The #90MinuteTailgate: A Cathartic Plea
OTF Founder Scott Fenwick returns with a message for Chicago Fire fans, as well as a few things he’s been wanting to get off his chest…
Let’s get a few items out of the way before we proceed. Call them ‘advisories.’
If you’re a person who attends Chicago Fire games because your kids ‘just can’t get enough,’ or because it’s a cheap night out with the family, or because you simply think it’s fun, win or lose, this piece is not for you. Stop reading now and go on your merry way. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
If you’re among the folks in #cf97 Nation who do not like me, regard me as an interloper, a “cancer,” or a “thief of fan culture” (I always quite liked that one), or just plain think I’m an asshole, this column may not be for you either.
I say “may not” because in this context, whether you care to admit it, you and I aren’t all that different. We want the same thing, and you know what that thing is. So perhaps you’ll find it in your heart to bury your hatchet for a moment and resume hating later – which brings me to my third point.
If you’re someone who can’t get enough soccer in your life, someone who is a proud Chicagoan, someone who understands the power of winning and identity in sports, then read on.
It’s important to admit straight away that I don’t love Chicago Fire. I’m not one of these guys running around screaming “Fire ‘Til I Die!” and jumping around and singing and whatnot. But hey, if that’s your thing, more power to you.
I’m here because I love soccer, passionately. Chicago Fire just happens to be my hometown team, and I’m a hometown kind of guy. You know, proud of where I come from and all that. I always want the Fire to win. When I was a boy, it was the Sting.
I love soccer for a number of reasons, most of all because I’ve never encountered a sport so compelling, so utterly fascinating and dramatic. There’s no other game that can so vigorously unite and divide people like soccer. There are so many stories. There’s so much history. There’s so much to learn, always. Soccer keeps me connected to the world. It’s a powerful thing.
I’ll digress a moment and admit this is the first bit of informal writing I’ve done in a long while. It’s cathartic. Some may regard it self-indulgent. Perhaps it is. It’ll take some reading to get to my point, but if you’re willing to humor me a bit (and perhaps curious about what I may admit and reveal), read on…
About three years ago, I started this blog, f/k/a On The Fire, on a whim. I was entering my fifth year of graduate school, one master’s degree in hand and looking for a second, perhaps even a doctorate. Problem was, I was bored, and pretty sure I didn’t want to continue down the path I was on, so I started writing about soccer, specifically my hometown team.
At the time, I was a Chicago Fire season ticket holder who had consumed all known media about the team. I was left wanting. There was no edge to any of it. It was all pretty vanilla.
Then, I read a wonderful book called A Season with Verona by Tim Parks and thought, “I didn’t know you could write about soccer like that!” Also, I recalled the plethora of soccer media I consumed while living in Romania for a couple of years. Numerous fotbal print dailies and talk shows offered the cerebral, the sensational, and everything in between. It was lively and interesting. I loved it.
So, inspired to do something different and fun, and with time on my hands, I started writing this WordPress blog and discovered a wonderfully awesome and terrible tool called Twitter. It took off.
As I honed an informed, irreverent style and other fellow travelers jumped on board, OTF gained a solid, loyal readership in Chicagoland, across North America, and even in the UK. We also did a podcast, which shall now forever live in infamy.
And believe it or not, there was a time when the metrics showed the blog and podcast were getting the most hits of their kind in Fireland. That didn’t last for a number of reasons, some of which you may glean from what follows.
Anyway, back in the autumn of 2012, and after being on the job as a blogger for a mere three or so months, I received a laudatory email from Andrew Hauptman, owner-operator of the Chicago Fire MLS franchise and head of the investment firm Andell Holdings. At first I didn’t believe it was him. I thought it was a prank and was totally caught off guard. Then, I verified. It was indeed Hauptman.
I distinctly remember being flattered by one of his lines: “We need to multiply people like you.” I’ll admit, it felt good. Here I was, just some dude, a fan, and this billionaire owner was contacting me, unsolicited.
A series of correspondences over the winter led to breakfast at a fancy hotel with new Communications Director Dan Lobring, COO Atul Khosla and GM Javier Leon, a Hauptman-hosted fancy media dinner at a top-end steak house, and a press pass for the 2013 season.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was being courted. They hooked me. So what did I do? I gave them the benefit of the doubt and tried to play by their rules, which wound up not being much fun.
I learned pretty quickly that I wasn’t cut out for the skullduggery and manipulative games that go on behind the scenes. After all, I was the self-proclaimed “Man in the Stands.” I wasn’t a journalist, and never set out to be one.
For a few months though, it was cool. I sat in the press box a few times, did some locker room interviews, fielded calls from Javier Leon talking inside dope, etc. Hell, they even made a bobblehead out of me. They also led me to believe there was perhaps a place for me in the organization, so I played along.
