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Interview with Section 8 Chicago President Tom Dunmore

Section 8 Chicago President Tom Dunmore was kind enough to recently spend some time with HTIOT to answer some questions about the resounding success of Section 8 season ticket sales in 2011.  If you are still interested, your prorated season ticket for just $180 is a click away.  1,000 season ticket holders in Section 8 is a very real possibility and you could even be the one that puts Section 8 over that milestone. 

I should note that our interview took place prior to the Portland Timbers game so I could not ask Tom any questions related to that game, the Los Angeles game, or about the price of a season ticket in Section 8 Chicago being prorated to its current $180 instead of $190.  Our first exchange is below and the rest of it is after the break.

Tweed Thornton: You were born in Brighton, England.  What part of America would you say is most ‘Brightonish’?

Tom Dunmore: That’s probably San Francisco.  Brighton is a very impressive and alternative place.  San Francisco is the most comparable. 

TT: That's interesting, I thought Brighton was kind of a small town though.

TD: It’s a city, probably about a quarter of a million people.  About half as many people as San Francisco’s urban population.  Obviously small compared to London or Chicago.  It’s a big urban place though. 

TT: Fair enough, I believe the Brighton soccer team is doing quite well this year?

TD: Top of the league right now. There’s a new stadium opening next season.  It’s taken 14 years.  The planning has been in the works for that long.  The last one was demolished 14 years ago.  It’s been a long time coming.  Things are on the up.  We’ve got a rich investor in charge of the team now, a local guy who has made his money in the gambling industry.  He is putting money back into the team.  We are reaping the rewards there so to speak.

TT: Did you have any soccer heroes growing up?  Maybe from Brighton?  Other teams in England?

TD: In my first year going to a lot of Brighton games we had this Irish player named John Byrne.  He played for the Irish national team.  He was a very good skillful forward.  We did very well that year and he was my favorite player locally.  On TV, I’d watch the likes of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne and that era of English players.  Internationally, Michel Platini in the 1980s and Maradona of course, he was a bit of a divisive figure among England fans because of the handball vs. England in the World Cup but still an amazing player to watch.  The Dutch team of ’88 won the European Championships, they were a fantastic team to watch.  I was a big fan of Marco Van Basten playing forward and Ruud Gullit the former LA Galaxy coach was a fantastic driving force at the time in a midfield kind of role.

TT: You are talking about a lot of European players, when did you move to the United States?

TD: About 11 years ago.

TT: When did you move to Chicago?  At the same time?

TD: I was actually in San Francisco first briefly before but I got to Chicago in 2001 so now almost 10 years ago.

TT: You moved the first time but not since.  What has kept you here in Chicago?

TD: I was in school a long time. That was one reason to stay.  I like Chicago a lot.  I didn’t know much about it when I moved here to be honest… outside of the Untouchables and Al Capone and all that kind of stuff.  I discovered it’s a pretty awesome city with a great mix of urban life.  It’s not quite as claustrophobic as New York or London, which I like.  And a couple of years ago I got married to someone who was not born here but lived in Chicago for a long time.  So yeah, I have a pretty good reason to stay here now.

TT: That certainly makes sense there.  At what point did you become involved with the Chicago Fire?

TD: I started going to games when they played in Naperville.  It was difficult to get out there, obviously a long way from the city.  I lived on the south side of the city, it was tricky to get out there too often.  I went to some games when they moved back to Soldier Field but it was really only when Toyota Park opened that I become a season ticket holder and started going to games all the time.  I got to know some of the fans really well.  I became involved with Section 8, helping with some of those activities there and things kind of snowballed from there pretty quickly. 

TT: Yeah, how does one go from associating Chicago solely with Al Capone to becoming the President of Section 8 Chicago?  What inspired you there?

TD: Living here for numerous years I quickly learned about the city.  It’s a very interesting city historically, geographically, and culturally and the Fire are a great institution in the city.  I’m obviously a big soccer fan so I was very interested in the local team.  I think the Fire have a great identity that’s tied to the city unlike a lot of American sports teams.  The Bulls are tied to the city now but the name you could put anywhere.  The Fire have an interesting name and have a great fan base as well.  You see the level of passion in the fans that you don’t see at other events in the United States outside of maybe college sports.  In the early years of the MLS, it was really only Chicago and D.C. that had that kind of atmosphere.  Toronto came along in 2007.  The Fire had something pretty special going on and I wanted to be a part of it and help it grow.    

TT: What has been the hardest part of being President since you assumed the role? 

