoln Yards development on Chicago’s north side had an agreement with the USL and optioned by the Ricketts family (owners of the Chicago Cubs), to include a 20,000 seat arena, but the ward’s alderman nixed that.

With nothing in development right now, a minimum 24-month construction timeline, a City Council that moves at a glacial pace, and, oh yeah, a pandemic-induced recession, it’s pretty much a lock the Fire will be extending their stay at Soldier Field.

Fortunately, the agreement has seven one-year options for rollovers.

Next trick? Making sure the stadium is far from empty when fans return (hopefully!) in 2021.

How? Continue the fancentric social media work such as this salute to supporter group Section 8 Chicago:

And the team must continue to market hard to current season ticket holders and prospects. In a smart move, the Fire are urging fans to once again “Stand for Chicago” by requiring only a $25 refundable deposit for 2021 tickets (screenshot below).

The hardest work remains ahead. The Fire must maintain a fancentric focus with flexibility to adjust their outreach and marketing plans at a moment’s notice to address 2021’s “new normal,” whatever that is.

This article has been updated from the original version to clarify that former owner Andrew Hauptman did play a large role in moving the team back within Chicago city limits.

2019 attendance average source: Soccer Stadium Digest

Header image courtesy Chicago Fire FC

Chris brings deep sports business experience to his role as publisher of TMR. He first put his sales, experiential marketing, PR, sales and valuation skills to work in sporting goods retail in 1986. He has since worked for brands and agencies across all major league sports, plus golf, college athletics, marathons and motorsports. Chris is also the proud founder of Painless Networking.