Last Thursday the Montreal Impact announced a means to something many Chicago Fire fans have pined for: some semblance of transparency. Impact President Joey Saputo revealed plans to apply "club member" status to season ticket holders. The club will hold annual meetings with club members to discuss anything from scheduling to stadium services.
A number of Fire fans seek improved transparency and communication with the front office. Understandable. Within that number are the ones who can be likened to Wile E. Coyote. Not only do they seek the success at the end of the chase, they want the ACME manual on how it’s done; inside scoop on transfer targets and contract negotiations would make up that manual. For the front office to give up their competitive edge to satisfy the curiosity of a select number of fans simply isn’t feasible. Montreal isn’t looking to do it, and we can’t ever expect it.
As for a majority of the fans, they expect to be brought in on the basics – especially season ticket holders. What Montreal is doing now, is allaying the potential of supporter unrest when the success goes away and a down year subdues fan enthusiasm. Unfortunately for the Fire franchise, they hit a rough patch in recent years and didn’t have an answer as to why things went poorly.
If what Montreal is trying to accomplish goes beyond just pandering to the audience, then they’re onto something. Assuming a club has control over scheduling (weekdays vs weekends, start time on games not nationally televised, etc) then the fans are an obvious voice that need to be heard. They control the gate and season ticket sales.
EDIT: In a complete oversight, I neglected to mention the benefit afforded to club level season ticket holders of the Fire. They are in fact invited to quarterly meetings by the club. My idea basically borrows from Montreal's announced plan, and extends it to all season ticket holders on a bi-annual basis. I didn't intend to make it seem like the Fire leave all their season ticket holders in the dark and don't take their input seriously.
Should the Fire front office follow through with a similar plan, here is what I think they should do:
Bi-annual meetings- The front office should have meetings with the club members - or whatever label the Fire chooses - twice a year. As I alluded to earlier, they don’t have to give away all their trade secrets, but it would be nice to hear what the goals are. How far under the cap are they? How many players can they realistically afford to bring in? Can we expect any academy players to be brought up to the senior level? A simple yes or no would suffice there; the more honest, the better.
Then comes the part where the club members can really announce their presence. A survey can be taken to gauge the interest in weeknight games and if Sunday or Saturday games are preferred. Are the concessions to mostly everyone’s liking, or are there items that should be added or removed? Can the team store become a more visible, emphasized aspect of Toyota Park? Perhaps they add some larger signage above the store and get rid of the garage sale style tent that is right in front of it. Maybe a larger quantity of Fire player jerseys should be available as opposed to Cristiano Ronaldo t-shirts. (You can probably tell now where my gripe is directed.)
An initial meeting prior to the start of the season, or at the end of a season can be held to establish these suggestions and recommendations by the fans. A mid-season meeting can then be held to check the progress of any upgrades or overhauls that were agreed upon in the initial meeting. Logically, an initial meeting might be best served at the end of a season. That would give the front office more time to set the wheels in motion on their plans in time for the following year.
Do not restrict club membership- Those who purchase 10-game plans should also be invited to one of the meetings. They very well could become season ticket holders themselves down the line. An opportunity to feel like they’re truly part of the club could lead them to becoming season ticket holders, which the club puts a premium on increasing.
Let us not forget about the many fans, both near and far who for a multitude of reasons can’t commit to season tickets. After the surveys are gathered at a meeting, the results can be e-mailed, tweeted, and put up on the website for single game attendees and re-located fans to see. If they disagree with what the minority of fans had decided at these meetings, they would have every right to contact the club and voice their difference.
For what it’s worth, the Chicago Fire do a lot for their fans. The Austin Berry bobble-head experience deserved praise. Nobody can complain about that. It was put to a vote for all fans, and the first 7,500 fans at the game on July 7 received one. Season ticket holders are privileged to attend a team meet, which I did this past Sunday. It seemed like everybody was happy with the pace that the lines were moving at, but it involved walking up and down a lot of steps on a very hot day. By the end of it, I was glad I went, and I really could not complain. But if club memberships were to come to fruition at Toyota Park, one suggestion I would make is holding these meet the team events indoors. Better yet, sell tickets to it for the public and make it an all-day event, similar to the weekend conventions held by teams in the bigger sports.
It couldn’t hurt to follow the path of the Montreal Impact. As long as the Fire don’t use it to disguise indifference as fan involvement, it’ll work. The feedback received should be taken seriously, and if progress can’t be made on requested changes, an explanation should be given. This can only help to grow the club and the fan base, as it’s purely voluntary on the fans end. If you don’t want to attend the meetings, don’t.
The Fire will be the only major team in Chicago with this much emphasis on the fan, and at a reasonable price. So many have been priced out of Bears games and Hawks games, and left confused and out of the loop by Cubs and White Sox management. This is a chance for the ownership to hit back at a lot of the criticism they’ve received for being veiled and to an extent, uninterested. Whether you share those criticisms or disagree with a lot of them, much like I do, an opportunity to be more involved in the Fire’s decision making is nothing to scoff at.
Montreal Impact get a tip of the hat for this barrier breaking move. As I sit in the stands on August 10 when the Fire welcome their distant neighbors to the north, I’ll still boo them gleefully. I’ll also gaze at the crest on their uniforms, and think to myself: That’s a club that is doing things the right way, and so should we.