Mistake by the Lake? Sea Changes Afoot for Chicago Fire

April 4, 2019 1243 Reads

For years, and for a variety of reasons, the Chicago Fire have been the proverbial “sick man” of MLS, suffering sustained struggles both on the field, at the gates and in terms of relevance in their market.

The 1998 MLS Cup champions have been an underperforming club in the United States’ third-largest metropolitan area – or more accurately, in a small village at the southern fringe of that metropolis – for the better part of a decade, and thus a matter of steadily growing concern to league executives.

The situation might’ve hit a nadir last season, when the Bastian Schweinsteiger-led squad backslid from 2017 playoff contenders to cellar dwellers while the front office feuded with supporters’ groups and attendance faded to such embarrassing levels that it all became a topic of conversation on a national-TV broadcast:

“We need a new stadium solution or a different stadium solution in Chicago,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPNFC in February, grouping the Fire with stadium-challenged peers in New England and New York City. “Those are three of the top markets in the country and if they’re able to solve what are legacy stadium projects and move to the downtown urban core, I’m convinced that those teams in large cities will give the league even more wind in its sails.”

Garber and his colleagues always had more pressing matters to deal with, however, from television ratings to Chivas USA to the Columbus Crew to expansion in Miami and beyond.

Now it appears that the Fire and MLS are finally ready to take drastic action to address what might be dubbed “the Chicago problem.”

Return to the lake?

On Tuesday James Vlahakis, a Chicago-based attorney who worked for a firm retained by the Fire in years past, dropped a bombshell on Twitter, alleging that the MLS franchise is close to buying itself out of its 30-year lease at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois to return to Soldier Field, the downtown NFL venue on the shores of Lake Michigan where the Fire began their existence two decades ago.

A return to the lakeshore would be welcomed by most Fire faithful; not so much on an accompanying rebrand, with “Chicago City FC” one mooted name to help signal a new era for a proud fanbase fallen on hard times.

The chatter quickly picked up further momentum in the wake of Vlahakis’ tweet, with another account posting what might be an inside glimpse of a new logo for the mooted “CCFC,” alongside the Latin phrase urbs in horto magico, or “city in a magic garden,” a play on the Chicago city motto and a popular soccer song traditionally chanted by Fire supporters.

Yet another member of the Fire community subsequently posited that the rebrand is less a done deal than a trial balloon floated by club management, who are known to have convened focus groups to better understand their disillusioned market over the past year or so.

Where there’s smoke?

So is there legitimate fire, so to speak, underneath all this billowing online smoke? Multiple sources have confirmed as much to High Press Soccer, albeit with a few cautions.

One person with knowledge of the situation said that it’s not quite a done deal, with the actual buyout funds not formally in place yet. Another said the transaction has been approved by MLS. Two people believed that the rebrand is a new and possibly incomplete element of a general “return to downtown” strategy that’s been in the works for a few years.

Another confirmed the Vlahakis tweet’s mention of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a key cog in the process of returning to Soldier Field, adding that this imposes a deadline of sorts on the Fire’s move – Emanuel will leave office when his newly-elected replacement Lori Lightfoot is inaugurated on May 20.

A Bridgeview buyout would be no small matter. In financial terms, SeatGeek Stadium (which was named Toyota Park from its 2006 debut until this year) was something of a triumph for MLS when it opened, as the Village of Bridgeview publicly financed the entirety of the $95 million venue – and locked the Fire into a seemingly ironclad lease as a consequence. It’s turned out to be a financial disaster for the community, whose population is small enough to fit inside the stadium’s 20,000 capacity.

A triple whammy of hefty debt to service, wider economic recessions and scant commercial development around the facility has seen Bridgeview’s tax rates skyrocket and credit ratings tank, as the Chicago Tribune documented in detail in 2012.

With the village piling more and more debt atop its initial costs over the years, lawyer and soccer journalist Miki Turner – who broke down the details of said lease in a post last year – estimates that a lease buyout could cost the Fire and/or MLS as much as $125 million. That’s a steep price to pay for acknowledging the club’s failures.

That said, it’s probably within the means of Fire minority owner/investor Joe Mansueto, whose net worth is estimated at more than $3 billion, to say nothing of the league’s recent cash windfalls from expansion fees which have skyrocketed to $150 million per team.

One source told HPS that in 2020 Mansueto – who came on board last year and currently holds a 49 percent stake in the club – will take full control from incumbent owner Andrew Hauptman, a scion of the Seagram beverages empire whose management of the Fire has been widely and bitterly criticized by fans.

Beyond the immediate question of Chicago’s future, a powerful piece of symbolism is at work here: SeatGeek Stadium was the third soccer-specific venue in MLS history, the vanguard of a trend that many have credited for saving the league from collapse after the turn of the century. Unfortunately for the Fire and fellow suburbanites like the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, MLS conventional wisdom shifted after the Seattle Sounders joined the league and reaped huge crowds of young, hip city dwellers at their downtown stadium, a trend that has only accelerated in the decade since.

Should the Fire vacate SeatGeek, it would be the first time an MLS team has left a soccer-specific stadium, offering a cautionary tale about the limitations of such brick-and-mortar achievements in the face of questionable leadership and poor results on the pitch.

The Fire front office have thus far declined to respond to this week’s rumors and reports, releasing only the following club statement:

“We don’t comment on social-media speculation from individuals outside the organization.”

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