TD: It is an extremely time consuming role.  Probably only the other board members of Section 8 realize that amount of time it takes up.  It can be exhausting at times.  The hardest part is the sheer amount of time you have to commit to do a half decent job, all the bits and elements of organizing.  Although it’s great to get to know so many great people.  You get the chance to meet a lot of interesting people who are passionate about their team and the city.  A lot of them are really fun to hang out with.  A lot of them are really smart.  You meet a very diverse group of people that you otherwise would never be in touch with.  No doubt it is hard at times but it is very rewarding and fun too. 

TT: What was the tipping point for you of committing to the goal of going after 800 season ticket holders in Section 8?

TD: We had already seen a lot of growth from the numbers from 2006.  It was 89 and then we had a big jump the next couple of years which shows potential to take off.  We knew that with there being huge numbers in Section 8 over the years for game crowds of 500 to over 1,000 people being in there, it was a matter of deciding that we could take those people and get them to commit to season tickets.  Rather than coming to 5 or 10 games a year, we could come up with an attractive package to help them make that leap to be season ticket holders and coming every game.  If you can’t make it to every game, you can exchange tickets and bring friends and so on.  The idea was we have all these people, like over 2,000 in Section 8 for the 2009 playoffs, how come we can’t have 800 every game?  The Fire moved forward with a campaign plan, there was a campaign the previous year and we saw a jump but nothing like we’ve seen this year.  It just seemed logical that we had already grown this much without much sustained effort on the season ticket front, we had seen a lot of people coming out, and the number of people in Section 8 growing.  We just need to explain to people what a great deal season tickets are not just financially but if you are a Fire fan part of that should be owning a season ticket and investing in the club and Section 8 and being part of the growth of it.

TT: Now even in early March when season tickets were only at around 500, I was getting skeptical myself.  Did you expect the numbers to roll in the way that they did?  Was there an epiphany moment in March when you realized that this was going to happen?

TD: I always thought there would be a big acceleration around when the season started.  Most people wait to renew until the last minute, it’s human nature.  They want to see what players are going to be on the team.  The Fire had a quiet off-season overall, not exactly household names.  It changed the dynamic a bit.  If the Fire would have made some big signings in November or if the team had made the playoffs the year before, the numbers might have been bigger early on.  That didn’t happen so I think a lot of people were sitting waiting to see what was going to happen.  The schedule came out and people realized they could make it to a number of games.  I wasn’t shocked that they jumped up like that.

TT: Now that you have the 800, what are the big challenges in maintaining that number?

TD: Big challenges are making sure the games are a lot of fun in Section 8.  The atmosphere need to have a lot of people signing and jumping.  We don’t just want people for the sake of having people, we want people to be vibrant supporters and active.  We’ve seen it tail off when too many people don’t know the songs.  Without people signing, waving flags, jumping, that could damper things.  We are trying to come up with creative ways of encouraging that culture and making sure people are aware of the songs and they know the lyrics.  The big challenge is make sure those 800 people are keeping with the traditions of Section 8.

TT: If I’m still on the fence as someone who is thinking of buying a season ticket, what is the big selling point as to why I should commit to go ‘All-In’ if you will.

TD: If you look at it in a purely monetary view, $190 for 19 games, that's $10 a game.  That includes the Man U game which is going to be around $50.  Financially even if you only make it to 10 games, it’s a no-brainer.  Bring friends to a few games after you use the exchange program.  The second point is to be a part of the growth of your local team.  You can become a part of the Fire as they become a dominant part of the league again and establish themselves along the Blackhawks and the Bulls in the next decade or two.  The Bears and what not might be out of reach.  To get to that standing would take a lot of season ticket holders and a lot of investment from fans and ownership and players buying in and so on.  Overall for this year, it's financially good because it will save you money and also good because you want your local club to be the best in the league and be as strong as it can be in the city.

TT: Are there other supporters groups around the league that you can point to and find an aspect to strive to do, with of course the idea of doing it better and making it your own?

TD: I think we are always looking around the league and seeing what other groups are doing.  We have been inspired somewhat by Timbers Army in the last few years.  They have learned some things from us in terms of organization and now they are entering MLS and they are really organized.  They had a great season ticket campaign that we took a couple of pointers from.  Their tifo displays, their visual support has been great especially for supporting a team in a lower level league.  I’m excited to see what they will do now that they have a team in the MLS.  Otherwise, D.C., you always have to respect what they have going.  They had a terrible year last year but they’ve come out of the gate strong in the stands this year regardless.  They have been doing it longer than anyone so you have to respect their continuity.

TT: If Section 8 was given $1M tomorrow, what would you advise investing that money in?  What is the number one priority?

