Photo of the tunnel entrance to the field, credit me.
In lieu of another book review this week, I have a brief recap of the "Drinks With the Fire" event that I attended last Thursday along with some experiences and thoughts as a new(ish) supporter. I'm hoping it'll give a little perspective into what would be the best approach to attract more MLS and - most importantly - Fire fans.
My roommate and I weren't sure how we ended up on the mailing list for the event in the first place, but the email had said "RSVP for free drinks" and we weren't about to pass that up, so RSVP we did. Not only did we feel pretty grand parking in the VIP area of the lot, but the Fire did a good job of wining and dining everyone there and making us feel welcome at Toyota Park.
We were treated to hot pretzels, appetizers, and the aforementioned drinks with approximately 30-40 others in the media locker room. After some mildly awkward waiting, everyone gathered in a room to watch a short - and rather moving - video about the Fire. We then listened to a few Section 8 organizers talk about the benefits of being a supporter. From the get-go, it was obvious that the entire event was geared towards wooing us into becoming season ticket holders. It could have felt tedious. It could have felt pushy and annoying. Instead, I was charmed. I still can't justify a season ticket - next season, I swear! - since I'm a poor college student who works mostly on weekends during the games, but it was obvious that everyone there really cared about the club and wanted more from us than just our money. I left the room even more certain that not only is the Fire a location-convenient team for me to support but an organization that I truly want to be a part of.
Afterwards, we split up into groups and took a tour of the stadium. The players were still in the locker room after practice, I believe, so it was a bit disappointing that we didn't get to go there as planned, but we still went through most of the facility. We walked out onto the field via the same route that the players take during every game, saw the international lounge where the "other half lives", admired the trophy cabinet, and took a peek into the press conference/post-game interview area. The picture that I posted before the break is my favorite of the bunch (sadly, I only have small iPhone quality pictures). We were told that there's a crack on the sign from Segares taking out a bit of rage on it after a hard loss. Bless.
So how did I become a Fire supporter in the first place? My case is what we want to happen with hundreds of other people, isn't it? I was already a soccer fanatic. I went to a Fire game, fell in love, and now support my local club as well. If MLS could somehow capitalize on all of the fans of the game in the US in this manner, then attendance figures would skyrocket.
The irony is that I went to my first Fire game because, as an Arsenal supporter, I wanted to seeplay. Okay, I told myself before the game, you can cheer for the Fire and Thierry Henry, somehow - but despite it being hot as hell and despite Section 8 being relatively sparse, my friends and I ended up standing the entire game and singing/clapping for the Fire ...and only the Fire. Don't get me wrong, I still love Henry and always will, but that entire experience of the beer bus, tailgating, and the atmosphere of the game triggered something. Over the past year or so, I've progressed from "I guess I'll check the Fire's scores because they're a Chicago team" and "the games are fun to go to", to holding impassioned discussions with my roommate over which goalkeeper should start and, well, interacting more with other supporters and really promoting the club. I still have a ways to go, but I think the growth is only exponential from here on out.
In my opinion and experience, players like Henry and Beckham can benefit other MLS teams in terms of attendance and garnering fan support ...as long as every supporters group can reel people in as well as Section 8 can! It's the visceral feeling of being there that hooks you. Since my first game, I've been to a few other games and brought some friends along with. It's always been love at first sight no matter how difficult it was to get them there in the first place. Not to mention, never once have I been criticized for being a new fan or a female fan and I greatly appreciate that. As long as Section 8 keeps rocking out and the supporters continue to be as welcoming as they have been to me, our numbers will only grow.
To end this on an even brighter note, the most touching part of the evening has to go to a father thanking the Fire for giving his children a place to play the game and giving them players to look up to. When the family got to the trophy cabinet, he pointed at one of the trophies won by the U-14/15's and asked his daughter (who was staring in a bit of awe) "how much longer until you're going to win that?".