Chicago Fire kick off season at Soldier Field with high hopes of gaining ground as Bears look to leave for Arlington Heights – The Mercury News

When the Chicago Fire host New York City FC in the MLS season opener Saturday night at Soldier Field, home field advantage will begin to take on new meaning.

The 25-year-old, oft-overlooked soccer team may soon be the only game in town, at least at the iconic lakefront stadium, as the Chicago Bears prepare to build a new venue in Arlington Heights.

With the MLS gaining significant momentum in markets across the U.S., the Fire, one of the league’s worst performing teams for much of the past decade, have a chance to grow their fan base and perhaps finally matter in Chicago.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Fire to become far more relevant and to have far greater attendance at their games,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant. “All the stars are aligning. Now they need to execute.”

Founded as an early Major League Soccer expansion team, the Fire entered with a bang, playing at Soldier Field and winning the league championship during their inaugural season in 1998. It has been mostly downhill from there, with the Fire exiled to suburban Bridgeview during the new millennium, languishing near the bottom of the league in both attendance and standings.

But under the new owner, billionaire Morningstar founder Joe Mansueto, who bought the team in 2019 and engineered a move back to Soldier Field, the Fire are positioned to grow along with the MLS, where a new $2.5 billion, 10-year broadcast deal with Apple TV+ could broaden the game’s fan base and boost attendance.

Across the league, the Feb. 25 season openers in Charlotte and Atlanta drew nearly 70,000 fans each, and a neutral site opening match at the Rose Bowl between the two Los Angeles clubs also sold 70,000 tickets before it was postponed by a rare winter storm.

The Fire sold just under 20,000 tickets for their home opener Saturday, according to the team.

“If you look across the league, we are one of the lower-performing teams … and we’re one of the largest markets in the United States,” said Dave Baldwin, 34, a seasoned pro sports executive who became the Fire’s president of business operations in January. “I think we have a pretty awesome fan base that we just need to maybe re-energize, reinvigorate them a bit.”

A Michigan native with front-office experience for several NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB teams, Baldwin most recently served as chief ticketing officer for the Washington Commanders.

Getting more fans to buy tickets has been Baldwin’s forte. He revealed the formula in broad terms, leaving room for tweaks at his first soccer gig with the Fire.

The plan entails doubling the ticket sales staff, reaching out to businesses to sell more corporate sponsorships and employee outings, inviting new and former fans to come to games, engaging the nearly 50,000 people who participate in Fire soccer programs and sending players such as Swiss star Xherdan Shaqiri out in the community to spread the gospel.

At the home opener, for example, the Fire plan to host several dozen local CEOs and business owners at a field-side lounge, planting the seeds for ongoing participation.

“There’s no magic silver bullet,” Baldwin said. “But to steal a phrase from American football, it’s kind of the blocking and tackling of connecting with our fan base, and inviting them out to more games.”

Central to the strategy is location.

The Fire played their home matches at Soldier Field for nearly a decade, temporarily relocating during the 2002 season to North Central College in Naperville as Soldier Field began a $690 million renovation.

In 2006, the Fire moved into a newly built, $98 million stadium in Bridgeview, then known as Toyota Park, with a lease that ran through 2036. The 20,000-seat venue, which was rebranded as SeatGeek Stadium in 2018, was the Fire’s home for 14 seasons.

In 2019, the team negotiated a $65.5 million lease buyout with Bridgeview, allowing a move back to Soldier Field. Nearly 50,000 seats were sold for the March 21, 2020, return to Soldier Field, but the match against Atlanta United was canceled nine days before the event as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Last year was the first full season back at Soldier Field with no COVID-19 attendance restrictions. But the team averaged only 15,848 fans per game, among the lowest attendance in the MLS.

The new season begins the team’s second three-year option at Soldier Field. Baldwin declined to disclose the annual lease cost payable to the Chicago Park District, which owns the stadium. But the team could soon be the star tenant after the Bears finalized the $197 million purchase of the 326-acre Arlington International Racecourse site, with plans to build a new stadium in the northwest suburb.

The Fire still practice at SeatGeek Stadium, but the team is planning to build a new $85 million to $100 million training facility at a vacant 30-acre Chicago Housing Authority site on the Near West Side. In September, the City Council voted in favor of the privately financed development, which is pending federal approval from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Launched in 1996, the MLS is gaining traction among sports fans nationwide. The league added its 29th club this season with a St. Louis franchise, which will play its first home match Saturday at a new 22,500-seat stadium. The club already has deposits for 63,000 season tickets, according to the league.

The value of MLS franchises is also on the rise, averaging $579 million per club and topped by the defending champion Los Angeles Football Club at a league-first $1 billion, according to Forbes.

The Chicago Fire rank 23rd at $425 million, according to the Forbes list published in February.

The 10-year, $2.5 billion partnership with Apple TV+ — the home of fictional soccer coach “Ted Lasso” — could also help grow the younger and ethnically diverse fan base. The MLS Season Pass, which costs $79 per year for Apple TV+ subscribers, will feature every regular season match streamed without blackouts across North America and will be steamed to more than 100 countries worldwide.

Domestic interest in soccer may also get a boost when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026, with matches hosted by 13 MLS cities. Chicago did not make the cut.

Getting Chicago sports fans to care about their soccer team may be a challenge.

“It does not turn on a dime,” said sports consultant Ganis. “They have to spend a great deal of time and resources on getting traditional Chicago sports fans to be soccer fans. That’s not going to be easy.”

At 61,500 seats, Soldier Field is the smallest venue in the NFL, but it would be huge for the MLS, where stadiums average 25,000 to 30,000 seats.

A recent proposal to retrofit Soldier Field as a larger domed stadium in a “Hail Mary” bid to keep the Bears may be moot, but renovations to make it a world class soccer stadium would be far less extensive, Ganis said.

“They can adjust some of the seating and modify some of the club areas to make it more interesting and compact for a 30,000-seat crowd,” Ganis said. “Once the Bears make their final announcement that they’re leaving, there will be political support for trying to make Soldier Field as active as it can be without the Bears.”

The Fire, meanwhile, are happy just to be at Soldier Field as is, looking to build fan support during their 34-game, March-through-October season. Baldwin said lower ticket prices, fast-moving games and a growing interest in soccer make the Fire a competitive alternative to the Bears.

But being the only team at Soldier Field wouldn’t hurt down the road, he said.

“There are a variety of pros and cons to sharing a venue right now,” Baldwin said. “I think anytime you have the opportunity to be a primary tenant, we would probably look at that in a very positive way.”

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