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Chicago Fire pushes restart button with new owner and Soldier Field move

Bastian Schweinsteiger of the Chicago Fire directs his team in the game against the Columbus Crew SC at SeatGeek Stadium. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

  • Joe Mansueto reached deal within 24 hours to buy MLS team after Andrew Hauptman opted to sell 
  • Billionaire concedes it won’t be easy for team to fill stands at 61,500-seater Soldier Field 
  • Mansueto looking to put club back on terrestrial TV and indicates he is against a rebrand 

The Chicago Fire is in the midst of a total reboot in an attempt to revive the club’s fortunes both on and off the field. The Major League Soccer franchise, founded in 1997, has a new owner, is about to move stadiums, and is considering a rebrand, which could involve changing the team’s name, colors, uniform, and logo.

In September, Joe Mansueto – the billionaire executive chairman of investment research firm Morningstar – became chairman and sole owner of the Fire after buying the 51-per-cent stake in the club he did not own from previous owner Andrew Hauptman.

According to Forbes, Mansueto – who purchased a 49-per-cent stake in the team in July 2018 –  paid $204m to gain complete control of the club, in a deal which values the Fire at $400m. Forbes also values Mansueto’s personal worth at $3.9bn.

Elsewhere, the Fire has received approval from the Chicago Park District board to move towards an agreement that will enable the team to play its 2020 season at Soldier Field. The Fire has agreed a three-year lease to play at the home of the National Football League’s Chicago Bears, with extension options for eight more years.

The team is moving from the 20,000-capacity SeatGeek Stadium in suburban Bridgeview, Illinois, 15 miles outside of downtown Chicago and the club’s home since 2006.

The reasons for moving are clear: the Fire has ranked in MLS’s bottom five teams for attendance every year since 2013. But the financial terms of the respective deals to end the lease at SeatGeek Stadium and enter into one at Soldier Field are onerous for the club.

The Fire will pay the Village of Bridgeview $60.5m over the remainder of the agreement, which runs through 2036, with an upfront payment of $10m. The team will also pay Bridgeview $5m to help refurbish and expand the existing soccer facilities next to SeatGeek Stadium, where the Fire will continue to train and operate youth development programs. Additionally, the Fire will make a “significant contribution” towards the development of a multi-sport recreation and entertainment center in Bridgeview.

Meanwhile, in order to lease the 61,500-capacity Soldier Field, the team will reportedly pay the Chicago Park District rent and game-day operating expenses, as well as a share of net revenue from tickets, parking, concessions and merchandise sales.

It is unclear if the Fire will look to play at Soldier Field, the team’s home from its 1998 debut until 2006, for the long term or seek to develop its own soccer-specific stadium in downtown Chicago. Meanwhile, the Fire is exploring changes to its brand, and is working with an outside agency and surveying the opinions of fans. The process ultimately lead to a new name for the club.

Mansueto spoke to SportBusiness about why he took over the Fire and what his plans are for the club. This is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.

What has the past week been like for you since the takeover? 
Mansueto: It’s super-exciting. It’s great to see the team get a lot of attention with the change of ownership. It helps build momentum as we look to move the club into the city. I’ve received a lot of positive comments from Chicagoans, I just think they are thrilled to see the team come into the city and see some momentum behind the team. It’s been a really exciting week.

What brought you to the club in the first place as a significant minority partner in 2018?
M: I believe soccer has huge potential in the US. It’s growing at a very rapid rate, if you look at all the metrics such as viewership and MLS’s revenues, it is growing strongly. There is a lot of momentum in the sport and I think over time it is going to match in the States where it is globally.

Moreover, the opportunity in Chicago is very large. The team is moving downtown to Soldier Field, a very well-regarded stadium and a very central location in Chicago. That is going to really provide a much deeper engagement with the city, people can walk there or get there easily by public transportation.

Also, I think it has great potential as an investment. Values of MLS teams have been rising over the last decade. I also think live sports is a great place to invest, it’s one of the things there is no substitute for, and it’s what keeps a lot of people tethered to their cable subscription versus cutting the cord.

Finally, I’m passionate about Chicago, it’s a way to support Chicago. I like to invest according to my passions and it’s a way to give back to the city. It really adds to the cultural fabric of a city if you have a successful, vibrant MLS team.

