With the Chicago Fire in the middle a much needed 17 day break, now’s as good a time as any to tackle a subject that every single fan of a “long-time” MLS club has had to ask. How do we get rid of the “MLS 1.0” designation?
Soccer is growing in the US, that much is clear. While it will be a time before the league rises to the level of continental rival Liga MX (never mind any major league in Europe), teams are looking to capitalize on, and contribute to, the momentum. Search any MLS site and you’ll see proposals for teams seen to be stuck in first gear. Few are grounded in any sense of reality (the Fire should not move from Toyota Park, stop suggesting that).
For the Fire, the 2017 season has gone a long way towards shedding the 1.0 label. The May 11th sellout to a thrashing of Seattle marked a reintroduction to the rest of the league. Maybe not of Fire 2.0, but certainly an upgrade, and the subsequent sellouts to see subsequent thrashings of Orlando FC and Vancouver have put the city’s sports media on notice.
The next step is finding a way to parlay this success into a sustainable level of support. Andrew Hauptman (owner/chairman) and Nelson Rodriguez (GM) have done such an incredible job this season with the on the field product, that you wouldn’t be remiss to ask ‘what’s the point of this article, things look great!’ They do look great…today. As a Chicago White Sox fan, I remember the 2006 season when the city was still drunk on the 2005 World Series title of it’s oft-neglected, second baseball team. Everybody loves a winner.
8 (soon to be 9) years since a playoff berth, you can get Sox tickets for less than the cost of parking at the stadium. In short, it can all go away. Being one of five major league teams in Chicago, and, let’s not beat around the bush, being a soccer team, means the Fire will always have to fight for relevance.
With that caveat in mind, and another week to kill, here’s some ideas to keep the momentum going.
Don’t Expect To Be Portland
Cascadia teams enjoy a unique set of circumstances, allowing the game to explode at a rate that likely isn’t replicable in other cities. It certainly isn’t replicable in Chicago. Still, Portland, Seattle, and, Vancouver have experienced a rapid growth that is the envy of the league. It’s natural to adopt a little brother mentality towards these clubs. After all, who wouldn’t want to sell out a stadium like ‘The Link’ for every game?
As mentioned above, Chicago has five other professional sports teams. At a minimum, two of those teams are active during the MLS season. Portland only has to compete with the Trail-Blazers, and only during the early parts of the season. Seattle has to split attention with the Mariners, then the Seahawks, but at staggered times, unless the Mariners make a playoff run..so almost never. Sorry, M’s fans.
This nearly undivided, attention has allowed a supporter growth which can’t be expected elsewhere. It goes beyond competition. Portland and Seattle are smaller cities, allowing for a more communal atmosphere amongst supporters. Portland enjoys a number of supporter groups, each with a distinct flair, but small enough to foster communities.
Further, Cascadia is separated from the rest of the country by huge swaths of forests and undisturbed natural splendor. More on this in a minute, but beyond the lack of intra-city competition, there’s a lack of regional competition for Cascadia fan support. Chicago is a massive, vibrant metropolis smack in the middle of the country. The Fire are competing for attention with the rest of the cities professional sports franchises, and all the teams around the Midwest. That’s a lot of distractions from a team that spent the last two years at the bottom of the table.
That’s the bad news. Now for the good news. Plenty of big cities, and cities with as many sports teams as Chicago, have managed to grow a passionate and sustainable supporter culture. Expectations need to be tempered, but should also be high enough to match the growth potential.
This is a much more attainable goal. The Fire could finally dig into the city’s culture ensuring this boom in support is allowed to last.
Portland and Seattle are tucked into the great northwestern expanse of the country. The Timbers Army folded this into the supporter culture, with themed chants and tifos. Everything about a Timbers game is based around the logging roots of Portland. The flavor of Portland fandom is a one of a kind experience. This is a crucial feature of what has allowed them to be such a force in the city, and, in turn, the league.
