On January 8th, the Fire announced they wanted to make things right. They’d heard the complaints, and at times anger, from fans over the 2020 rebrand of the team: the colors, the ‘Fire Crown,’ the end of red kits, etc. So now they’ve started from scratch, beginning with a massive undertaking of information gathering, discussions and surveys.
On the latest episode of SoccerCast Chicago, I spoke with Fire SVP of Marketing Kyle Sheldon, who is leading this undertaking.
Listen wherever you get your podcasts: https://anchor.fm/soccercast-chicago
While I certainly hope you listen to our conversation, as it will provide the most context, today for Hot Time I wanted to highlight a few things and give my thoughts on what was a very informative and, I thought, transparent conversation. All quotes from Kyle appear in bold.
“The dialogue was ongoing for the totality of the year… Near the end of the regular season it ramped up where we really started to think about…there’s timelines that drive decisions, so we had to start thinking about ‘if we’re going to make a change, we need to start thinking about how we go forth.”
It was poetic in a way that the recent announcement of a do-over came a year to the day of Fire owner Joe Mansueto gave this quote to Brian Sandalow of the Chicago Sun-Times:
“I think when you see a new mark in context and with repetition, you need to really see that to properly evaluate it. We need to give it time and hopefully associate it with the positive memories, such as winning championship. It’s hard to evaluate a mark right out of the gate. You need to see it in use. As a practical matter, we couldn’t change anything in the short term: merchandise, uniforms have long lead times. So the thought is, let’s gather feedback throughout the season, let people live with it a bit, see it in use. But our interests are totally aligned with our fan base. We want a great badge that’s fitting for a great club. Ultimately, if it’s not working, we’ll fix it. But we want something that works for our fans.”
My takeaway from Kyle’s comments is that the club didn’t wait too long, that it quickly became clear that the new identity wasn’t going to work. Credit to the club and to Mansueto for sticking to their word. After a year where the fanbase I think often felt ignored, this is as sure a sign as any that the club takes them seriously and is committed to building (and in some cases, repairing) trust between the two. As Kyle went on to say in our conversation:
“I think to fans who’ve been paying attention and voicing their opinions over the past year-plus, it may feel like we’re just starting to listen now. The reality is we’ve been listening since… the current Fire Crown crest launched. This is what fans have asked for…. I look at the project and say ‘this was the fans idea’ and we’re just executing on what they’ve asked us to do. It becomes our job now as the stewards of the project to make sure we give everyone an opportunity to share their voice, to make sure we’re elevating those voices and that, it’s a difficult task, but how do we synthesize the many voices and try to inform the actual work the design teams are spending their time on?”
Sheldon says there is not a set timeline for the club’s information gathering. The online submission form they published has, at time of the podcast’s recording, over 1,200 submissions. This week, Sheldon and his team held the first of many meetings with leaders of the Supporters Council, as well as what he’s dubbed the ‘Stand For Chicago Council.’ The SFCC includes former Fire academy graduate Drew Conner, Red Stars defender and HoodSpaceChi founder Sarah Gorden, author Kevin Coval, and artist Sentrock. Sheldon also said this group will be growing over the coming weeks/months.
He did say “It inherently starts to feel like you’re elevating certain voices over others…and I guess that’s the nature of creating a council…” but that they want “diversity of experience, background, culture, race…” in those they’re seeking input from in order to “ensure that we’re not being myopic in the voices we’re elevating…. We wanted a number of voices that represented the sport, and represented the sport specific to Chicago.”
One member of the creative team who generated buzz was designer Matthew Wolff, who is notable for such projects as the LAFC and NYCFC crests, Louisville City’s own re-brand re-do, Jordan Brand’s Paris Saint-Germain apparel, and Nigeria’s incredible 2018/2019 World Cup kits.
He’s joined on the creative side by Studio/lab, a Chicago-based design company, and rEvolution Sports Marketing, another Chicago firm who have been working with the club since Mansueto purchased the team.
I think my most important question was the most obvious one: why isn’t this what last year’s process looked like?
“It’s a fair criticism… It doesn’t do us a lot of good to focus on what we didn’t do or should have done previously, because this is about creating something together as we go forward. But we also want to learn from what we did or didn’t do previously… “I know our fans and supporters will tell us if we go off track… “Hold me and hold us accountable to assure we’re being open and transparent.”
The club released its first update on the project last week and, while he said he can’t commit to a specific frequency of such updates, Sheldon pledged that they will be shared as frequently as there is relevant information to share.
As for what the goal ultimately is, and what defines success: “It has to represent the place where you are from…and it has to represent the club”
The kicker to all of this, and yes I know I may have deeply buried the lede here in terms of what gets clicks, was a final comment about the crest and the important of it’s design amid so many ideas flying around online of what it should look like:
“It’s not an expansion team. It’s a team that has 20-plus years of history and so we want to make sure that as we develop this crest together that it pulls that through… There’s a spectrum of what you can pull through in terms of the previous Florian Cross identity. There’s a number of fans who want us to go back to that original Florian Cross, and then there’s a really modernized version that maybe is almost unrecognizable and we probably want to be somewhere in the middle.”
He also hinted that, while it’s not possible this season (Adidas’ lead time for kits is usually two years, so don’t expect anything impressive after the club gave them only two months notice for this year), that the return of red kids is very much on the table for 2022 and beyond.
My Honest Assessment
I really do think the club is doing everything right here, it just sucks they didn’t do this from the start. But, in their defense, this sort of process isn’t the type of thing that’s really been done before. Even Louisville City’s do-over was done almost completely in secret, leaving fans to wait and hope that the club got it right (which ultimately, I think they did).
I know there’s plenty of reason for some fans to be cynical, but I think Mansueto should be taken at his word until he gives fans a reason to not trust him. He is putting his money very much where his mouth is (to do this kind of project again is expensive), and as difficult as it might be for some fans to trust the club the only way this will look anywhere like you want it to is to share your input, make your voice heard, lay out what your dealbreakers are on how this process should be conducted.
Also, while I don’t know them personally, I trust the judgement of people like Drew and Sarah based on their reputations in Chicago soccer. I trust the resume and work of Matt Wolff. Most importantly, I trust the passion of Fire fans to do whatever they can to craft this club and its identity in their image.
I’m looking forward to what this community, this family as Kyle put in in our discussion, comes up with.
Alex Campbell is a staff writer for Hot Time in Old Town and the host of SoccerCast Chicago, a podcast covering the Fire, Red Stars and all things Chicago soccer.