In the wake of an early season that has the Fire lamenting its last place, it seems like a difficult proposition arguing a case for how the Fire can improve in the Chicago sports market. After a week four first goal of the season that has left even the Fire faithful feeling like 19th century British paupers (please sirs, may I have another?), it remains hard to see how the Fire can tap into a new fan base.
Stewing through the bye week, it is a good time to reflect on this topic. Clearly, there is an argument to be made that until the product on the field improves there is no way that Chicago Fire Soccer is going to draw additional fans from the already saturated market. Counting on the probability that the club cannot possibly play this bad all year, and that there will eventually be a reason for new fans to watch, there are improvements that the club can make in marketing, public relations, community engagement and press relations.
The Fire cannot improve their place in the Chicago sports market simply by throwing money at the problem. It will take a concentrated grass roots effort by the team in conjunction with an already active fan base. The Fire and their fans understand that they are not going to steal fans from other sports franchises in the market. People who are loyal Bears, Hawks, Bulls, Cubs and Sox fans are going to remain loyal to the teams they have been following, and have grown up with. Sports fans are like dogs with a juicy bone, once they have their jaws around it they are not letting go. The Fire cannot out compete these clubs for a fan base, nor should they attempt to. The Fire, and more specifically the Fire fan base, needs to out invite these franchises for the fan base.
The real strength of the soccer market, worldwide and especially in the United States, is the sense of community that is created by a loyal fan base that gathers together for the shared experience of watching a match. How many other sports have fans waking up on a weekend at six in the morning on a Saturday to go to the bar to watch their team play? EPL fans do this because of the sense of community that they obtain when gathering in this manner. It is only by capitalizing on this sense of community that the Fire can expand their fan base in the Chicago sports market. The world soccer market, American football, baseball and other sports in the market accomplish this sense of community through years of history and tradition. The Chicago Fire and Major League Soccer as a whole, have to achieve a sense of community without that long history.
On a personal note, I have came to soccer later in my life than most of the fans I have met. It was not until the most recent World Cup in South Africa that I discovered a passion for the sport that the rest of the world accepts as the gold standard in team competition. My wife and I attended our first Fire match in the summer of 2011 against the Red Bulls, after beginning to watch EPL and La Liga games on TV to feed a growing seed of interest in the sport as a whole. After attending our first live match, we were hooked. The sheer energy of the Harlem End, Sector Latino and the general crowd commitment had us screaming for more. We went to two more MLS matches, a US Open Cup match and multiple watch parties before the season was finished. By 2012, we were already signed up as Season Ticket holders in section 8. But this is not to say that the Fire and its supporter groups can count on every fan reacting to the sport like we did. Quite the contrary. Most fans need a bit more of a nudge than we did. In fact, we have sat in section 8 for over a year now and we are just starting to make connections and meeting people. Improvements in how the fan base interacts with the general sports public can play a key part in expanding the club's fan base.
First, all of us as fans and those of us in supporter groups need to spread the word of Chicago fire soccer by word of mouth. This is sort of a no brainer though. The people most likely to give the sport a chance are people who are already friends with supporters. Second, we as fans and supporter groups need to support the team’s efforts at promotions. This does not only mean telling friends, family and people on the street about deals when they come up. It also means engaging with the public when they are coming to their first match after buying a Groupon, Living Social or any other package offer. If Living Social has a table set up outside of the box office, as they did last season, there should be a representative of section 8 or other supporter group right there next to the table introducing those people to the game, inviting them to check out the Harlem End at some point during the match and telling them what to expect.
Shaking hands and meeting people as they come in before games and inviting them to a tailgate can make all the difference in whether they choose to come back. It is not always about just getting people in the door and letting the magic work. Some of the potential fans are only ever going to be casual fans and they must be welcomed into the mix as well. It is about inviting these new people into the community, whatever their level of participation is. The Fire and its supporters have to give people something that other sports do not always give and that is a unique sense of community, that is different than other regional sports. If someone comes to a watch party or simply shows interest in a bar that is showing the games, there should be a supporter there introducing themselves to that potential fan, explaining what the club is all about and encouraging them to come to a live match. Wherever in the Chicagoland area there is someone showing interest in soccer, there needs to be a Chicago Fire fan waiting to buy them a beer.
Welcoming people to come support the club, whether they know the supporter cheers and songs or not, can play a huge part in how a new fan will react to the sport. How the fan base conducts itself can have as large of an impact on expanding the club in the Chicago sports market as anything the team can accomplish on its own. While social media can play a huge part in how the fan base case can reach out to the casual or potential new fan, the old tried and true methods of passing out fliers, verbally inviting people to supporter’s group events and activities or even hanging up posters in bars and on lampposts can make the difference in people’s choice to engage in the sport. It is a more personal approach that makes the potential fan feel wanted. By selling community and inclusion, we as fans can make the difference in whether someone decides to make the trek to Bridgeview rather than a bus trip to the United Center.
One fan base that is easiest to tap into is the market of soccer fans from around the world. Followers of the European leagues, Latin American leagues and World Cup fans already come equipped with a love and understanding of the sport. The challenge with these fans is that they are often skeptical of the level of play in Major League Soccer. These are the people Fire fans should adopt and offer to drive to a match or offer a seat on the party bus to. Even if the level of play isn't as technically appealing as some of the most established leagues in the world, there is something to be said for the excitement generated by the innate physicality of Major League Soccer that is not found in other leagues. Once these fans are drawn in the sense of community they will experience will keep them coming back.
The existing fan base has some key selling points that they can use when talking up the Chicago Fire. For starters, it’s cheap. What other sports in the Chicago can claim prices as cheap as $200.00 for season tickets? Family outings don’t break the bank at Toyota Park, with family package deals, specials and even people selling their season ticket at a discount to a match they will not be going to on Stub Hub. Second, it is available. People who already watch soccer but are hesitant about MLS Soccer as compared to European leagues need to see that Fire fans have a legitimate passion every bit as strong as that of Europeans. There is loyalty to sell. People react highly to a passionate fan base who welcomes newcomers in, no matter what their level of involvement or knowledge is. It is not just team marketing that makes the difference, it is individual to individual marketing. The goal of the fans should not be to steal fans from other teams in the market, but to encourage those fans to follow the Fire as well.
chicago fire fansRationally, an active fan base alone is not going to corner the Chicago Sports market for the Fire. The club must take active steps to improve their marketing, as well as active steps to improve the clubs performance. But still, Fire fans can certainly play a bigger part in influencing how people spend their money on sports by acting as public advocates for the soccer and club they love. Not only should supporters expect the Fire to promote an increased fan base, we the fans must spend social capital to accomplish the goal as well. Are you doing your part?