Fortunately for Fire fans Chicago is home to a number of bars and pubs devoted to airing soccer from Chicago and around the world where we can lick the grease off our fingers and down a few pints as we watch. The challenge created by having so many inviting places to watch a match is that it inadvertently decreases the exposure of soccer in other pubs and bars around the city and also decreases the profile of soccer compared to other sports in the market.
A goal that Fire fans and Fire supporter groups should have is to expand the coverage and viewership of the Fire, Major League Soccer and soccer in general to more locations around the city. Fans should not quit until there is a bar in every neighborhood proudly displaying the Chicago Fire flag outside their doors. To accomplish this goal Fire fans need to infiltrate new bars and locations around the city. I get it though. This is not an easy thing to do. We as humans and fans are creature of habit. We love to go to a tried and true location where we can count on a gathering of people of like minds cheering on our club of choice. I have a place like this. Last season I began watching the away matches at the Atlantic Pub in Lincoln Square during a section 8 watch party. Johnny the super friendly bartender (and committed Fire fan) and Cathal (the owner) instantly made me feel welcome at the Atlantic, like I had been coming there for years. Their personalities and encouragement was what led me to wake up early in the morning to watch a Tottenham Hotspur match, a club I had previously not followed, with the Atlantic's very active Spurs supporter group.
The Atlantic is now like a soccer home to me. I would be content to watch every soccer match (that I don't attend) from here to eternity at the Atlantic. However, this would not serve the club I love very well or help the Fire expand its place in the Chicago sports market, a topic I tackled in my last article and you can read about here. Rather than watching every match at the Atlantic, The Globe Pub, AJ Hudson's, Small Bar or the handful of other soccer bars around Chicago we the fans must break the mold occasionally and go outside of our comfort zone. Infiltrating a bar is not a quick and easy process. It takes patience and commitment to the goal. Let's face it, bars do not exist to support fans and fan interest, they exist to make money. In addition, most bar owners and bar staff are not soccer fans and consequently will not see the profitability in airing matches. We as committed fans must make them aware of the potential for soccer to generate interest and make money.
A strong first step is to put a bug in their ear. We all have bars and pubs that we frequent as part of our ordinary social life outside of the soccer community. As we socialize and talk to our bartenders and wait staff we should ask the simple question, "Do you air Chicago Fire matches?" In most cases we know that they do not but it will put the thought in the persons head, is this something that we should be airing? Dropping the Fire into conversation is something that my wife does a much better job of than I do. Whenever we are out sitting at a bar or restaurant she slips it into the conversation and assesses the person's interest in the Fire and soccer in general. You would be surprised how many people respond positively to inquiries and it gives us the opportunity to educate people on Major League Soccer and the Fire in general. Being sociable and making friends with the people who work at the bar can go a long way in moving forward the process. This alone is not going to turn a bar into a Fire supporter bar, but it can help nudge the door open a little.
Next, pick a slow day at that bar and a match that is aired nationally or locally (without a soccer package) and ask them to turn it on for you. Most bars are more than happy to change a TV or two- as long as someone else is not watching it. This does not necessarily need to be a Fire match even to start the process rolling. Often the Fire matches occur during a Chicago sports prime time contest and the goal is not to try to piss off the rest of the bar that wants to watch a Cubs game, it is to get the bar used to the idea of playing soccer and passionate fans wanting to watch it. Watch a few matches at the chosen bar over the period of a few weeks. Engage other people at the bar who are open to conversation in the matches and inform them on the sport as well. If patrons become more interested in soccer so will the bar staff. Once the bar tenders and owners see that fans are spending good money while watching matches at the bar, the idea of putting a match on the TV will become less foreign. Once the bar becomes more open to soccer as a sport, it is time to plant the seed of an event.
An event can be small or large, anything from "hey I was wondering if I could have six of my buds come in and watch a Fire match" to "hey I was wondering if you would be willing to host a Section 8 viewing party with 30-50 people expected." Make sure the bar has enough space for the size of the group being invited. Once again, pick a time that is typically slow for that bar or pub and without as much other sports going on so that the people involved with the bar can see an opportunity to bring in business during slow periods. This is something that Section 8 did at the Abbey Pub for some watch parties during late west coast matches back in 2011, with apparent success.
Show passion and energy at the event but police the crowd, to a certain extent, to make sure everyone is respectful of the people working at the bar and the bar property. Stand. Sing and Participate. This is something that should come natural for people who watch home matches from the Harlem End, and is something that fans could do more of at watch parties. Since I began watching Tottenham with the Chicago Spurs group at the Atlantic, this is something I notice that they do throughout the match. The level of commitment that this participation shows can open up the eyes of bar staff and help them see that there is more to soccer than they may have thought. Make sure singing is something that is okay with the bar staff before doing this however, just in case. If the event goes well, plan another! This process takes time. Get the bar used to regular watch parties or just people stopping in to catch a match. Establish a relationship with the people working in the bar so even if they are not interested in the Fire, they may still become dedicated to the group of fans that frequent the establishment. Once the bar gets used to occasional events the foundation of a Fire Supporter bar is set.
But don't expect the bar to run out to Toyota Park to purchase a flag to mount in front of the bar, post photos of Chris Armas or begin to mount scarves on the wall. As the relationship with the bar becomes more established this is something that the committed fan might want to consider donating. Get a collection of fans to donate a couple of bucks each to purchase a flag and ask the bar if they would be willing to mount it outside. Supporters groups can donate one of their scarves to the bar and see if they are willing to mount that as well. If the groundwork has been properly set, a new Chicago Fire Supporter bar has been born! Even if the bar is not open enough to add the Fire into its image and aesthetic, its horizons have been expanded by the fan efforts and the profile of the Chicago Fire in the city has been improved.
During the recent road trip to Kansas City I traveled with my wife by car and met the beer bus in the stands to watch the match. While staying in Kansas City a couple of nights, I got the opportunity to try a number of bars and restaurants in Sporting's market. Being a small Midwestern city, everyone we spoke with was friendly and accommodating. Everywhere we went including the hotel bar, chain restaurants and local pubs people spoke highly of Sporting Kansas City and soccer in general. Obviously, Missouri and Kansas do not have the saturated sports market that Chicago has to contend with in order to expand viewership. Still, goals should be lofty and the goal of the Chicago Fire fan base should be to have the Fire a key topic of conversation in bars and pubs throughout the city even if they are not ready to wave the flag, similar to how Kansas City has accomplished this.
In summary, to help expand the fan viewership in the bar and pub market, fans must go out of their comfort zone and promote the Fire in new places. Through both subtle and progressively more aggressive fan efforts new Fire Supporter bars can be born throughout the city. More exposure in bars throughout the city can increase the profile of the Fire in the Chicago market and help Major League Soccer grow in Chicago. In the meantime, I plan to plant a bug in the ear of a bar tender at a new Sports Bar in Logan Square that owns a HD TV screen the size of an entire wall that has me salivating!