It hasn’t been officially announced just yet, but the Chicago Fire plan to move to Soldier Field starting in 2020.
The move has been in the works for months and some finishing touches are still required before the Fire make a public declaration. The team has already amended its lease with the Village of Bridgeview to allow it move out of SeatGeek Stadium, its home since 2006. In order to do so, the Fire paid Bridgeview $65 million.
For now, it’s not clear if Soldier Field is viewed as a long-term home or temporary until the team can find a place to have another soccer stadium, this time in the heart of the city.
The Fire’s history is already linked with Soldier Field. The team had positive accomplishments there. The stadium also featured notable shortcomings for the Major League Soccer team. Some of the same challenges the Fire faced last time they played there will need to be addressed when they move back.
The history of Fire and Soldier Field
The first years of the Fire’s existence took place at Soldier Field. The team was then temporarily pushed out while the stadium was renovated in 2002 and 2003 before returning for the 2004-05 seasons.
The Fire’s move back to Soldier Field is being pitched as a way for the team to reconnect with the city. That’s the way Fire general manager and team president Nelson Rodriguez put it on July 17.
“Looking at what we had done in recent years, we withdrew from the city,” Rodriguez said. “I wasn’t here, so I don’t know the context, so I’m not criticizing that decision.
“Today, I think we need to step back into the city. We need to become an active participant in the city.”
The person to go to for context when discussing why the Fire left Soldier Field and the city in the first place is Peter Wilt, the first general manager and president of the Fire. He helped launch the expansion Fire in 1998, when the team won both MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup. He was also in charge when the Fire made the deal with Bridgeview.
During a phone interview earlier this month, Wilt explained a number of factors led to the Fire leaving Soldier Field. As the No. 2 tenant behind the NFL’s Chicago Bears, the Fire did not have priority in scheduling. Field conditions and other off-field factors contributed to the decision as well.
“You’re averaging 20,000 fans a game. That’s great, but in a 67,000-seat venue, the atmosphere sometimes was dissipated,” Wilt said. “Scheduling is real difficult once the NFL and convention season starts in late July. The playing surface was rarely good.”
Soldier Field is located just north of McCormick Place, Chicago’s biggest convention center. The two venues share parking lots, which is why conventions were relevant.
As for the playing surface, it’s not easy to get grass in good condition by early spring in Chicago. Back then, the season started in mid-April. In 2020, the season is set to start at the end of February.
“We’ll say a lack of maintenance of the field made it really poor condition in the beginning in April, May, and then maybe you’d have one good month in June with the field,” Wilt said. “Then when the NFL season started, the main tenant preferred a longer, thicker cut to the grass. Then when they started playing games on that field, it started to get torn up.”
Field maintenance could potentially be improved, but those same factors still apply. The issues with Soldier Field didn’t end there.
“Revenue streams were mainly controlled by the Chicago Park District,” Wilt said of the entity which controls Soldier Field. “Parking, merchandise, food and beverage and permanent stadium signage.”
With the Fire still in discussions regarding a new deal with the Chicago Park District, it’s not clear if a similar deal will be in place this time around regarding the revenue streams.
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber told Yahoo! Sports he thinks things have changed enough make a move back to Chicago right for the Fire.
“I’m thrilled that the Fire have reached an agreement with the city of Bridgeview to move,” Garber said. “While it was the right thing in 2006, it really isn’t right for the MLS team in Chicago today. Chicago is a great soccer market and we need to deliver a great product and environment and that’s really what my focus is on in my discussions with ownership.”
Garber echoed a similar sentiment to Rodriguez, who cited Seattle and Atlanta playing in NFL stadiums as examples of how that setup can work. Those two teams average the biggest attendances in the league by a wide margin at 40,641 and 53,002, respectively, in 2018. Those examples didn’t exist when the Fire moved to Bridgeview. Seattle entered the league in 2009 and Atlanta debuted in 2017.
