The coolers moaned in the dimly lit room as I sat, circled with others around the speaker, all of us straining to hear what he was saying in his soft, calm voice. We were in the back room at the Atlantic Bar and Grill, and I was wondering what on earth I was doing there. The speaker was Atul Khosla, known by the Chicago Fire fan base as AK, and he is the Chief Operating Officer for the Chicago Fire.
I didn't even want to put on a kit and leave the house that day. Sure, I would watch the match, but it would be much better from the comfort of home, sitting on the comfort of my couch, curled comfortably up next to my wife and cat. When I discovered that the official Section 8 watch party for the Aug. 16 match against the Philadelphia Union was at the Atlantic, I felt obligated to go. As one of the founding members of Atlantic Fire Brigade supporters group, I knew that it was getting increasingly more difficult getting members to come out to watch a match - but the Atlantic was our home turf.
AK had announced he would be stopping in before the watch party to open up a dialogue and answer questions for the disgruntled fan base. The visit was made to counteract the growing #HauptmanOut movement, which asks the (perceived) absentee owner of the Fire to sell the club.. Ideally, fans wanted the club sold to an owner who shares the values traditionally associated with the club by the fans.
AK was cordial and interactive, but elusive in his responses in a way that business men tend to be when confronted with the disappointing reality of their product. Fans tossed question after question at AK - Why have the Fire’s designated players been so ineffective? How are the Fire going to compete with other more successful clubs? - but it all boiled down to two questions: Why are you here? and, What are you going to do to make the Fire better?
Andrew Hauptman is the co-chair of Andell Inc., a holdings and investment company which owns the Chicago Fire. As the founder of Andell Inc., Hauptman has chosen to act as both owner and Chairman of the Chicago Fire. The questions AK was trying to dodge were clearly directed more at ownership. So why was the COO tasked with fielding them?
A different approach
My frustration level is right there with everyone else in the fan base, even though I have always felt a bit mixed on the #HauptmanOut movement. I agree that a change needs to occur, for sure. I would love nothing more than a new ownership group committed to growing the club, in the style of Sporting Kansas City, Columbus or other midwest clubs. However, I am not sure if telling the owner to "bugger off" accomplishes that goal. Clearly, there is much more depth to #HauptmanOut than just "get lost, Andy," but the message has reached deaf ears in the front office at this juncture.
The thing fans have to realize is Andell, Inc is a holding and investment company. Their sole purpose is to purchase investments, hold them while they grow, and sell at a higher price. If the Fire fan base are ever to be free of Hauptman one of two possibilities would have to occur: 1.) The Fire become an even more successful business and become an attractive target for a rich vanity owner who cares about the success of the club on the pitch; or 2.) The Fire become so unsuccessful that Andell, Inc. cuts its losses and sells its investment at a loss.
However, I would not advocate supporting option two by trying to push ownership out by boycott and refusal to buy tickets. I recently heard the suggestion that no fans purchase 2016 season tickets until a change occurs, and there's no question that would make a statement. Unfortunately, ticket sales are just one of many revenue streams for the Chicago Fire. Television money, merchandise, food, etc. are all money-makers for the Fire. Especially with the MLS as a collective unit growing in profits for television rights, the Fire could easily laugh off the lack of sale of season tickets.
There's also the fear that any investor wanting to purchase the club will view boycotts and protests as a fan base in turmoil and will not want any part of the investment.
Counter-intuitively, the best way to get rid of Andrew Hauptman might be to help the Fire grow bigger as an investment, thereby hastening the day he can make his profit and "bugger off." This is why encouragement to ownership to improve the club as a profitable business makes some sense ("look, Hauptman, you can make more money if this club does well, and we don't think you are accomplishing that now") but there may need to be other ways to support improvement efforts to seek a more desirable owner as well. Which brings us to the next part of the story.
The Blackout & the tourists
Fast forward to the next home match against the Colorado Rapids on August 22nd. Key members of the Hauptman Out movement and Section 8 Chicago organized a "Blackout" of the match. HTIOT were in full support of the protest. As part of the protest, Section 8 wrapped black banners around the capo stand and participated in a 90-minute tailgate in the parking lot when the match went on. Fans were asked to wear black and wait to enter the match until the end of the game when giant black banners were to be flown.
What happened next led many in the #HauptmanOut movement to assume the front office was acting to counter the protest from the very top. Toyota Park was nearly packed for the game, which was a puzzler, as Colorado is not the kind of opponent that usually drives demand. Yet somehow there were enough people to nearly fill the Harlem End despite the absence of most of the long-term denizens of those sections. The way it was perceived by many in the movement, in order to counteract the protest, the Chicago Fire went on ticket sale overdrive.
The Fire did it by creating an exceptionally good deals on Groupon and Living Social, while also marketing to season ticket holders to use their extra tickets for the game in order to draw what the Fire faithful would call "tourists" to the Toyota Park to fill up the stadium. In addition, fans argued that the Fire's ushers were encouraging fans with promotional tickets to move into the Harlem end to fill up the seats of the protesters.
