Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Jonathan Daniel

Can the Fire expect a big crowd for the home opener?

As the Fire nation smarts from Sunday’s 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the defending champs, eyes turn hopefully to Bridgeview for the season’s home opener next Saturday. For years, Opening Day has taken on mythical proportions for Chicago’s baseball teams. Perhaps because the MLB schedule consists of 162 games, the symbolism of the start of this journey is more significant than it is for the NFL, for which every game is already a larger-than-life event. Although it is a rant for another day, the hysteria surrounding the Home Openers is greatly fueled by the attention given to it by the local media. Nothing compares to the feeding frenzy that begins when "pitchers and catchers report". Come April 8, the neighborhood around Clark and Addison will be swarmed with live broadcasts and fans drinking beer for breakfast. The Regular Guy will give his invocation and then it’s play ball. I’m not familiar with the Chicago Sun-Times, but I have noticed a slight uptick in the coverage given to the Fire pre-season by the Chicago Tribune. Still, there is obviously no sense of a city-wide anticipation that the MLS offseason is about to conclude. Case in point, Sunday’s pre-game coverage was on page 6. Page 1 had the story of Simeon basketball standout Jabari Parker above the fold.

Unfortunately, life will not be nearly as hectic at 71st St. and Harlem. The forecast for Saturday currently calls for clear skies but temperatures in the 30s and 40s. Chances are good that that will lead to a less than full house. Last year, the weather was decent and there was a decent crowd of just over 18,000. However, the year before, the weather was bitter cold and just over 12,000 braved the conditions to cheer the team on to a 3-2 victory over Sporting KC. History tells us there will be several empty seats this weekend.

If you’re a rabid Fire fan, you’ve had March 9 circled on your calendar since the opening day schedule was announced. Otherwise, what motivates someone to attend a game any time during the season? Here’s my list:

1. The Fire are winning:

Everybody loves a winner and it’s much more fun to attend a game when the team is playing well, scoring goals, and winning games. There’s a buzz in the crowd that is intoxicating and leaves you wanting more.

2. It’s the thing to do or place to be:

This is the key to the long-term success of the team and the league. Not every team can have a winning record. Not every team can make it to the playoffs. One thing that can bring cache to a team is big-draw star player. The Fire’s top two season attendance averages were in the first two years of the Blanco era. But, in time, team attendance should be driven by fans that make Toyota Park a regular part of their spring through fall schedule.

3. You enjoy soccer:

This is Major League Soccer's big challenge. We constantly hear of soccer’s huge participation numbers. But, this is only slowly translating into people in the seats. There is also a huge contingent of Americans that are loyal supporters of other foreign professional leagues that have not yet taken to the domestic league. In the population of general soccer supporter, I think the prime target should be high school students. They have a decent amount of disposable income and are looking for something to do on the weekend. They’ve grown up with the game and so are not indoctrinated into the "soccer is un-American" nonsense. And most importantly, they are now forming their future consumer habits.

4. Parent-child thing:

In most sports, dad was brought to the game by his dad, and now he brings his son to carry on that tradition. One unique thing I remember when I first started playing soccer back in the late 1970’s was the phenomenon of kids having their parents bring them to professional matches. This was Lee Stern’s path to ownership of the Chicago Sting. This year, when DC United signed Michael Seaton, he became the first player to be born into a world where MLS already existed. We are now seeing the emergence of a generation of adult fans whose first experience with the league was when their dads took them to a game.

5. Stadium experience:

This is Marketing 101. Win or lose, rain or shine, fans have to have a good experience with the product. I’ve brought several people to their first Fire game and they were impressed by the atmosphere of a professional soccer game. Soccer is fairly unique because the flow of the game rarely stops. So, there isn’t the need for between-innings or TV-timeout distractions that detract from the experience of being at the stadium for other sporting events. The supporters groups behind the goal always do a great job in making an impression on new fans as well as trying to keep the entire stadium engaged.

As always, it’s going to be a busy year on the Chicago soccer calendar. In addition to league play, the obligatory friendlies, and the Gold Cup Final at Soldier Field, World Cup qualifying will occupy the attention of Chicago soccer fans throughout the summer. We had a bad start but I’m still hopeful for a strong finish.

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