The Chicago Fire: A Family Tradition

Tasos Katopodis

As a growing sports franchise in the crowded Chicagoland market, the Chicago Fire are constantly looking for new ways to bring people to Toyota Park and more importantly- keep them coming back.

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One way the team has chosen to market the club is through family packs and deals where a family of four can get tickets along with drinks and food. The promotions have been advertised on billboards and buses. These deals demonstrate a recognition by the front office that one of the key ways to fill up seats and create a market in the long term is to promote a family tradition of attending matches, especially by young families. In promoting family participation there may be further steps the club can take to get new families involved with the club.

As I have written in the past, I am relatively new to the soccer world and I have only been a committed fan of the Fire for the last 3 seasons. At Sunday's 7/7/13 match against Sporting Kansas City, I had the opportunity to bring my father and mother to their very first live soccer match. Growing up as primarily a New York Mets Baseball fan and living north of the city, I have fond memories of being introduced to Mets Baseball by my father during the 1986 "Amazing" season.

I remember distinctly the experience of walking through the crowded tunnels and seeing a baseball field in its grandeur for the first time and sharing the experience of watching Darryl Strawberry and Gary Carter (my favorite players at the time) with my father. Sunday I had the opportunity to share my new love of the Fire with my father, completing some sort of sports fan spiritual circle.

The whole experience of watching a tough fought loss against Kansas City and seeing my father enjoy live soccer for the first time left me wondering. How can the Fire help create the same sort of shared experience and family tradition with fans in the Chicagoland area? Is there a way to artificially manufacture the reverence I had for Carter and Strawberry with a reverence for Mike Magee and Austin Berry? There was something superhuman about the players I loved growing up, which is something the Fire need to capture in their players today.

Getting young families to the Toyota Park is the first step as the Fire front office has clearly recognized. Family packages are a good place to start but further steps can probably be taken. Why not create partnerships with local schools? The school is a great place to reach a family and a great place to get the attention of people not already involved in the game. Through the schools and other organizations, the option to give away tickets for father and son nights, or family night promotions would be a good idea. This should be done in city schools, suburban schools, churches and non-profit organizations. We all see the empty seats week to week so why not fill them up with freebies or discounted tickets to people who might not ordinarily attend? Finding ways to get people to the park for the first time is half the battle.

Promotional gifts are another way that the Fire can promote family involvement. The club has done well at this in the past. Giving out promotional scarves to swing, banners to hold and flags to wave helps generate excitement for young kids who do not always have attention and focus on the match on the field. The more interactive the promotional gift the better. Anything that gets young fans behaving more like the long time fans in Section 8, the better.

The Fire can also make the experience of attending a match more exciting and comfortable for young families. As a fan who watches most of the matches I attend from the Harlem End, I appreciate the attention and consideration that the club gives to Section 8 and affiliate supporters groups. One way to channel that attention and recognition into new fans is through things like new fan giveaways, players taking time to meet with new fans or even Sparky cheering in a special section designed for new fans and young families. The parades at the beginning of the match play a huge part in accomplishing this goal for young kids, but the focus should also be on drawing in the parents. After all, the parents are the ones that will be bringing the kids back to the stadium.

Free drink offers, food deals, a little bit of intrigue and drama, not to mention better parking lot sanitation through more and cleaner portable bathrooms can all go a long way in capturing the interest of the parents. Get the back story of the players, coaches and history of the club out to the new fans at every opportunity and turn. Adults love a good story. Trivia texts and printed posters are a great start but tell the story of the club at every opportunity to capture the minds of the parents.

There also needs to be something epic about the experience for new fans to make them feel intrigued and connected. The Fire must find that thing that makes a fan fall in love that can't quite be put into words and is often indescribable. Commercial efforts have come a long way in the last three years to present the Fire players as something superhuman, which can help create this mystique. That is a step in the right direction. Another step that could be taken (which is easier said than done) would be to bring in a player that already has some of these superhuman qualities into the organization. A key designated international player can help spark interest and start young family traditions as easily as the best marketing effort. Fans need a name on t-shirt that sparks immediate recognition to capture that level of intrigue.

As Fans we must play our part in making the park family friendly and make sure everyone feels welcome. In some ways we must throw some of our egos out the window. It is easy to carry the feeling that "I was here first" but instead of being exclusive we must welcome families to the stadium with open arms. We need be considerate and thoughtful to their needs through our use of appropriate language and being sensitive to their views. As fans who love the club we should take time out to encourage participation by new fans and visiting groups that come to visit the stadium if we want to help the club we love expand. We must introduce ourselves to young families and make them feel that they are a part of ours.

In many ways a family tradition can not be manufactured through marketing and promotion, through player intrigue or even through fan efforts. Shared traditions and family involvement such as what I have with my father, like most elements of the beautiful game, must occur organically and naturally. With time and continued efforts of both the club and the fans young families can be turned into stalwart fans and lifelong attendees of matches.

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