These are rough times for the Chicago Fire, Major League Soccer stalwarts since 1998. Currently sitting at the bottom of the standings in league play, knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup in the semifinals by the Philadelphia Union, and short on the heels of losing a bidding war to attract international (albeit aged) superstar Didier Drogba to Montreal, the team is now transferring midfielder Shaun Maloney, a respected international star in his own right, to Hull City in England. What makes matters worse, Maloney reportedly requested the move back to England himself. What is going so wrong for Chicago, and why can’t the third largest media market in the U.S. draw any star power?
The team’s stadium might hold one of the keys to that answer. Toyota Park is located in Bridgeview, Illinois, a 16 mile drive from “The Bean” and 15 miles from the famed Willis Tower. On paper, this distance seems small, but in reality, a trip from these two landmarks out to the suburbs could take an hour or longer based on normal traffic conditions. Since Toyota Park also isn’t close to any train station connected to the Chicago Transit Authority, this leaves few desirable options for urban fans making the trip to suburbia. However, the team has started a “Pub to Pitch” campaign providing luxury bus liners from city soccer pubs to the stadium that reportedly average ten busloads per game (Ecker, Crain’s Chicago Business).
Since moving to Toyota Park from cavernous Soldier Field in 2006, attendance figures have never been quite at optimal levels. While the team’s 2014 average attendance of 16,076 was up significantly from 15,228 in 2013, this only reflects around 80% of Toyota Park’s full 20,000 capacity for soccer. Even worse, when the Fire last made the MLS Playoffs in 2012, the lone game in Bridgeview brought a crowd of just 10,923 fans. As of this week, the team is reporting 15,475 in average ticket sales per game which is slightly higher than the amount reported at this time last year (Ecker).
According to another report by Forbes this week, the estimated value of the Fire is $160 million, up significantly from the last appraisal in 2012. However, the team’s estimated operating deficit of $6 million would be the third highest deficit in the league.
Star players from overseas considering a jump to America typically hear about Los Angeles and New York not just from their prominence in the media but also by seeing other star players that have already made the leap. This leaves Chicago out in the dark, despite its size and potential. Even if international stars are aware of Chicago’s potential, the suburban stadium is not an ideal selling point. Unfortunately, Chicago has put in the effort to reach desired results, but has received little luck. After losing out on Drogba, the team invested in a new deal to bring in lesser-known Brazilian playmaker Gilberto from Toronto FC upon his return from loan. However, Gilberto has yet to star in a game for the Fire.
In order to get back to the winning ways of its 1998 inaugural season, Chicago needs to follow a similar path to this year’s New York Red Bulls. Moving away from a model that relied heavily on signing big names like Thierry Henry or Tim Cahill, the Red Bulls now put more money into the academy and choose not to overspend on typically over-aged stars from overseas. In Chicago’s case, these over-aged stars might not care to come anyway.
By focusing on talent from this hemisphere, Chicago can put the time and effort into building a winner again. And when Chicago becomes a winner, with bigger crowds making the trek to Bridgeview, these stars from overseas won’t just hear about LA and New York, they’ll hear about the winning tradition in America’s third largest city.