I was done with grad school, looking for a job and would’ve jumped at the right opportunity to work in soccer. I truly wanted to help grow the game in my hometown and make the Fire better.
But I was naïve. And for a while there, my naivety, along with my penchant to fight back and not take shit from anyone (read: to be a prick), got me in trouble with some of the hardcore fan base because my writing began to betray my independent sensibilities. From the outside looking in, I was becoming a company man.
Long story short, after numerous emails, phone conversations, and face-to-face meetings with Lobring, Khosla, Leon and Hauptman, I came dangerously close to working as a contract employee for Chicago Fire. I was to work on a project that aimed to bridge the gap between the front office and the fans. It was called Fire Forum. It was my idea.
But I decided not to work for them. Why? Because I wouldn’t sign their Non-disclosure Agreement as-is, which was effectively a gag order. Moreover, what Khosla really wanted to do was pay me to write favorable, front office-directed editorial copy about the organization on OTF. I declined. I told him it was a bad idea.
Call it what you want, but Khosla’s proposition was a defacto bribe. It was unethical and disrespectful, and I told Hauptman so. He, unsurprisingly, circled the wagons around his man and condescendingly preached to me about being a “big boy.” In his world, I guess, “big boys” get bought.
Soon afterwards, not coincidentally, the “To DP or Not to DP” piece and the infamous “Editorial” were published. In the aftermath, I made my opinion on the matter quite clear to Hauptman, Khosla and Lobring, as the communication line remained open despite the break-up. I was rebuffed. They made a lot of excuses and stood firm in their own mess.
Then, I turned on them. I was angry. Not just about my situation, but as a soccer fan from Chicago, a season ticket holder. Eventually though, I took solace in the fact that I dodged a bullet. I could’ve been the guy penning awful propaganda – on this website.
As 2013 gave way to 2014, I continued to try to build the blog and the podcast, and OTF as a brand. I wrote less and edited and produced more. I was proud and happy that my creation gave others a platform to express and enjoy themselves, and to write and talk about their shared passion. Most of all, I was glad I made some good friends. But over the next year or so I became disaffected.
I found a good job and a new professional direction, which took up much of my time and energy. Eventually, I completely disengaged myself from the blog and quit podcasting. It just wasn’t worth it anymore. There was drama, and the opportunity cost became too high.
I held onto my 2014 season tickets because I thought perhaps Frank Yallop could turn things around after he was given the keys to the proverbial soccer castle. I knew the front office and ownership were a lost cause, but in the end, for me at least, all I really cared about was the on-field product. I just wanted to watch and support a competitive team. Who was I kidding?
Needless to say, I didn’t renew my season tickets for 2015. The writing was on the wall. What a shambles.
It’s sad, because I really enjoy going to Toyota Park. My wife does too. The atmosphere, the camaraderie, the tailgating. It’s even a quick, easy drive from our house. Honestly, it was hard to give it up.
So this brings me to the point of this piece: Sometimes you’ve got to destroy something if you want to save it.
Last season, after that horrific, unfathomable 6-0 loss to Seattle in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, I decided to vote with my feet. I stopped showing up. I decided to no longer give Andrew Hauptman and Major League Soccer a dime.
And honest to God, I didn’t think it could get any worse.
If you understand Major League Soccer, its business model, and how the franchises are structured relative to their owner-operators, you understand the only way to even begin to get #HauptmanOut is to not put your butt in his seats.
The only way to get Andrew Hauptman and Andell Holdings to sell its operating interest in the Chicago Fire franchise is to turn Toyota Park into #ChivasEast.
The only way to get Don Garber and the Members of Major League Soccer, L.L.C., to intervene is to not show up. Period.
It sucks, but it’s the hard truth.
So I ask you, dear fellow fan, are you willing to vote with your feet? Are you willing to take action? Because screaming “Hauptman Out!” while you buy his tickets, concessions and merchandise will get you nowhere. He’s laughing at you from the home office in Beverly Hills.
Take this missive as a call to action. On August 22, 2015, come to Toyota Park, but don’t enter to watch the match. Use your STH parking pass, or pay your $15 and throw poor Bridgeview a bone.
For the duration of the match, stay in the parking lot, enjoy the live music Section 8 will put on as part of its Rock Against Racism benefit, have a few beers and something to eat in solidarity with your fellow fans, and send a message to everyone who’s watching that you’re fed up, that Chicago deserves better.
Let’s work together to make this #90MinuteTailgate happen.
For the love of the game and your hometown team too, show up, but don’t go in.
Scott Fenwick is OTF’s Founder and a nice guy if you get to know him, kind of.