New Chicago Fire owner Joe Mansueto says making the team more accessible to soccer fans in the city will drive the team's growth both on and off the field.
In June of 2018, Mansueto acquired 49 percent of the team. Then last week he completed his acquisition of the remaining 51 percent from previous majority owner Andrew Hauptman. The Fire is also in final negotiations with the Chicago Park District to play its games at Soldier Field next season, after playing the previous 12 seasons at SeatGeek Stadium in suburban Bridgeview.
"I think we've got a great product, but not enough people know about it," said Mansueto via telephone. "If you watch the team, you'll see it's a great, great experience."
He added, "To have Chicagoans engaged with the team in a deeper, richer way, then sponsorships, attendance, all of those things are byproduct of that. But we need that level of engagement first. That means winning championships, fielding a world class team, having a world class organization supporting it, scouting, analytics, all the front office functions, the technical side, marketing, all of those things."
Mansueto said the move to Soldier Field is based more on potential than the economics of the moment. The move involved the Fire paying the Village of Bridgeview $60.5 million to exit the lease at SeatGeek Stadium.
"Here's a stadium that more people in the broader metro area can easily get to; a lot of public transportation, people can walk to it from downtown," Mansueto said about Soldier Field. "Here's the opportunity to fill it with a large number of fans. So it's more about the stadium itself and its potential. It's not about, 'Hey, the economics are a little better there.' That's not what drove the decision."
As for whether the Fire will look into building a soccer specific stadium in the city of Chicago, Mansueto said he wants to see how the team performs in Soldier Field first.
"Let's make Soldier Field work, let's get that data, let's see what that experience is like," he said. "It's almost like, 'Why think about your second wife as you're getting married?' Let's make that first marriage work well. I'm not even thinking soccer specific stadium. We'll have that option down the road. We've got enough things to address without thinking of that next step beyond Soldier Field."
Making the Fire's games more easily available is another goal of Mansueto's. Currently the team's games are broadcast on ESPN's streaming service, ESPN+. That agreement expires in about a year, at which point he plans to expand the channels by which fans can see the team's games.
"If we could compliment ESPN+ with a free broadcast, make it widely available, let people sample it, turn them into Fire fans, drive that engagement, then we'll see attendance, sponsorships, all of those metrics will move upwards nicely."
With the move to downtown Chicago all but done, the Fire organization is currently examining whether a rebrand is in order. Mansueto said he'll allow the research being done on the brand to be completed before making a decision this fall. But he sounded like he preferred to keep the Fire name given its link to the city's history.
"The city burns down [in 1871], and Chicagoans don't pick up and move, they decide to rebuild the city, and to rebuild it in a bigger, bolder way," he said. "To me [the Fire name] reflects that spirit in a way, facing adversity and pushing through and building something great. It's that spirit that burns in Chicagoans and is what's reflected in the name.
"The Chicago Fire name to me is like the [Seattle] Sounders or the [Portland] Timbers; one of those unique MLS names that are unique to the city that it represents. The league is full of generic names, so I really like this name that's unique to Chicago, means a lot to Chicagoans and connects to the identity of Chicago. But at the same time I'll let the team finish up its research and then we'll make a decision."
Chicago's payroll is currently in the top five in the league, and Mansueto indicated that the team will continue to spend though he'd like to emphasize youth.
"To get top players, below 25, younger players into our lineup would be great from our perspective , but we're going to have to invest and there's a willingness to do that, and make sure we're fielding the very best team that we can," he said. "I'll point out that historically Andrew has invested quite a bit in the team. It's not as if the team was run on a shoestring. I think we've got one of the highest payrolls in the league. I think historically there has been a willingness to invest and we need to continue that and be very smart about it."
The Fire currently sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, but just three points out of the seventh and final playoff spot with three games to play. If Chicago doesn't reach the postseason, it will mark the eighth time in 10 years that the Fire has failed to make the playoffs. Mansueto declined to be drawn into what such a failure might mean for GM Nelson Rodriguez and manager Veljko Paunovic.
"I've enjoyed getting to know Nelson and Pauno over the past year," he said. "I believe in both of these guys. They're talented professionals. We'll be looking at the whole organization like we normally do in the offseason. But the focus right now is just finishing strong."