As it stands, the Fire, and their main support group, Section 8, struggle to express any sort of civic identity. The team is named for the city’s fire departments. Section 8 is a reference to the military designation for mentally unstable troops. There’s not much at Toyota Park, to key an outsider into these historical roots. An example of embracing history done right, would be the national anthem at Chicago Blackhawks games. During the anthem the team invites two veterans, one younger and one older (usually of Native American descent), on the ice as a nod to the team’s origin. The Blackhawks are named for both the Black Hawk tribe and a local army division, during WW1. This small promotional nod ties the fans to both the history of the team and the area.
The question going forward shouldn’t be “how can we model ourselves after Portland?” It should be, “how can we be more like Chicago?” Luckily, there’s few cities in the world with as deep, and as potent, a cultural identity as Chicago.
I could write an entire article about the Windy City. Not even about Chicago sports, just the city itself. Other places are bigger (New York), more glamorous (Los Angeles), or both (London), but Chicago has a way of seeping into your bones. It’s a no frills place full of no frills people. Chicagoans endure brutal weather, a checkered past, an uncertain future, and an undeserved reputation. It’s also the birthplace of the blues, deep dish pizza, and Ray Bradbury. Chicagoans take pride in their resiliency. It’s a culture of hard work. In short, there’s a lot to Chicago and both the Fire and Section 8 would be smart to tap into that vein.
Names = Dollars
Alright, enough waxing poetic, let’s talk about soccer… kinda. One of the biggest aspects of the Fire’s turnaround, both on and off the field, has been Nelson Rodriguez’s ferocious signing spree. The huge DP contract given to Bastian Schweinsteiger to go alongside the signings of Juninho and Nemanja Nikolic, and the transfer acquisition of Dax McCarty, turned a team that could best be described as a disorganized horror-show into a force to be reckoned with. Schweinsteiger has experienced a resurgence on the field, receiving a well-earned MLS All-Star spot as a result. Regardless, had his injury issues followed him to Chicago, Rodriguez would have still put the Fire ahead this season.
Schweinsteiger brought an immediate air of legitimacy to the Fire, but more than that he brings a built-in fanbase. Of course, he is a German national hero, in a city with a large German population and butting up against Wisconsin with it’s huge German population. On top of that, Schweinsteiger played for some of the most popular clubs for American fans. Remember, international soccer on American television does not enjoy the same level of ubiquity, nor the choices, as European broadcasting.
A player like Schweinsteiger has an even higher degree of recognition because, national play and major clubs, like Manchester United or Bayern get the lion’s share of broadcasting. Star factor is crucial for expanding the local support base. Players like Schweinsteiger come with a hefty price tag, but, a franchise looking to make a leap in relevance, present an opportunity to jump-start the fan fervor.
The Fire organization must have taken note of how many Schweinsteiger jerseys dotting the stands on gameday. This is more than sales, or eyeballs on screens. It’s the germ of a new generation of Fire fans. Schweinsteiger won’t be around forever, and after his tenure, the team has to look to these kinds of international standard bearers to maintain the support in Chicago. Not all of them are going to be as successful as Schweinsteiger, but all of them are going to draw attention, and attention is how a team grows.
It’s likely that when I mentioned Chicago, your first thought was on the unfortunate issues plaguing the city’s West Side. There’s no way around it. We’re talking about the ingratiating the team with the city’s culture, it’s best to accept the good with the bad. The Fire already engage in a number of social outreach programs, across a spectrum of causes. Still, this is a way the team can score major public relations points, and do a real measure of good. The MLS season being in the summer, during a well-documented spike in violence, allows the Fire to conduct youth outreach programs. This has a real impact through targeting at-risk, school-aged kids starved for organized activities. The city boast outstanding public parks, making such proposals as youth clinics and leagues, both plausible and cost-efficient.
There isn’t a blueprint here. Chicago isn’t the only club looking to make the 2.0 jump. Creative thinking like this can allow clubs and fans alike to take part in the process. At the very least, it kills some time until the club returns to action on the 22nd.