The Fire’s highest average announced home attendance for a season is still 1998, the team’s first season, when they drew an average crowd of 17,887. Two years later, it dropped to 13,387.
In 2004 and 2005, in the renovated Soldier Field, the Fire averaged above 17,000 per game, something that had not happened since 1998. By that time, things were already set in motion for the Fire to leave Soldier Field.
Bridgeview, for better or worse
The Fire moved in to what was then called Toyota Park in 2006. Wilt has talked publicly before about Bridgeview being centrally located within Chicagoland, but the main reason for why Bridgeview was picked was financial. The stadium was completely publicly funded.
“It’s not often you get a $98 million stadium built for you at no cost and control most of the revenue streams,” Wilt said.
The process of picking a stadium location included putting out proposal requests to over 120 communities. Twenty-one communities responded, but only 12 were serious proposals, according to Wilt. The final decision came in 2003.
“We quickly narrowed it to five based on location and the level of seriousness of the bids. Then in the final five, Bridgeview’s offer was head and shoulders above the other four in terms of economics,” Wilt said. “Location was a secondary factor. It was the economics. Again, it was a 100% publicly financed venue, and the land that went with it and the significant revenue streams and control of the scheduling.”
The Fire made the Eastern Conference finals three straight years from 2007-09 and had a respectable average attendance of 17,034 in 2008. However, that remained the high-water mark in Bridgeview until 2017, when Bastian Schweinsteiger joined the team and the Fire made the playoffs.
Even that year, the Fire ranked 18 out of 22 teams in MLS with an average attendance of 17,383. Last year, the Fire were 22 out of 23 teams in attendance with an average of 14,806. The only team below them was Columbus, which had fans and ownership feuding over attempted relocation.
Bridgeview isn’t easily accessible via public transportation from Chicago. Chicago’s CTA El trains spread all over the city and a significant number of residents rely on that to commute to work. Getting to Bridgeview from downtown Chicago, or anywhere just outside downtown, requires taking the CTA Orange Line to the end of the line and then connecting with a bus. It’s not an easy, or short, trip.
The same goes for driving. It can take up to an hour from parts of Chicago’s North Side without unusually heavy traffic. As for those rare weekday matches? Good luck getting there in less than 90 minutes from anywhere not within 10 miles.
“It’s not about the size of the venue. I do think the location of the venue matters,” Rodriguez said in July. “It’s been challenging to get here for many fans. Soldier Field is well-known, easier to get to.”
Soldier Field presents its own challenges, but they are different from those of Bridgeview. It is closer to trains, but there is no stop that will drop fans off right by the stadium. The nearest El stop is a solid 20-minute walk from the stadium. Traffic to get to Soldier Field can be a nightmare, but that applies to just about anywhere in Chicagoland at the right (or wrong) time of day.
It’s about weighing the pros and cons between the two stadiums.
“It absolutely helps them reach and attract fans that rely on public transportation in the city,” Wilt said of Soldier Field. “That’s the biggest challenge I think with Bridgeview, is the difficulty getting there with public transportation. It’s also better located for the young, urban adult demographic that’s so important to create a good environment in stadiums — and advertisers like that demographic, too. In Chicago, the North Side is more for that. I think that location in the city will also help better reach the North Shore suburbs.
“There, of course, is a trade-off. Whenever you leave one place and go to another, it’s easier for some folks and harder for other folks to get to a venue.”
For example, Wilt pointed out the soccer hotbed of DuPage County is a bit further away from Soldier Field than Bridgeview, as well as other suburban communities such as northwest Cook County, Will County and McHenry County.
“But Soldier Field is a bigger name, a better awareness,” Wilt said. “Overall, I think location-wise, it’s a better place to be, but it of course came at a very steep price of $65 million.”
What if the stadium isn’t the problem?
The Fire’s first season in Bridgeview was 2006. That season, the team won the U.S. Open Cup. The Fire haven’t won a trophy since.
