A Fire loss – Off the field

Tasos Katopodis

This loss for the club, one that has no final score and is not spelled out in a press release or web posting, is an example of a systematic loss of institutional knowledge and experience across various leadership positions (and below) at the club.

Editor's Notes:

- A previously published version of this article referred to Chicago Fire Senior Director of Communications Dan Lobring not having any soccer experience. While Lobring worked with rEvolution programs, the company worked in soccer with ESPN, EA SPORTS, and others, which included direct tie-ins with the Chicago Fire. An example of the work can be found here.

- As Hot Time In Old Town reported in 2011, current Chicago Fire Chief Operating Officer Atul Khosla joined the Chicago Fire from Alli Sports. However, a previously published version of this article stated, 'Khosla has never worked for a sporting enterprise previously and there is no indication he brings any soccer experience'. We have expanded on the work of Alli Sports, added this to Khosla's background, and modified the sentence.

- A previously published version of this article referred to Emigdio Gamboa as being 'moved from Marketing & Communications to Merchandising'. Hot Time In Old Town has multiple people who saw Gamboa listed as having a role in Merchandising on the club's website in early 2013. The Chicago Fire Soccer Club points out that Gamboa's last title with the club was Vice President of Business Development.

If you're a Chicago Fire fan the name Emigdio Gamboa might not ring a bell, but it probably should. One of the longest-tenured employees of the club, Gamboa has worn a variety of hats around the Fire front office – from ticket sales, to game day operations, to his position as VP of Marketing & Communications. One of his most important contributions to the club, in this writer's mind at least, centers on his interactions and collaboration with the club's ardent supporters in Section 8 and Sector Latino.

As of the middle of March, Emigdio Gamboa no longer works for the Chicago Fire. Just prior to his departure, at the dawn of 2013, he was moved from the Marketing & Communications realm to another area. Weeks later, he left the club. When asked about Gamboa’s departure, Fire owner Andrew Hauptman said "Emigdio was a real asset to me, and is also someone who I genuinely care for a great deal personally."

This loss for the club, one that has no final score and is not spelled out in a press release or web posting, is an example of a systematic loss of institutional knowledge and experience across various leadership positions (and below) at the club.

Emigdio Gamboa was instrumental in improving the relationship between the club's front office and the supporters. For years, spanning the club’s time at Soldier Field, Naperville, and Toyota Park, staff and supporters butted heads over a wide variety of issues, from the use of banners and standing on benches to accusations of racism among Monterrey Security. A major factor contributing to these ongoing issues was the high volume of turnover in the Fire office and the fact that many club employees did not come from a background that inured them to the culture of soccer supporters. It often seemed that once supporters had found enough common ground with a club official to begin to move forward in a mutually-beneficial manner, that official would be replaced in some new round of staff housecleaning and the process would begin again.

That revolving door halted with Gamboa's involvement with the Fire's Operations staff. Emigdio worked directly with Section 8 Chicago leadership to resolve issues that fomented conflict and promoted supporter-led initiatives that lent benefit to club and fan alike. As Gamboa was promoted within the front office, other club executives were brought into the mix. One of these officials was now-VP of Ticket Sales, Service & Operations Mike Ernst. Ernst’s involvement has lead to exponential growth in supporter ticket sales, expansion of the Harlem End general admission area, increased Fire fan presence at away matches, and generally better overall communication and respect between supporters and club staff than had existed for years prior. None of these positive results could have happened without Gamboa's involvement.

Perhaps the most important of those results is the Club Charter, the first of its kind in North America. The charter was signed by club and supporter representatives at the beginning of the 2010 season. Former Section 8 Chicago chairman Tom Dunmore, who worked closely with Gamboa on the Charter, sums it up: "When Emigdio was assigned the task of liaising with Section 8 Chicago leadership in 2009, relations between the front office and the team's supporters were at perhaps their lowest ebb. Brick by brick, Emigdio helped build back trust by working tirelessly – available at literally all hours – to solve outstanding issues." Dunmore continues, "Beyond problem-solving, his strategic vision helped set in place the Club Charter with fans and assisted in Section 8's growth in support for the club home and away. Emigdio's work at the club for over a decade set a standard for Fire staff to emulate in the commitment he showed and the results he generated."

Current Section 8 Chicago Chair Joel Biden also spoke highly of Gamboa’s relationship with the supporters following the 2013 Section 8 Chicago Annual General Meeting, held on January 26 at Toyota Park. Speaking on the Fire Confidential Podcast, when asked about prospective dealings with the Fire front office, Biden said: "[Emigdio Gamboa] has been indispensable. Our relationship over the years has gotten to be a very honest, trust-based relationship. You go back six years; him and I (laughs) ... we didn't get along. Going through the charter process, negotiating the language of the charter, there was times, I'm driving around in my car screaming at this Emigdio character from the Fire... he won't budge, I won't budge, we're trying to work it all through. And going through all those fireworks early on, you got to know – what's motivating that guy? What am I motivated by? Where can you meet in the middle? That's been helpful."