TD: I think it is important that more people in Chicago know who we are and what we are doing so I would put it into marketing in bars, newspapers, etc.  I don’t think people know what a great time it is in Section 8 and at Fire games, not just in Section 8 but the atmosphere and fun of supporting your local team in the flesh instead of going to the pub watching Liverpool in the morning.  That is fine but come out to the game in the afternoon too at Toyota Park.  Our mission is to keep growing awareness so $1M would go quite a long way in terms of growing awareness.

TT: Is there any back story to Peter Wilt becoming the 800th season ticket holder in Section 8?

TD: Sure, Peter Wilt was appropriate because Peter was a driving force in Section 8 getting off the ground from Day 1 with him being the General Manager of the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field.  He made sure fans were allowed to bang drums and bring flags and that was really only happening in D.C. and a few other places.  Chicago really raised the bar thanks to Peter’s foresight and willingness to work with other supporters groups dealing with security.  You are talking about Solider Field staff who are encountering something pretty alien with a bunch of soccer fans waving flags and letting off smoke bombs.  Without Peter, Section 8 might have died an early death.  He made sure it continued in Naperville when the team moved there.  His dedication to the Fire never wavered despite his firing by the Fire.  You have to have respect for that and it was very appropriate for him to be the 800th Season Ticket Holder.

TT: Speaking of Peter Wilt, I would remiss if I didn’t ask a little about the Chicago Riot after HTIOT covered the team and you are the Vice-President of the team.  What was your favorite thing about the 2010-2011 Chicago Riot season?

TD: Finishing it?

TT: Well of course besides that.

TD: No, I mean we faced mountains getting through the season in terms of starting the team given the resources and the time we had.  To get through it, and see a lot of the smiling faces throughout the season, it was a lot of fun.  We just completed a fan survey and I was really pleased to see most people had a great time based on their ratings on the experience of the games and customer service and all of that.  I was very pleased to see that despite all the obstacles we faced, people had a really good enjoyable time at Riot games.  We won some, we were close in a bunch more, it was fun to see the team come together.  We had Ante Cop’s legendary winning goal against Baltimore.  That was obviously a high point to the season, well two of them actually.  One home and one away.  There were some tough moments we got through as a club.  The head coach, Jeff Kraft, did a fantastic job keeping the team together and Peter took care of everything.  Getting through the season with some some style and some succes was rewarding.

TT: Have you been able to apply any of your experience with the Riot to your work with Section 8 Chicago?

TD: Yeah, absolutely, it gave some of the view from the other side of the fence if it were.  Being in the front office, working with stadiums, working with fans in a different way rather than being a pure advocate.  I saw both sides from time to time.  That helps me with working with the Fire after seeing more front office.  I saw some of the sheer pressure and time constraints they face and the difficulties teams have in soccer.  This definitely helps.  Speaking of things, making connections.

TT: What do the Riot have on tap for the 2011-2012 season?

TD: Well we are putting the finishing touches on our plans.  I can’t say too much but we are still seeking some more investors and we already have some very interested parties.  We are trying to put some packages together so that we can come back and we can have more resources and more time.  We can set a standard I hope as a real top class organization.  I think with the investors and the time, we will be able to do that. It is still up in the air and Peter is working on it as I speak.  We will know more in the next few weeks.

TT: Tracking back to Section 8, few fans get involved in Section 8 and MLS the same way they do in NFL, MLB, NBA, & NHL, do you think it is just an American thing?  Are there big supporters groups in Europe for other sports like basketball or hockey?

TD: Some of the basketball and hockey teams in Eastern Europe have supporters groups that are just as passionate and sometimes crazier than their soccer counterparts.  I guess here, Kansas City is going for the model of being a sporting club with different wings for a soccer team and other sports.  That is a tradition in some parts of Europe where you have a soccer team, a basketball team, a hockey team so there is more crossover on how you support the team with it all being part of the same club.  In England, soccer is unique.  You don’t see that kind of fan support in cricket or rugby.  It is really something to do with the energy and the flow of soccer games.  It really gets fans involved. 

TT: I’ve always thought it had something to do with the fact that soccer continues the entire time and it is a shorter game.  It requires less of the fans.

TD: Yeah, it would be hard to do what we do in Section 8 during a whole baseball game.  A few of us went to a White Sox game last year and took some flags and some drums and it was fun but after about four innings we kind of tired and there wasn’t a lot of activity going on.  It’s hard when sports have a lot of breaks. 

TT: You also run into the ingrained culture of baseball.  I wonder if you had any fans that ran into your actions with a negative reaction.

