Why Nobody Cares About The Fire
OTF contributor and resident “Euro snob” Sam Fels wants some honest answers from Bridgeview. Why? Because he cares.
The title of this editorial isn’t meant to be as inflammatory as it sounds, which I know sounds galactically stupid. But I care about the Fire, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. And you care about the Fire, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. But quite simply, there aren’t enough of us, and I’d like to analyze, guess, or at least ruminate why.
I thought of writing this piece after reading one of Anthony Seymour’s articles at Hot Time In Old Town, published about seven weeks ago. This isn’t meant to single him out or write a strictly contradictory piece. Seymour makes some good points, but there are things I disagree with. Mostly, he just spurred me to think about these and other Fire-related things. And because I can’t communicate verbally with anyone (This is why I’m a writer and why my girlfriend is in a constant state of confusion. But man, the text messages!), I thought I’d try to process my thoughts in written form.
First, some disclosure. I’m not the Fire fan that you are. I watch every game I can, I attend a few a year, I read the blogs a few times a week, but not every day. You are probably a bigger fan than I am. You know the reserves, the youth system, all that. I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m unfamiliar with the sport because…
…I am also what some MLS fans refer to as a “Euro snob”, or at least close to one. I love Liverpool FC (and now you see why I don’t communicate well), and know that club backward and forward. However, that doesn’t mean I look down upon MLS or find it unwatchable. The sad thing is, most of the MLS games I do find unwatchable involve the Fire. But we’ll get to that.
In addition to my most recent thoughts, I was also spurred to think about these things last November after Scott’s scathing criticism of the Toyota Park crowd during the Fire’s playoff loss to Houston — which probably didn’t crack five figures. Why did that happen?
So when you combine not being able to fill Toyota Park for a playoff game with Mr. Seymour’s post about a lack of marketing to families and kids, I’m left wondering about these shortcomings. Why can’t the Fire do these things?
To begin, let’s start with the numbers. They aren’t pretty. This year, the club’s attendance is down just over 2,000 per game from 2012, which was down 12.85% from 2011, good for second worst in the league. The Fire are at 71.5% capacity for 2013, which ranks it 16th out of 19 MLS teams. Sadly, the Fire have never topped what they averaged in attendance during their inaugural season on the lakefront at the blister that was old Soldier Field. I don’t think anyone can look at this as acceptable. I know the Fire will never average 100% capacity, but shouldn’t that be a goal? Shouldn’t they be closer to that?
This year, there are some factors that have conspired against the club, obviously. One, the city was distracted by the Hawks playing until late June (and winning the Stanley Cup). Plus, the weather generally sucked until July. And most of all, the team has been an overturned clown car for much of the season. None of that helps attendance, to be sure.
Let’s start by saying the Fire’s marketing is absolutely awful, if you even concede it exists at all. The only time I see Fire ads on TV are during Fire games, when I’m already watching. I rarely hear Fire ads on the radio (though I have heard a few on the Score lately). I hardly ever see billboards, or any other print advertisement. The club put out a marketing blitz to get 11,000+ out for the USOC semifinal debacle, but surely took a haircut in the process (free parking, cheap tickets, $2 hot dogs).
The truth is that Chicago Fire Soccer Club (despite all the attention it’s gained from local and national media after “The Editorial“) has next to no presence in the city of Chicago. The club already asks most city-dwelling fans to make a pretty big commitment to get out to Bridgeview, but wants them to do it without knowing it exists?
I’m sure the club’s budget for marketing isn’t high. But isn’t the first rule of business that you have to spend money to make money? If the Wolves can get their ads on the Score, I’m fairly sure Chicago Fire SC can do more than that. If they don’t, or can’t, something is fundamentally wrong.
In the HTIOT article, Seymour suggests more family marketing. Some I agree with, such as agreements and promotions with schools and youth teams. That makes sense. But it seems to me that plenty of this type of stuff is already happening. Hell, you could’ve brought your dog into the Toyota Park stands a couple weeks ago! Overall, hasn’t the Fire tried this strategy for its entire 16-year experience? Why hasn’t it worked?
Maybe this is the anti-family, punk-rock sensibility guy that I am, but from what I can gather, those most passionate about watching and following soccer aren’t suburban families. They’re basically adults just out of or just about to finish school. They’re guys and gals in their 20s and 30s populating the soccer bars at 7am on Saturday. Or, they’re hard-core middle-aged men who aren’t convinced Major League Soccer is worth their time. Moreover, suburban families are far more interested in their kids’ actual games than taking them to watch other games. If they were so interested in the latter, wouldn’t the Fire draw better?
To me, what Toyota Park has always lacked is a unique atmosphere. That’s not to criticize you, dear reader. I’m sure you stand sing for the full 90 in Section 8, Sector Latino, or show up to support the club game in, game out regardless of the on-field product. More power to you, and to them.
