CHICAGO — For years, the location of the Chicago Fire’s stadium in suburban Bridgeview, Ill., has been a talking point among fans and around the league. That could change in the near future.
The Fire are negotiating a buyout of the remaining years on the SeatGeek Stadium lease, with an eye toward moving to Soldier Field, multiple sources have confirmed to Pro Soccer USA.
Nothing is finalized, although one source emphasized confidence the deal will get done.
Rumors of the potential buyout, as well as a potential rebrand, popped up on Twitter earlier this week courtesy of James Vlahakis, an attorney who formerly worked as outside counsel for the Fire. The news was then first reported Friday by The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio.
The Fire declined to comment when contacted by Pro Soccer USA.
— J. Vlahakis (@jvlaha) April 2, 2019
The Fire’s lease with the Village of Bridgeview for SeatGeek Stadium, known as Toyota Park until this season, runs through the 2036 season. The Fire moved from Soldier Field into Toyota Park in 2006.
The relationship between Bridgeview and the Fire has not been great, with both sides unhappy at various times. The stadium agreement is also infamous for being rock solid in favor of Bridgeview.
All Fire home games must be played in Bridgeview unless the village is compensated or the expected attendance isn’t sufficient for making the stadium a cost-effective venue. For example, the Fire played early-round U.S. Open Cup matches, which draw much smaller crowds, in Peoria, Ill., most recently in 2011.
Additionally, there is a clause preventing MLS from having a second team play in the Chicago market at a different venue. Even if the Fire folded and a different Major League Soccer team took its place, that team would still be bound to play in Bridgeview.
That leaves a buyout as the only potential way for the Fire to move back into city limits, the type of downtown location MLS desires for all its franchises.
The Fire played at Soldier Field for the club’s first four years, 1998-2001, before having to find a different location while the stadium underwent renovations. The Fire moved back to the updated Soldier Field in 2003 and played there through 2005, before Toyota Park opened.
It is unclear if Soldier Field is viewed as a long-term solution for the Fire or if the team will seek to build a new stadium in Chicago.
Two major MLS events have taken place within the Chicago city limits in the past two years. The 2017 MLS All-Star Game was at Soldier Field, when Real Madrid took on the MLS All-Stars. And this year’s draft took place at McCormick Place, which is about a mile from Soldier Field.
The Fire have also tried to add more of a presence in the city in recent years. The CIBC Fire Pitch on the city’s North Side opened in 2015 and hosts Fire youth teams, rec soccer and is occasionally used as a training facility for the first team. The Fire also had a pop-up shop on the Mag Mile during holiday season, which was in the Joe Mansueto-owned Wrigley Building.
Mansueto bought a 49-percent stake in the Fire last year, and multiple sources indicated he has been a key figure in the Fire’s potential move out of Bridgeview.
The Fire have not been in the top 10 in league attendance since 2010, when the league had 16 teams. In each of the last four years, the Fire have been 18th or lower in average attendance.
This season, the Fire are currently dead last in MLS average attendance at 11,029. However, that number is at least partially suppressed by the Fire hosting three games on cold March days.
During the Fire’s last two seasons at Soldier Field (2004 and 2005), the club averaged an announced 17,153 and 17,238 fans, respectively, per game. The Fire didn’t top those numbers in Bridgeview until 2017, when the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger boosted a team that finished with the third-best record in the league and averaged 17,383 fans per game. That was the highest mark for the Fire since the team’s opening season in 1998, but was still just 18th in the league.
Last season, the Fire averaged 14,806 fans per game. Only Columbus, which was embroiled in a controversial potential move to Austin, had lower attendance.
As for a franchise name change or rebrand, the Fire said publicly last year they were working on a “brand refresh.” However, sources indicated nothing is decided on that front.
The first mention of this came from a Sports Business Daily interview with Fire COO John Urban last June, during which Urban said, “We’re going to be doing some work on the brand, refreshing the brand and identity, during the offseason, so we’re laying some groundwork for that.”
Fire general manager and president Nelson Rodriguez was asked about those statements in July.
“We’re just still in that process, and I think refresh is the word we like,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not an overhaul. It’s not a major change. It’s an iconic badge. There’s a lot of great history at the club, a lot of great work from people that came before John and I arrived, which we think should be honored. We will continue to honor that, but times change. There needs to be a little bit of an evolution, and I think we need to hone in on what our voice is for today and that’s what we’re working on.”
Rodriguez also said Nov. 1 the team had not yet completed it’s brand study, but that MLS had been “heavily involved with us as we look at that.”