Typically I use the Around the Campfire column to provide information on upcoming events for the Chicago Fire, the Fire Foundation, the Independent Supporters Association (ISA) and the Chicago Soccer community at large. With this edition, I wanted to do something a little different. The initial goal of the column was to help expand the community by encouraging people to become more involved away from the pitch, while creating a sense of belonging amongst fans of the sport throughout the Chicagoland area. By improving participation in events throughout the city, the fan base can help increase the profile of the Fire in the community and ultimately improve attendance for the club for which I love.
The above argument seems sound and rational. After all, a better-exposed fan base will help to stimulate the interest of other Chicago sports fans, fans of soccer in general and the Chicagoland citizenship at large in all of the excitement surrounding the Fire. If people see Fire fans engaging in watch parties at local bars or meeting with players at summer festivals they are more likely to want to become involved in the Chicago Fire community.
Recently, I have felt a bit more pessimistic about this approach. I am of the opinion (simply based on my own personal experience) that if you can just get people out to a match, they are going to fall in love with the Fire. The problem is, at times, I can't get people to come to matches. Similarly, the Fire general attendance struggles at times to sell seats. If the Fire, along with the support of fans, can't get people out to matches, what makes us think we can get people to pay attention to fans at a watch party or to Sparky patting kids on the head at a local street festival?
As a loyal fan of the Fire I am always encouraging new people to come to matches, whether they are fans of the sport or or someone who's never considered soccer as an entertainment option. I use my two season tickets almost every match, but when I have extras (like when my wife can't attend) I offer to take people on my dime out to the park. My offer is always the same - I will drive people to the match so they can drink, tailgate and have a terrific time. It is shocking how many people will turn down a cost-free outing to Toyota Park.
The toughest nut for me to crack has been friends who are fans of the EPL. The same people who willingly stumble into a pub at 6:00 am on a Sunday to watch their favorite club play will not commit the time to support their local soccer club even once or twice a year. Even demonstrating the strong supporters culture the Fire have does not seem to overcome the perception of inferiority of the league. It makes me want to scream, "Come on people. There is live football right here in town!"
So what is the answer? How can we the fans influence the growth of the community to the benefit of the soccer club we love? Section 8 (s8c) the Independent Supporters Association (ISA) has had a number of good ideas recently:
- The ISA has begun passing out freebie tee-shirts to new fans that come out to the matches.
- Also, I was pleased to see that a second watch party last week against NYRB was added at Go Tavern, a Logan Square hipster dive bar. Go Tavern is a great example of a bar that does not typically draw soccer fans. A watch party there can expose the community to Chicago citizens not engaged in the soccer scene.
- The banner-building sessions that were held for kids earlier this season are also terrific ways to engage the next generation of fans.
However, there is still more that can be done. I believe the impetus is on each fan to make people feel welcome and sell the sport to the community at large - not necessarily the club and the ISA alone. Community-building works best when each engaged fan goes out of their way to make new people feel welcome. Creating an environment that respects the new and budding fan as well as someone who attended the first match in 1997 will help. Options for a family-friendly environment help. Fire fans can help the club grow.
As a member of a supporters group for both the Fire and my favorite EPL club, I have found that the best way to grow as a group is to take the time out to introduce myself to anyone new who walks in the door, whether at a bar watch party, at an event or at a special appearance by players. It was personable and welcoming people engaging me when I attended events that made me become as involved as I have been with the Fire and the sport in general.
It is my opinion that if the Fire fan base embraces new supporters in this way, the Fire will have no trouble selling seats. Human beings are social creatures, and the vast majority ultimately want to belong. By making each person feel like a participant in something greater, fans could have an even larger impact on Fire attendance than any advertising campaign put out by the Fire front office.
When I happen upon a special appearance - whether it is Sean Johnson signing autographs outside of an Aldi's or just a front-office person providing information on ticket packages at the Logan Square Arts festival - I make a point of stopping by, thanking them for being there and encouraging others I am with to check it out as well. People notice positive interactions and are much more likely to be intrigued by the Fire when they see other people enjoying themselves. That was always the goal of Around the Campfire.
To fans of the EPL, I am unrelenting. Every time I see them, I ask when they are coming out to a Fire match. Every time. Just because they say no once doesn't mean next time they won't say yes - even if it is just to get me to stop asking! I remind them that, even if the quality and style of play is not what they have come to expect by watching clubs in Europe, live football has an excitement level that cannot be achieved on TV. I also impress on them that the MLS's aggressive style of play can often be more interesting than a dull EPL passing stalemate.
Are all of these strategies enough? Not nearly. I challenge everyone to do their part - by bringing a friend to a match each week, by continuing to be a good steward of Chicago Fire soccer on a daily basis. If everyone brings a friend to each match they attend, the Fire will have no trouble selling out seats.
I welcome the readers to share their opinions on what fans can do to help build a stronger community, a more engaged fan base, and more sell-outs at Toyota Park.
Until we figure it out, here are a few upcoming activities in the Chicago Fire and Chicago soccer communities that people can engage the Chicago Soccer community.
|Tues, May 27||6:30 p.m.||Sean Johnson guest bartending & USMNT watch party||AJ Hudson's, 3801 N Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL 60613|
|Sat, May 31||TBA||Dia del Nino||UIC Pavilion|
|Wed, June 4||7 p.m.- 9 p.m.||Chicago Red Stars v. Washington Spirit||Village of Lisle - Benedictine University Sports Complex|
|Thur, June 5||7 p.m.- 9 p.m.||Section 8 Annual Board Meeting||Galway Arms Public House, 2442 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614|
|Sun, June 8||Noon||The Art of Support||Comfort Station, 2579 N Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL|
|Sat, June 14||TBA||Fire Brews & Bites||Additional details available soon|
|Sun, June 15||1 p.m.- 3 p.m.||Chicago Red Stars v. Sky Blue FC||Village of Lisle - Benedictine University Sports Complex|
|Thurs, Aug 7||TBA||Fourth Annual White Party||Additional details available soon|