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Regular-season attendance figures from the Chicago Fire. (Graphic/Andrew Rodriguez) 

In Chicago, Fire Have Rabid, But Inconsistent, Following

By Matthew Anderson and Andrew Rodriguez

Posted: Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Ben Gerger, a season ticket-holder for the Chicago Fire, wasn’t shy about sharing his feelings during what is now the 15th season since the team was formed.

“It’s so frustrating being a Fire fan. When we first got the tickets it was pretty packed,” Gerger said. “I remember when Quatemac Blanco was playing, those games were always packed. But now it’s half that.

“You just get tickets to get in and then you can sit wherever.”

Gerger is referring to Toyota Park, the 20,000-person capacity stadium built for the Fire in 2006. For an organization that led the way in building soccer-specific stadiums, the Fire have seen their fair share of attendance issues.

As of mid-May, the Fire had the third-lowest attendance in the MLS with an average of 12,108. That comes after posting an average attendance of 16,409 in 2012. The Fire fill only 60.5 percent of their stadium capacity (also third-lowest in the MLS) even though Chicago is the third-largest city in the United States.

Fire spokesperson Dan Lobring said the lower attendance figures are likely due to a multiple of reasons, including this season starting three weeks earlier than normal, the unpredictable Chicago weather and the performance on the field.

“To date, compared to last year, our attendance numbers have been lower,” Lobring said. “But they are starting to pick up, beginning with last week’s game against DC United, drawing more than 14,500.”

Despite the recent drop in attendance numbers, the organization is encouraged by recent season-ticket trends. Last year, the Fire sold the most season tickets in the team’s history and they also increased attendance by 15 percent in 2012.

“Historically, the summer months draw the highest attendance numbers at Toyota Park,” Lobring said.

Gerger said he believes that roster turnover and lack of superstars, along with traffic in the area, have impacted the attendance in recent years. The team recently played a game in the U.S. Open Cup and was in the headlines after trading Robbie Rogers to the Los Angeles Galaxy for star midfielder Mike Magee.

“Magee scores his first goal and the announcers are yelling louder than the crowd,” Gerger said. “They have a new squad every year. Every year they’re trying to find one player to promote. Even last year, I already forgot who he was.”

According to the Fire, the organization is dedicated to providing the best product on the field and an engaging, authentic fan experience at Toyota Park, and the team is continually seeking ways to improve the fan experience, officials say.

“Having 20 to 22 of our matches on My50 Chicago in HD provides the Fire destination programming,” Lobring said.

Located in south suburban Bridgeview, Toyota Park is the only major Chicago professional sports stadium that is not in the city, though minor-league baseball and other non-major sports have done well in the suburbs.  However, attending games would appear to be convenient for those who live in the area and for the predominantly Hispanic communities on the South Side as well.

“It [Toyota Park] also goes after the audience of having a lot of Hispanics and Mexicans in the area of Bridgeview who just go to soccer games cause it’s soccer,” Gerger said, “not because it’s the Chicago Fire.”

Toyota Park Photo
Toyota Park, home of the Chicago Fire. (Photo/Matthew Anderson)

The Fire have realized this and even referenced it in the history section of their website.

Referring to Chicago’s inaugural MLS season in 1998, the website reads, “Chicago also targeted its Spanish population with the signing of Jorge Campos, Diego Gutierrez and Chris Armas.”

Recently, one of Mexico’s beloved players, the aforementioned Blanco, played for the Fire. His face could be seen on billboards in areas where the population was predominantly Hispanic, further supporting the team's strategy.

In 2008, as much as 40 percent of the MLS fan attendance was Hispanic and the numbers continue to grow. The Fire addressed their need to reach out to Chicago’s Hispanic community through strategic marketing and planning.

“Thirty-two of our matches will appear on La Ley radio, our Spanish-language FM radio partner,” Lobring said.

The Fire also advertise on Hispanic and general market radio, TV and print, as well as public transit (CTA).

One of the benefits of this is getting members of the Hispanic population to become season ticket holders as well.

Carlos Alfredo Rodriguez is in his second year as a season ticket-holder, and based off his experiences at games said he will continue to be one for the foreseeable future.

“I remember back in 2007, the Fire used to have a Mexican player Quatemac Blanco,” Rodriguez said. “That drew in a lot of Mexican fans that would wind up being season ticket holders down the road.”

“Now we don’t really have that name anymore.”

However, he said he believes the organization is making the right moves by bringing in professional teams from Mexico to play the Fire in order to develop a more dedicated fan base among the Mexican-American community.

Pattrick Stanton works as a bartender at The Globe pub, a North Side bar that caters to soccer fans and runs a shuttle bus service to every Fire home game.

A passionate Fire fan, Stanton said he took a road trip with some friends to South Carolina to watch the team play in the U.S. Open Cup match. He said the attendance numbers are based off tickets sold and do not take into consideration how many fans are actually walking through the gates.

With warmer weather coming, Stanton said he expects bigger crowds at Toyota Park, starting with Saturday night’s home game. The summer and weekend games are usually the best-attended.

“They say 12,000 is what we’ve been averaging, but I guarantee you there will be like 17,000 people at that game,” Stanton said.

But Stanton has hope for the Fire -- and their fan base -- heading into summer.

“The weather is finally turning and the Fire are scoring goals,” he said.

Postseason attendance figures from the Chicago Fire. (Graphic/Andrew Rodriguez)

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