But that atmosphere and raucousness, that die-hard commitment found in the soul of Chicago’s most fervent sports fans, has never translated to, nor permeated our soccer-specific stadium in Bridgeview. And it should, because that place can get loud. It’s all metal for fuck’s sake. Section 8 and Sector Latino need to grow for the noise to translate, and for the songs to be joined in by everyone. Even if you’re sitting on the other side, you should be drowning in it even if you’re not participating in it.
This isn’t baseball. Soccer should be a passion play. It should sting the senses, not just tingle them, especially the ears. I’m not advocating surefire, impending disasters like Disco Demoltion or $1 beer nights, but surely, isn’t it easier to coax a couple buddies to come out to a game rather than a family of four or five? Create that atmosphere, that unique feeling in and around the stadium, and the kids will beg their parents (possibly terrified parents) to come back. Instead of trying to be like every other sporting atmosphere in the city, the Fire should attempt to be unique. I don’t think they’re too worried about the family dollar in Seattle, are they?
But it’s more than that. The Fire haven’t produced or obtained a player (or a team for that matter) who fans can latch onto in a long time. Who was Chicago’s last star to make an impact on the U.S. Men’s National Team squad? DaMarcus Beasley? Chris Armas? That’s not to be jingoistic, as any Mexican, South American, or perhaps European player on his national squad might also generate attention. Sure, the Fire have Cacha Rios (Uruguay), but defensive midfielders don’t put butts in the seats and only excite those of us who appreciate the game’s finer points. Lindpere reps his national squad, but I can’t imagine there are a bunch of Estonian-Americans piling through the Toyota Park gates to watch Joel scoot about like a constipated man past his prime.
But which American has it been since the pre-Hauptman/Klopas era? Chris Rolfe? That doesn’t count. It could be Austin Berry I suppose, but he hasn’t sniffed the national team yet. And with Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez in front of him, there’s a chance he never will. Sean Johnson’s on the cusp behind Guzan and Rimando, but what are the chances he stays with Chicago long-term? Remember: the casual American soccer fan in this country still pays most attention to the USMNT. If only just one regular on that squad wore Fire red…
That doesn’t necessarily mean buy one, but produce one. The Fire’s development system has been sub-par, and that’s being kind. Who’s homegrown on this squad now? Victor Pineda? Klopas won’t play him. A couple of draft picks who became worker bees? Patrick Nyarko? Nice player, does a job, nothing spectacular. Logan Pause? Doesn’t exactly make me weep and kiss the badge, though a fine servant who’s now destined to ride pine into the foreseeable future. Chicago fans love a kid who’s come through the system, even if he isn’t that good. Hell, Tony Campana and Sam Fuld had huge followings, and they were bad at baseball! To be fair, Chris Rolfe might fit the bill, but let’s be honest, he’s over-hyped (and over-paid).
Moving on, before the hullabaloo last week, I’ll admit I had no idea who owns the Fire. You do I’m sure, but none of the rest of us do. Well, maybe we do now, but for the wrong reasons. That’s not a good thing. All the owners in this town are visible, or at least well-known. Reinsdorf was visible before age prevented it. You can’t get John McDonough off your screen. Tom Ricketts is at every game. McCaskey (whichever one, it doesn’t matter) is synonymous with ‘Bears’. Who am I giving my money to? Does he want to win? Are the Fire just part of a portfolio?
Of course, none of this matters if the product on the field requires a gas mask or a towel to bite down on to watch. And that’s the thing about the Fire, and has been for much of its existence — especially the past four seasons.
Full disclosure: I think Frank Klopas is incompetent, which I know doesn’t make me a loner on this blog. He’s been at the helm as either technical director or head coach since 2008, during which time the Fire hasn’t won a single trophy. But even before him, what was the Fire’s system? Their style? What is it now? Do they have a set formation? Can you tell? The only thing I know for sure is they’re experts at giving up the first goal to any team, no matter their quality. An identifiable style of play would not only help generate interest, but give the entire organization and system direction. This is how we play, this is how we develop our players to play, this is what we produce. Is the Fire anywhere near this?
Maybe it’s all futile. Bridgeview may just be too poor of a location and too big of an ask for too many people. But I don’t know I believe that. In an urban region of nine million, with one of the most diverse populations on the planet, in a city that takes great pride in loving and supporting its sports teams, Chicago Fire SC can’t find 20,000 folks, 17 times a year, to watch a sport that’s a global religion and is growing in interest exponentially in the United States each year? That’s not possible? It has to be. Chicago’s a big city, Chicagoland’s even bigger. Getting anywhere can take a while. But is the commute to Bridgeview — under an hour by car from just about anywhere — really so bad? Maybe it is, but that doesn’t seem right.
There’s been a monster trying to get out in this city for 16 years. I’d like to see the day when it finally breaks the bars of the cage instead of merely testing its strength and waiting. I know it’s possible.
Sam Fels spends most of his time fighting off hypothermia and gushing paper cuts outside the United Center as editor and writer of The Committed Indian, the real Blackhawks’ fans program. He moonlights at On The Fire because it’s a nice escape from trying to explain why the Hawks don’t need to fight. Follow Sam @RealFansProgram