TD: The White Sox did get a few complaints.  That was interesting.  Then again, the Fire still get some complaints about Section 8.  Some people don’t want to hear a drum or noise.  I don’t know, maybe it isn’t the right thing for baseball.  It was one out of 81home games though.  I figured we would give it a shot.  There actually use to be quite an active Sox supporters’ group in the 70’s.  They did a similar thing.  My understanding is that fans were more active in American sports earlier in their existence but the introduction of the video board and all the other things like food, concession stands and the other activities that go on can turn fans into passive drones who just drop their dollars and don't like the more enthusiastic fans.  In college sports you see a lot of activity.  You can argue that soccer has more in common with some of the passionate support you see in college basketball or whatever.  There are some similarities there.  It tends to be a little more team organized but still there are some similarities for sure. 

TT: I had someone bring up college basketball fans when I was describing Section 8 to someone who was unfamiliar with soccer supporters groups.  It was weird because I had never thought about college basketball fans being like that and they had never thought about college basketball fans being like soccer fans.  It was an interesting discussion.  I hadn’t thought about that before.  Back in the questions, you talked about the 70’s White Sox Supporters, are there any legendary fans that inspire you?

TD: With the Fire you have the guys who founded Section 8 and the supporters groups that preceded that.  Barn Burners, Polish Ultras, obviously they were doing something that was really hard to do.  They introducing that kind of culture to sport based in the US.  I don't know all their names so I'm not going to single anyone out. 

TT: No, that's fair enough.  I asked Mike Ernst a parallel question about if he admired any legendary sports promoters like Bill Veeck.

TD: Veeck is actually a big hero of Peter [Wilt]’s and coincidentally it was Bill Veeck’s grandson NightTrain who currently works for the White Sox that encouraged us to show up and do that Sox Supporters thing I mentioned earlier.

TT: Wait, that was Veeck’s grandson that encouraged you to show up as Sox Supporters? 

TD: Yeah, yeah, he’s a Fire fan actually.  He can’t make it a lot of the games since he works for the Sox but he is a friend of Peter’s as well.  He organized us to come out with the drums and flags.  He wanted to see what element that would bring to a Sox game.  That’s an interesting twist on the Bill Veeck story.

TT: Agreed, that came out well.  I have to move onto a lighting round now.  What are your thoughts of ketchup as a condiment?

TD: I don’t like it on anything let alone a hot dog.

TT: Great answer.  Your thoughts on Malort?

TD: Until a trip to Peoria I would have said that it should be consumed with abandon but based on some of the activities that followed some consumption on the bus for two hours, I'd say that one should only drink it if one is a consummate Malort professional.

TT: The thing you miss most about England?

TD: It’s funny because when I was a kid I really didn’t like going to the countryside or at least I didn’t think I did.  It seemed boring compared to the city but the English countryside is very, very beautiful and different compared to the nature around Chicago.  I definitely miss going out to the countryside and the cute pubs and so on.

TT: When England plays the United States, who do you root for?

TD: England

TT: If you lived in the United States, but not Chicago, where would you want to live?

TD: Probably California, I like San Francisco a lot, Berkley/Bay Area.  Fantastic culture and much nicer weather. 

TT: Favorite Chicago neighborhood?

TD: Where I live, Pilsen  It’s very diverse, great location.  Fantastic to see the murals on the walls.  It will interesting to see how it continues to develop but right now it is a great place to live.

TT: Final question, do you prefer San Francisco Fog or Alaskan Aurora Borealis?

TD: I’m going to have to go with San Francisco Fog.  It seems to be making a big push this year.

TT: Tom, thank you for your time and all your efforts.  As you mentioned, time is the hardest thing about being President of Section 8 Chicago and we appreciate you talking at length.  Final thoughts?

TD: I would just say it has been really great to work with the front office, the supporters, Section 8 board members were most critical, Mario, Giaco, Joel, Josh, Josue, Dan, Chow even!  Everyone was crucial to making this work.  Ben Burton played a big role working with us in the early months and coming up with a comprehensive plan.  Once we got going, it was amazing to see the dozens if not hundreds of fans taking some time out of their day to promote Section 8 season tickets through sending E-mails or posting on Facebook or whatever.  The reason it worked wasn't because they spent money on marketing which they really didn't, they did it through word of mouth and through passion. It's interesting, you could probably spend $1M and get maybe a little more in terms of pure numbers but we didn't spend that and we achieved a lot and got more roots rather than just dropping money.  I think that's pretty cool as a community that we grew this way.