Despite the theorized conspiracy, the ticket sales likely had nothing to do with the blackout. Rumor has spilled out of the Fire organization that there was a potential kit sponsor visiting during the Colorado game, which spurred ticket-sales activity far in advance of the plan for the protest. In actuality, the Fire may not have been trying to counter act the protest so much as fill up seats for a potential sponsor. The high-profile Saturday match that was so attractive to the #HauptmanOut movement as a blackout date may just have had the same appeal to a front office desperate to sell a news sponsor on the club.
Regardless, I was in the stadium and not at the tailgate. I did witness ushers encouraging fans to fill in the empty space in the Harlem End, filling in where Section 8 usually stands. For the front office, the sell-out crowd had a happy side effect: Boosted sales meant it was easy for the Fire to gloss over the protest by shifting bodies.
Either way, the Harlem End appeared just as full during the blackout as it had previously, albeit without the singing and cheering. When the blackout protesters entered and ran up their black banners in silence, the new fans had no inkling what their significance was, simply passing them around the stadium joyfully, until Monterrey Security arrived to tear them apart.
Where was this effort before?
I, as a fan, was outraged by the Fire’s filling up the stadium, but for a very different reason than as counter-protest. I was outraged that the Fire front office and ticket reps apparently had the tools all along to fill up Toyota Park but were only galvanized to sell those tickets when faced with a potential influx of money from a sponsorship. The message here, in my perspective, is that the Fire can sell out a stadium to attract a sponsor or to give the finger to the most loyal of fans (depending on your perspective), but not to make money for the club or to support the players.
In reality, more ticket deals such as the Groupon offer are exactly what the Fire needs to do to build the fan base. The money is not made on tickets for the Fire. Each new fan who comes to a match has the potential to bring more profit to the club when that person buys beer from the vendors, food from the concessions and souvenirs from the shop. If they have a good time then they also provide increased viewer ship on the television coverage and come back and spend more at a later time. If free or low cost tickets are what it takes to make a profit and increase the fan base that is what should be done.
Obviously there is more to this problem than sales. The Fire front office has to scout better, make better decisions on designated players, do a MUCH better job of hiring the right role player to play along the stars and quite simply put a better product on the field. The Fire also need to come up with some solution about the Toyota Park albatross and find new ways to get fans to the gates. Still the best chance fans have of getting the owner they want is by helping this one we are stuck with to earn the figure he is looking for.
How can we help?
So what part can the fans play here? Is there a way that fans can help the Chicago Fire as a product improve? I am not suggesting that we as fans start calling frustrated fans "enemy of the Fire" or start offering fellatio to the front office. However, there must be things we can do as a collective fan base that both holds the front office’s feet to the Fire while continuing our work as fans to grow the fan base.*
However, to bring this story back to the beginning, fans need to continue to let the front office know in a constructive way how dissatisfied they are with the product they have provided to us. The Fire need to know that more is needed to sustain an enthusiastic fan base. The approach we as fans need to take, though, is not simply to expect the Fire to change because we are disappointed, but instead persuade them that if they accept our fan vision for success there is profit to be made. Andrew Hauptman and Andell, Inc want to make money and be successful as much as we as fans want to watch a successful football club. The trick is making those two visions meet in the middle enough for Andell to cash in and leave Bridgeview.
The alternative route is a rabbit hole the Fire community may not want to go down. If tickets falter and television viewership goes down, the MLS might view the Fire as a failing club and force a change. That outcome benefits neither side. The MLS has a long history of failed clubs that could not cut it in the league. Better to dance with the devil than wallow with the angels.
The #HauptmanOut movement clearly expresses the frustration of the fan base. The goal for all should be to have club ownership and leadership that is capable of designing a successful club and capable of putting a quality product on the field. One way the fan base can work to achieve this goal may in fact be counter intuitive and require an unconventional strategy that has not yet been tapped into.
Let's help Andell, Inc and Andrew Hauptman sell the Fire.
* Some quick ideas: set up a carpool/ car share program online. Organize to give people rides so they do not have to go out of their way to one of select pubs to get the pub to pitch the match. They can also enjoy more of the tailgate if they come by car. Try to work out a deal with Uber for transport. Have fundraisers or set up a go fund me to raise money to buy excess tickets and give them away tickets to untapped fan markets. Maybe we can demonstrate as a fan base that we can ALSO fill up a stadium when we want. Open a dialogue with the front office. How can we help them at events and through fan base outreach? What can we do to help improve growth to raise the capital that they desire to make before selling the club? Can we do something specific to demonstrate the strength of the fan base to potential purchasers? Can we tell you what we want to see on the pitch and what we think other players might be more willing to pay for? I think there has to be hundreds of ways that fans can continue to work to grow the fan base and make the club more profitable without sacrificing fan values and without ignoring dissatisfaction among the fan base.