The Fire also haven’t won a playoff game since 2009 and have two playoff appearances since that year.
In 2017, the Fire were coming off two straight last-place finishes in MLS. In terms of generating fan buzz, the Fire had no momentum. Then, Schweinsteiger debuted in the fourth match of the season (the second home game). As the team started to gain momentum on the field that summer, the stadium started to fill.
The Fire had a stretch from May to August where five of six weekend home matches were sellouts. The team slumped in the second half of the season, but added one more sellout in September.
It’s reasonable to think simply winning would get people to come out to Bridgeview. Rodriguez told reporters May 8 that the team had lost relevance and “not winning hurts us in that regard.”
“Look, I won’t duck it,” Rodriguez said. “When you are winning and when you’re playing well, they’ll come from everywhere to anywhere. But the league has evolved. The league has changed. We need to catch up to that. We’re behind in that regard, and I think we’re making progress in that.”
SeatGeek Stadium’s other soccer tenant, the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League, drew a record crowd of 17,388 on July 21. That was the first game back for the Red Stars’ four 2019 World Cup winners.
“We’re excited to be in this facility,” Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler said. “One of the best stadiums in this country for pure soccer and soccer fans. I think when you see the electricity and the environment that you can get when you get enough people in the stadium, it’s a great place to play. Our fans may want a downtown location. I think who doesn’t want a downtown location that fans can walk up to? But we’re doing things right and we think we can get them to Bridgeview with no help and [the July 21 crowd was] a good testament to that.”
The Red Stars are expected to remain in Bridgeview even with the Fire leaving. Whisler said the Fire no longer bringing soccer fans to the stadium is a downside, but the Red Stars expect more prime Saturday night games instead of getting second choice on dates.
The Red Stars setting a record was an example of a big crowd showing up to Bridgeview when there’s a good product. Another example was the crowd of 18,309 that watched the U.S. women’s national team beat Brazil last August on a Thursday. Those examples aren’t the norm, but people will go to Bridgeview for a special occasion.
“That’s something that irked me a bit when people say fans won’t come out to Bridgeview,” Wilt said. “Well, they have come out to Bridgeview when the team has won. Whether it’s during the Blanco years or in the Eastern Conference finals three straight years in ‘07, ‘08, ‘09. A couple years ago when they had the third best record in MLS, the attendance was fine.”
Wilt said “just winning” isn’t the main solution for a lack of attendance, it’s having a good product.
“When there’s a good product at SeatGeek Stadium, or Toyota Park before that, the venue has been filled, whether it’s a concert, international soccer or the Chicago Fire,” he said. “People will find their way there.”
Outside of winning, there’s also community engagement. That’s something Wilt said the Fire have not done a good enough job with recently. Rodriguez agrees.
“In the early years, they played good football, they won, their players were in the community, they were in the heart of the city,” Rodriguez said on May 8. “It was fantastic. Somewhere along the line, some of those elements were lost. Some were distorted. Some were ignored.”
Two months later, Rodriguez admitted that while he thinks moving back to Chicago is best for the team, it doesn’t solve everything.
“We do not believe that moving to the city is a salve for all of our issues,” Rodriguez said on July 17. “We know that there’s a lot of other work that we need to do. Our strategic plan has very specific tactics around that. Simply, broad highlights: We have to do a better job of connecting people where they live. We have to go face-to-face in all 77 neighborhoods. We need to do a better job and have already begun doing a much better job with social media.”
Rodriguez went on to say the team’s marketing strategy needed to be better, “but the reality also is we have to have a product that resonates with the fans. That starts with winning.”
“Everyone equates winning with quality, with being good, with entertaining. So we have to find ways to win, do so in a representative style that the fans and the public of Chicago will appreciate,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a lot of different factors coming together.”
The stadium move is a big change, but more changes are needed. Can the Fire deliver?