What was the process of you becoming sole owner of the Fire?
M: The process was just saying ‘yes.’ When I bought into the team I didn’t know if Andrew [Hauptman] would ever sell, candidly. But he called me up in early August, I was on vacation in Europe, and he said that he made a personal decision that he’d like to sell his shares and he thought I would be a good owner. Within 24 hours we had reached an agreement. It was pretty quick. I said, ‘yes, I’d love to own the full team. Are you sure you want to do this?’ But he said that it was an opportune time for him and his family to move on, having secured the move downtown. He didn’t put in on the market, he thought I would be a good owner for the team and I had already been vetted by MLS so it made it pretty easy.

The terms of the deals to move away from the SeatGeek Stadium and to Soldier Field are pretty onerous. Why are they all worth it?
M: I think because the team has such large potential in Chicago. We’ve had some games here recently, Chivas [Club Deportivo de Guadalajara] v Club América and the US men’s national team v Mexico in the Gold Cup final in August both sold out Soldier Field at 62,000 people. The soccer fanbase is here. We’re at the bottom of the league in terms of attendance so there is nowhere to go but up. The fans are hungry for it and they are rooting for us to succeed and I’d really like to make that vision happen.

The Fire will moving from a smallish stadium it has struggled to attract crowds to into a much bigger venue. How are you going to fill Soldier Field?
M: That’s what we’re engaged in right now and I’m meeting with the management team every week and will do until the debut of Soldier Field to make sure that we have a successful transition and a successful launch. There will be some marketing campaigns that will create a lot of excitement and a lot of buzz. And we have some great plans to make it a really exciting match-day experience for our fans and making Soldier Field just a great environment to see a soccer game, and making it fun. That’s our challenge now, I don’t admit it will be easy. It will take some spending to get it done but I have every confidence that we can execute on that.

What is the long-term stadium solution or plan for the team?
M: Right now the focus is Soldier Field, let’s make that work. I think there is the potential to make it work at 62,000-seat capacity, we’ve seen it in other cities across the league. Chicago is a top-three metro market in the US. I don’t know why if we don’t execute correctly, why we can’t fill Soldier Field. But that said, we have the option down the road, if we want to look at a soccer-specific stadium, we can do that. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s make Soldier Field a success and then look at that data.

The Fire is currently only available to fans locally on streaming service ESPN+. What are your thoughts on this arrangement?
M: We have a great product, if you go to one of our games it’s captivating, but not enough people have seen it. I would love to expose the team, the product, to as many people as possible, to let them sample it. I think if they sample it, they will love it. A great way to do that is free broadcast television or cable. Right now, we’re on ESPN+, which is a terrific service, but not everyone is paying a premium subscription for it. So I’d like to see us complement ESPN+ with something with a more broad access. I’d love to get our games on as many outlets as possible and easily available so people can play it in bars and wherever you turn.

Chicago Fire owner Joe Mansueto (Credit: Chicago Fire)

What are your thoughts on a possible rebrand of the club?
M: As the team is moving downtown, our front office thought it would make sense to take a look at all aspects of the brand, the name, the crest, all of that. That made a lot of sense, if you are going to change anything around the brand, when you move is an opportune time to do that. The team has spent the past year doing in-depth, rigorous research around that, talking to our fanbase, talking to the league, talking to marketing experts and they are towards the end of the process. I will like to hear what they come back with. But at the same time, from my perspective, I love the name, the brand.

The Chicago Fire name has deep meaning for Chicagoans. So it really cuts to the core of Chicago. To me it reflects the spirit of not giving up, of facing an enormous setback and persevering through that to go on to build something back. The Chicagoans of 1871 didn’t turn and leave but they chose to rebuild and rebuild in a bigger, bolder way, to go on to build a world-class city. To me that is a great metaphor for a team, to push through adversity and build a champion-level team. It’s a spirit that burns through all Chicagoans.

I think it’s a great name, it’s a unique team to a city, like the Sounders in Seattle and the Timbers in Portland. There are a lot of generic names in the league so holding onto this unique name that has character, has special meaning to the city, as well as a 20-year legacy, is not something you want to give up.

To what extent are you prepared to invest on improving the roster, specifically signing big-name designated players?
M: That’s definitely the plan. It’s an arms-race situation in MLS and around the world. You’re going to need top talent to win championships so we’ve got to be very strong in our capability to identify top global talent and then to pay the market price for that talent. We know we’re going to have to invest to bring in top talent but that is the expectation and the desire.

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