The U.S. Open Cup tournament is always of great importance to the most loyal Fire fans. The knockout tourney, which the Fire have won four times, is the longest-running soccer tournament in North America. Fire faithful who know the club history understand the intrinsic value of a shot at silverware and the CONCACAF Champions League.
On the US Open Cup match against the Charlotte Independence a week ago, the Fire quickly went down to the USL club 0-1 in the seventh minute. Although the Fire would go on to win, the fans seemed to feel disdain for such a poor performance early in the match. Interestingly, that disdain was never directed at the players - instead, the target was club ownership.
The few hundred hardy souls who made the trek to Bridgeview on last Tuesday night were greeted by a giant banner lining the back wall on the eastern edge of the section. #Hauptmanout, it read. The Twitter hashtag referenced in the sign has quickly become a rallying cry for fans fed up with all that is wrong within the Fire organization - the constant turnover, the shoddy gameday experience, and a losing team, to boot. As the loyal fan base struggles to support a product that is less than satisfactory, they've found a focus for their vitriol: Absentee owner Andrew Hauptman.
Here is sampling of the bitterness on offer under the #Hauptmanout hashtag:
Tuesday night the cheers rang through the section with nearly everyone participating including capos and even chairman Dan Martin singing. It was to the tune of ‘Vamos Chicago’. "Hauptman out!" they sang: "Andrew Hauptman out, Andrew Hauptman out, Andrew Hauptman out." The song rallied for at least 10 minutes. At one point the capo even flipped off the upper reaches of the stadium as if sending the hatred right to the top. A two pole banner was unfurled. The image was of former Fire staffer Jeff Crandall in profile with one word to communicate its message: "Tonight". As the two-pole went up the song made a slight shift in message: "Andrew Hauptman out, Jeff Crandall in."
This is not the first time a #Hauptmanout banner has appeared at Toyota Park. It is, however, the first time it has appeared right in the Harlem End, the home of Section 8. This is also not the first time an "Andrew Hauptman out!" chant has occurred. It was the first time such a focused effort was made to send a clear and concise message to Fire ownership: We don't want you anymore.
The distaste amongst fans for Fire Owner Andrew Hauptman is not a new phenomenon. Already considered an absentee owner unwilling to spend to create a world-class club in Chicago, in August of 2013 Hauptman took the brunt of the fans' anger after the notorious 'Editorial' penned by then-Fire Director of Communication Dan Lobring. That editorial - which was published on the club website, where it remained for more than a year - was perceived as an attack on the demands of the fan base, and was considered by most the direct voice of ownership. Hauptman's reputation, already shaky, has never recovered from the editorial. The ensuing perception is one of Hauptman as a thin-skinned meddler, a man who uses his control of the purse strings to shore up his ego, to the detriment of the work of his technical and operations staff.
There is no doubt that there is a certain catharsis to spewing scorn and derision at ownership. It feels good to fight back against lousy ownership. It gives hope for a better tomorrow and provides satisfaction to an urge to do something. Without a second thought, I joined in with the chants and song against Hauptman. There is a joy that comes from fighting back, from speaking the truth to power. This is particularly impactful when the message is coming from the most loyal supporters of the Fire - the fans that come out rain or shine, that were here when almost no one else was for a weekday USOC match. It is clear that the message is not from lack of love of the club, as some would lead other fans to believe, but as a hope for something better.
What remains to be seen is what impact the fan base can have. Adding voices and organizing grassroots campaigns while creating an organized message to ownership will certainly let Hauptman know how the fans feel. How that message alone forces the hand of Hauptman to sell the club is not as obvious.
It certainly feels like there is a metaphorical storming of the Bastille in the works by the most loyal of fans. The Fire faithful are angry. They want an owner who seems to care about the success of his franchise. What form that anger takes - letter campaigns? boycotts? a media campaign? - is unclear. What is clear is that the Fire's most loyal fans are looking for creative ways to express their frustration with the club's absentee ownership.
Be careful what you wish for
However, the provoked fan base will have to be careful what it wishes for. There is no guarantee that any new regime will better than the Hauptman one. When the French overtook the throne, years of turmoil that followed, leading to disorganization on what to do with the deposed King and attacks from without France by countries enraged about the dethroned monarchy. There is no saying how the MLS might react to concerted pressure about regime change. The last thing fans want is for the Fire to become the next Chivas USA.
The Fire’s history is too rich to throw out and replace. What the Fire need is a little Napoleon to swoop in an pick up the shattered pieces of the Franchise. Only a new owner that brings structure, commitment and a willingness to succeed can bring fans what they truly want, a successful club.
It will also be difficult to sell a club forced into the far reaches of Bridgeview to play matches in front of a thinning and frustrated fan base, especially if fans want it to be sold to a desirable owner. Until the Fire appear to be a better investment for a new buyer, it might be difficult to attract an owner that is any better than Hauptman. Making the Chicago Fire appear a good investment at this juncture might be a difficult task, given their ticket sales, the financial albatross that is Toyota Park, and the club's low stature in the Chicago market and in MLS.
It may be that what fans truly want is a new beginning . Fire fans want a return to the success of the 90’s and 2000’s where the Fire were truly great. Increasingly, it appears the Fire will not achieve these goals until Andrew Hauptman can be replaced by an owner who the fans can once again support.