Like everyone else at the Chicago Fire headquarters at 1 North Dearborn, new team president Ishwara Glassman Chrein isn’t hiding in an office, tucked away. In a nod to the way team owner Joe Mansueto ran things at Morningstar, she’s approachable. Her desk is out on the main floor. Anyone can walk up and say hello, or share an idea.
That openness is a perfect fit for Glassman Chrein’s personality. She’s extremely cheerful, and talks with a rapid-fire pace, taking breaks to listen and, often, laugh. After spending three months on the job, it’s clear the honeymoon period hasn’t worn off. She really is excited to be in Chicago. But, after more than a decade of mediocrity at the club, she knows she’s facing an uphill battle to make Chicago’s Major League Soccer team relevant again.
At a recent game, an angry fan shouted something in her direction. She replied by saying “I want to win, too!”, which seemed to diffuse the situation.
Even when it’s negative, she knows that passion is coming from a good place. After spending years in the sports business world at IMG and later Yahoo!/Verizon, this is the first time she’s ever worked for a team.
“What’s most exciting about working on the team side is the passion,” Glassman Chrein told Hot Time in Old Town. “You’re working at a company and an organization that people really care about. They personally get angry and upset if they don’t win a game. It matters to people.”
Glassman Chrein is a life long sports fan. Growing up in San Diego, she went to hundreds of Padres games with her dad, and some Chargers games, too (Yes, she says she’s still a Chargers fan, although the team’s relocation to Los Angeles was painful.)
But, rather than try to pretend, she’ll be the first to admit she didn’t know much about soccer before getting the offer to run the business side of the Fire. She made that clear in her job interview.
“I said I know a lot about sports, but I don’t know a lot about soccer,” she said. “And Joe, to his credit, said ‘There are a lot of people here who know a lot about soccer. You can’t know everything. Listen to the people around you.’”
She’s learning, though. Glassman Chrein has tried to pick up the sport as fast as possible, absorbing information from everyone she can, including her counterpart on the football operations side, Georg Heitz. She’s trying to nail the terminology, too, accepting a recent bit of advice from team play-by-play man Tyler Terens.
“One of the first things (Terens) taught me— I watch a lot of hockey— it’s offside, not offsides... I think he was nervous telling me that—the new president—and I was like ‘no, no, it’s okay!’”
Making the Fire relevant again
Glassman Chrein has three clear goals for the Fire. One, she wants to attract and retain the most talented people she can, and she wants them to be happy on the job. On that front—even though a lot of work is still done remotely because of the pandemic, the Fire’s downtown office is a fun space—it has a game room, and also a fully stocked kitchen filled with free snacks, coffee, drinks, and even alcohol.
Her second goal is to land a new front-of-shirt sponsorship deal by the end of the year. “We are close,” she said. “We are talking to a lot of people.” Glassman Chrein said the club isn’t expecting Motorola to return, but she believes the company will continue to be a partner in some capacity.
Third, and this should surprise no one, she wants more people at Soldier Field. Yes, the pandemic has hurt things, but the team’s high attendance in 2021 came on July 3 against Atlanta United—at just 14,898. By any measure, that’s not good enough.
Glassman Chrein says a winning team will help, and she believes Georg Heitz and the football staff are on the on the right track to make that happen. But she also believes there are things she and her staff can do on the business side to bolster attendance, including reaching out to everyone who might want to come to a game—and not ignoring certain demographics to focus on others.
“Chicago’s a big city, and there are lots of different people who like soccer,” Glassman Chrein said. “You’ve seen over the years people have targeted families with kids who play soccer, or the Latino demographic, or the Eastern European demographic. But, there’s no reason (it can’t be everyone)—we’d like to see people on a Tuesday night walk over from the Loop and come to a game. There’s no reason all those different demographics can’t come. You would never see the NFL say they just wanted one of those demographics.”
While the Fire are still struggling to pique the interest of the city’s soccer fans, other MLS clubs are thriving—Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and even some of the league’s expansion markets. In those cities, attendance is solid even when the product on the field isn’t, and the teams are front of mind for fans and media in their markets, alongside the other, traditional American sports. Glassman Chrein wants that for the Chicago Fire.
“I was watching the Austin FC match on TV the other day,” Glassman Chrein said. “It makes me jealous, for sure. I’m a naturally competitive person. But it also gives me hope. There’s no reason we can’t do that here.”
Now, it’s just a matter of making it happen.
“Why not, right?”