As it happens, Emigdio Gamboa is only one example of turnover among high-level Fire employees in the recent past. People like former club Presidents Julian Posada and Dave Greeley, Assistant Coach/Director of Player Personnel Mike Jeffries, Operations Manager Dan Garnett, Chief Operating Officer Mike Humes, VP of Communications and Community Affairs Becky Carroll, and VP of Corporate Relations and Sponsorship Dave Beck have all left the club in the past few years (or in a couple of cases, the past few months). Some had years of experience with the club and most had in-depth experience in soccer culture to match.

As replacements for Gamboa, Sr. Director of Marketing Linda Connors and Sr. Communications Director Dan Lobring have come on board. A former Director of Marketing and Communications for the Chicago Bears, Connors brings ideas about marketing soccer that most long-time fans of the club will find questionable at best. History shows that Bears marketing executives have not had great success with the Fire – previously-mentioned club President Dave Greeley also held this role with the Bears before joining the Fire. This begs the question:

Why was Gamboa, whose team had won awards and praise in the previous year, shuffled into another role only to be replaced in this manner?

Similar stories can be told about other vacated positions. Julian Posada, a soccer player himself at the recreational level, brought extensive media contacts in the Chicago market and a host of non-profit experience as well. He was replaced by Atul Khosla, though it should be said that Khosla’s position is not as a true club president, but a Chief Operating Officer. Khosla’s background is primarily in various types of big business consulting, mostly with General Electric Healthcare. His LinkedIn profile doesn't show any direct employment by a professional sports team before joining the Chicago Fire in 2011. Khosla did work for Alli Sports, an action sports lifestyle and entertainment brand that connects fans to athletes. They describe their company by saying "we take you behind-the-scenes of the competition and into the lives of the pros. Allisports.com is the official home of the Dew Tour, Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship and Red Bull Signature Series".

Dan Garnett, whose operations position brought him into regular contact with Fire supporters over several years, has been replaced by the previously-mentioned Mike Ernst, as have some of the duties of Julian Posada. By working his way into an executive-level position and learning first-hand about the community and culture of Fire support and combining that knowledge with his sporting sales experience gained in the NBA, Ernst has become a wonderful advocate for Fire fans and supporters. On the other hand, it seems like expecting him to perform at a high level with ticket sales, operations, and some of the leadership roles of a president is a huge ask. Even further, Ernst and Lobring have taken on the roles of the club’s supporter liaisons – a responsibility that Emigdio Gamboa once fulfilled.

High profile departures from the club staff should be of concern to all fans. Paying attention to the club's staff list as well as the yearly media guides can help paint a picture of the kind of turnover the club has endured. Based off of last year’s information, 25 out of 70 front office staff members have departed or roughly one third of staff. To be sure, this includes many low-level ticket sales staff, where turnover is always high, but it also counts several staff in leadership roles. In that realm, a minimum of 25 individuals have served in various executive and leadership roles at the club since 2008. This comes back to the earlier point about the amount of staff turnover. Never mind how the supporters will have more staff education to do, how can the club front office, being forced to start over time and time again, ever manage to progress when this turnover keeps happening?

These departures, replacements, and reshuffling bring back the notion of systematic loss of institutional knowledge in the club’s front office.

When Fire ownership was asked for comment on the importance of institutional knowledge among Fire employees, COO Khosla was delegated to respond, saying: "Stability is always a goal, but we firmly believe in Club over individual, and that means a healthy mix of individuals who have been with the club since its inception, as well as those with new perspectives. This is especially important as the team, league, city, etc., continues to evolve and create a demand for different resources and skill sets. I trust my team, the team we continue to build, and how we need the right talent to lead the Club to where we want to go. It’s important to ensure we have that in place, first and foremost. From ownership on down, our number one goal is to drive the Club forward. If the Club isn’t headed in the right direction, we’ll look at what needs to be changed, tweaked, improved, etc. – that is the job of the leadership team."

Khosla went on to address the transitioning of Emigdio Gamboa’s supporter liaison duties: "Emigdio’s transition was something that we’ve been planning on and Mike Ernst, VP of Ticket Sales, Service, & Club Operations (who joined the Club in 2008) had been working with Section 8 previously, and during that transition, and is now the new front office liaison with the ISA. Additionally, in the spirit of open communication, Dan Lobring, our new Senior Director of Communications will also be working more closely with Section 8 in conjunction with Mike moving forward."

In January of 2013, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the annual meeting of the Independent Supporters Council of North America in Kansas City. At these meetings, representatives from around the country came together to discuss issues relevant to the interests of supporters and collaborate on projects that would advance those interests. From the outset it was clear that supporters in Chicago have an incredibly positive relationship with their club. Hearing stories from fans of other clubs about the trials they experienced in their home cities drove the point home – having committed, experienced staff in leadership roles means that supporters and club can jointly enjoy positive, progressive growth.

All supporters of the club want to see it succeed at all levels, but that means that questions must be asked and truthful answers given about why those with experience and institutional knowledge have left in droves recently and why they are being replaced by those who lack the same qualities. With time and care, Ernst, Lobring, Connors, Khosla, and the leadership of Section 8 Chicago can continue Emigdio Gamboa's great work. I hope everyone remains around the club long enough and remembers the problems of their predecessors to keep front office-supporter relations strong for many years to come. Emigdio's example is an instructive one when looking at the bigger picture across all aspects of the club, and where that road leads might also help fans develop a greater understanding of the club's struggles on the field as well as off.

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