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Fire Wed Feb 12 2014
In a romantic relationship there comes a time when individual identity recedes and the partners forge ahead as a unit. A hallmark of this comes when, eventually, you find yourself swapping out singular pronouns for plural; when the I and my become we and ours. This is a move met with some degree of consternation in circles masculine, where individuality is to be protected above all else. Man is, after all, an island, if you practice selective reading. Yet in the world of sports, as we are told ad nauseum, there is no capital I individuality. It is surely nowhere to be found in the word team, and even less in fan. We becomes the most natural expression to escape your lips when speaking of your team. The truth about being a fan is that you are entering into a relationship with your team, with its players, its front office, and all attendant properties.
The business of American sports today is all about romancing the fan. In this era of time-shifted television consumption, live sports are the one commodity which command real-time viewing. The NFL alone held 34 of the 35 top watched programs for the fall quarter of 2013. As such, higher and higher production values are applied, and coverage has been maximized. We have also been conditioned such that we expect to see teams and players operating at the zenith of their talents. Teams in the top three leagues in America--the NFL, MLB, and NBA--are virtually peerless on the world stage. The games we witness today define the highest echelon of their sport, something which is hard to overstate. Records are set and re-broken in dizzying fashion.
With all of this American exceptionalism on display, the problem facing Major League Soccer is in finding ways to woo audiences, getting them to fall in love with the so-called beautiful game. Why would anyone actively choose to follow a team in a league so nascent that its target demographic, the 18-30 crowd, were all born before its inception? The answer to this is hardly simple, but come along with me anyhow, won't you?
I have myself fallen for soccer, and I would tell you that it is a relationship well worth having. My history with the sport has been admittedly brief, but one I know will be with me through the rest of my days. I first caught a whiff of it a decade ago while on a trip to London, in time to witness "The Invincibles"-era Arsenal win the English Premier League. I became a fan of them straightaway, but back in America my passion for them waned. To me it just rang hollow rooting for a team so far away. I knew it was the sport I loved, I just needed a team to really call my own; it was then I found the Fire.
The Fire are the team which has my heart now. True, I have loved others, even been a season ticket holder at Wrigley, but the rise and fall of their fortunes are now something of a barometer for my own. It is a great and unique feeling, to be on the cusp of a movement in this country; the growing of a league as if almost from scratch. I do not admonish my compatriots who have a rooting interest in a team abroad, after all it is part and parcel with the conditioning I mentioned earlier. I do, however, think that they would find a lot to love in the domestic game as well.
The team falls prey to a catch-22 familiar to Major League Soccer, namely that mainstream perception becomes reality. They are seen as a lesser team in Chicago, persona non grata among most local media outlets where even high school sports get their share of column inches. It is precisely because the media treat them as an also-ran that they are in time held to be so by the general public. Often I encounter individuals who are about as surprised to learn that Chicago has a professional soccer team as to learn Chicago has a column from Mussolini in Burnham Park. It does, on both accounts in case you were confused.
The lack of robust day-to-day coverage means that there is no narrative, no season-long storyline in which the casual fan may get engrossed, which is what drives sporting culture. Let's look at Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks as a recent embodiment of this situation: a solid player who, without the focused attention of the media, would go on as a name probably known by few outside of Seattle and the fantasy football set, but who is today a near-ubiquitous sporting figure. This is the Fire, and to a greater extent this is MLS. ESPN currently broadcasts a good number of games annually for MLS, including MLS Cup, but the pervading feeling is that the league could scarcely buy coverage on the network's bellwether shows, like SportsCenter, which help to define the national sports landscape.
In short, lack of media exposure equates to lack of public awareness, which leads to dismissive attitudes. It's like hearing someone tell you that waiting in line at Hot Doug's is more than worth it, something you'd approach with incredulity only until you yourself had sampled it and been converted. It is easy to forget that only a decade or so ago ESPN was condemning the Chicago Blackhawks, calling then the worst team in professional sports, yet last summer saw over 2 million fans and revelers came to toast them in Grant Park for their second Stanley Cup in 3 years. And all of this after a partial-season lockout to boot. So what has been the x-factor for the Hawks? It has a good deal to do with a solid history, sure, but perhaps the biggest influence has been the broadcasting of all home games on WGN, something that only came to pass under Rocky Wirtz in 2009.
The Fire's games have been broadcast across a soup of networks in the past, though last season saw the organization partner with My50 Chicago to broadcast nearly half of their games in HD. No such agreement has been announced at this time for the 2014 season; hopefully this will get nailed down soon since increased exposure can make all the difference.
A singular joy of being a soccer fan, made even better by having the Fire in Chicago, is following the international narrative from its germination. You see, a soccer fan has dual loyalties which sets them apart from fans of traditional domestic leagues, that is to their club and their country. Watching a domestic league produce players who end up being difference makers for the US Men's National Team is a thrill beyond words, and Fire fans are currently being treated to that with the ascension of Mike Magee, and in the long run with newly acquired Benji Joya. As the sport continues to grow at home, so too will the number of players who will feature on the game's biggest stage, the World Cup.
There are those whose major complaint regarding the team is its stadium location, which I agree is not ideal, but it shouldn't be a barrier to entry. For everyone dogging the team as not being a true Chicago team for playing its games in Bridgeview, one simply need look to both the Jets and Giants of New York, who play in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Besides, there are chartered busses which run from a number of local bars, and allow for BYOB drinking onboard to and from games.
All of this is not to suggest that the Fire are without shortcomings of their own, just that in order to love something warts and all, you first need to spend time with it to see its finer qualities, its inner beauty. I have gone from unaware to a dyed-in-the-wool supporter in less than 5 years, and I implore you to take time and become a fan. If you're a supporter yourself reading this, follow the lead set by Dan Wiersema, founder of the Free Beer Movement: help to grow the sport by offering to buy beers for a friend, or group of friends, if they'll watch a game with you. Who knows, it might be the start of a beautiful relationship.