Now and then, 1998 will feel like just yesterday. More often however, the fifteen years that have elapsed can feel so distant. It was the last time the Chicago Fire hoisted an MLS Cup, in just the league's third year in existence. The Fire played their home games in a vast sea of empty seats at Soldier Field. Although average attendance was just shy of 18,000 that season, the percentage of empty seats was hard to ignore. Fast-forward to 2006 and Fire faithful have done a decent job in filling the stadium up to near capacity until this year. An MLS Cup victory (or two) can transition Fire home games from near-sellouts to all but guaranteed sellouts on a consistent basis. It can put them much further up the sports totem pole, in arguably the nation's finest sports town.
Chicago loves a winner. The best recent evidence is the spike in attendance that began in 2008 with the Blackhawks. After over a decade of futility and low attendance, a franchise resurrection that led to a championship resulted in what are now regular sellouts at the United Center. It's safe to assume that if the Hawks at least remain somewhat competitive in the future, their Stanley Cup victory has won enough new fans that will remain through thick and thin. The Fire won't have the easiest time necessarily taking away fans from the Blackhawks, but they must follow their formula. Another United Center tenant hasn't been immune to dwindling crowds either.
Michael Jordan catapulted the Bulls popularity while leading the team to six championships. The franchise struggled with attendance in the immediate years following his retirement. As soon as the team became competitive again, the fans flocked to the arena. Jordan-mania and the championships won in the 90s built a loyal fan base for the Bulls. This can run parallel with how the Fire has been operating. They've had good designated players to put butts in the seats to an extent, but haven't won the championship that would create that consistent sold out audience. The Bulls may lend the biggest hand to the Fire in gaining fans if the Derrick Rose era ends without a championship. If their team is dismantled with the haste of the 1998-99 squad, the Fire may reap the benefits of a basketball fandom looking to turn to another Chicago team to fall in love with, even if temporarily. Again, that would depend on the Fire winning an MLS Cup, and standing out as a winning club rather than the last few years have shown.
Baseball is hands down the most polarizing sport in Chicago. Two teams, two sets of fans. The Cubs for years were notorious for a die-hard fan base that would show up to games win or lose. In recent years that turnout has died down fairly significantly. This dip in attendance is crucial for the Fire. Win now, and disenfranchised Cubs fans can find an alternative to a sun-drenched day of losing at Wrigley Field.
White Sox are ardent supporters of their club, much like Cubs fans. The difference with the south side loyalists is that they're much more inclined to pass on going to games if results haven't been favorable. A key with that fan base is they generally wait until the results do become favorable. Until then, the Blackhawks and Bulls are feasible options for them. Why? Because those teams have been winning.
A fair amount of immigrants who come to the U.S and Chicago specifically do tend to take in basketball or baseball to better assimilate into American culture. Those from Soccer crazed countries obviously never abandon their home club that they left behind or their passion for the sport. An MLS Cup winning team would be a draw to those new to the U.S looking to fill that soccer void they left back in their country of origin. Signing DPs of note would be a cherry on top much like Nowak and Podbrozny were to the Polish contingent of fans in 1998. Blanco and Pardo were a huge draw for Mexican fans in their years with the Fire. If they had won an MLS Cup, more of those fans would have remained loyal to the Fire; the club that brought them into MLS, and into their viewing pleasure.
Chicago will forever be a Bears town, as long as the NFL exists. I doubt the Blackhawks will ever suffer as terrible of a fan exodus as they did over 15 years ago. The Fire need to capitalize on what might eventually be the dynasty that never was with the Bulls. They need to pounce on a sports market riddled with fans of two inconsistent baseball teams: one that only draws if it's actually winning, the other that is slowly starting to lose its appeal after too long a time of winning nothing. An MLS Cup will remind a Chicago sports fan that not only is there a soccer team in town, but a damn good one. Make it two MLS Cups, and the club will ascend into the hierarchy of Chicago sports. Only then will 20,000 seats at Toyota Park not be enough. After an MLS Cup victory, consecutive sell-outs will become more common. After a second MLS Cup, you'll know (if you don't already) what it's like for a Bears or a Blackhawks fan to see tickets they want on Stubhub for double their face value. That's when you'll know the club has truly made it.