I intended to make this a three part posting but since I've decided to scale back on the media bashing and concentrate on the concept of how we got here and where we're going here is part 2 and 3 combined..........
The Chicago Fire will never be the Chicago Bears or the Chicago Cubs in terms of general public interest or media coverage. At least not in any of our life times. The Bears and the Cubs combined have over 220 years of history between them with the Bears beginning play in 1919 and the Cubs in 1876. That's over two centuries and numerous generations of fans, many of whom became fans because their fathers -and their fathers before them cultivated a sense of fandom, tradition, and passion based on cheering for their favorite teams. This didn't happen over night. It grew naturally as the years passed and seasons full of heartbreak were rewarded by intermittent years of glory. Who can forget the Cubs back to back glory years of 1907 and 1908? Nevertheless supporting your team is what being a fan is all about.
As I said in part 1, baseball and the Cubs were my first love in terms of sports fandom. I began watching baseball mainly because my father was a baseball fan, my uncle's were baseball fans, and their friends were baseball fans. I know baseball can be, for the most part, incredibly boring. Not much happens for the majority of the game until someone makes a nice diving play, hits a homerun, or steals a base. Of course there are many other aspects of baseball but they're usually accompanied by one guy standing around trying to figure out what pitch to throw next while eight other guys stand behind him waiting for a ball to be hit in their direction. Yeah, I know. That's a lot of generalization and it sounds really boring. But baseball has tradition dammit. It's the all American game for crying out loud. It's something that is worthy of endless media coverage and talk radio discussion regarding minutiae such as pinch hitters, lefty righty pitching options, and double switches. Isn't it ironic that some of the same generalized criticisms are made by people who don't understand or didn't grow up with soccer? "It's too boring" or "There's not enough scoring" are utterances commonly heard.
Football overseas (soccer) is popular for many of the same reasons that baseball is popular here. The game is steeped in tradition. Many teams have established 100 year histories with millions of fans handing down their love of the game from generation to generation. There is a reason why it is the most popular sport in the world. There is a reason why the World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world. It's the only major team sport where you can't take a time out. There are no substitutions for offense and defense. In top flight soccer there really is no equivalent for hiding a guy that can't defend in right field. Unfortunately, the game wasn't created in America like baseball and American football were, so many people here see it as a foreign game. That underlying xenophobia is what I believe drives the general media in this country to dislike soccer. It is unfortunate but it is not an obstacle that can't be overcome. In fact, the walls are starting to crumble faster than many in the general sports media realize.
I discovered soccer as a result of a friend introducing me to the Chicago Sting in the early 80's. I was instantly hooked since my favorite teams (the Cubs and the Bears) generally sucked during that time. The NASL managed to find a spark to light the media fire in Pele and soccer began to take on a sense of legitimacy in the American sporting landscape for the first time ever even after Pele retired in 1977. Unfortunately the NASL failed to capitalize on the buzz created by Pele and the New York Cosmos and mismanaged themselves into bankruptcy. The Sting stopped outdoor play and the league folded in 1984. The Sting continued to play indoors in the MISL for another four years before shutting their doors completely but the end of the NASL marked the end of major professional soccer in this country until MLS played their first season in 1996.
In Europe young athletes grow up training to be footballers in the same way children here grow up wanting to become baseball, football, or basketball players. For years we've heard that millions of children in this country are growing up playing soccer. We've all heard the theory for years that soccer will be extremely popular one day because of this early childhood training. Despite this fact the soccer "explosion" has yet to happen in America.
The soccer-phobic media points to this as evidence that it will never become a main stream sport. "People having been saying for decades that all those kids playing soccer are going to grow up to become the soccer consuming public. It hasn't happened yet and it's never going to happen" is another statement made by one of the resident geniuses on local sports talk radio recently. What he doesn't realize and refuses to acknowledge is lying right below the surface. The reason that those kids playing soccer in the 80's didn't grow up to be the mass soccer consuming market in the 90's and 2000's is because soccer as a major league sport disappeared from the general consciousness of the typical American consumer for over a decade. From 1984 to 1996 there was no big league to aspire to. There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow similar to other sports if you were gifted or fortunate enough to become a professional athlete. There simply was no infrastructure designed to hone the talented young child into a professional.
That's not to say that America did not produce the occasional player talented enough to actually play in a professional league overseas during this period. It's not just coincidence that the resurgence of the United States Men's National soccer team in the 90's featured players who grew up in the late 70's and early 80's during the NASL's heyday. It's not just coincidence that the current USMNT is comprised of players who grew up with the knowledge that a professional soccer league existed in MLS, heck many of them have played or still play in MLS. During the twelve year period from 1984 to 1996 professional soccer coverage in America was non existent. Most sports fans realized that it was popular overseas and in Latin American countries but with the exception of the hard core - live for soccer die hards, no one really knew or cared about what was going on with any of the foreign leagues.
That began to change with the introduction of MLS in 1993 as a result of FIFA essentially forcing the US Soccer Federation into creating a professional outdoor league as a condition of hosting the World Cup in 1994. Still at this point, top flight professional soccer was little more than a rumor since information was still reserved for the hard core. This changed with the advent of the internet in the early to mid 90's. Popularity grew exponentially with the growth of cable television and eventually satellite television. All of a sudden hard core fans had access to information about teams overseas. More and more Americans began to adopt European based teams as "their teams". American Eurosnobbery was born. The Eurosnobs had little or no interest in watching the fledgling MLS trudge around playing a slower, more physical, less technical version of their game. Why should they when they could watch Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, or AC Milan? This created a marketing problem which MLS has yet to solve. How does the league reach the millions of soccer fans in the country who have little interest in MLS? That's a question for another day.
There are millions of soccer fans in the United States. There are many more millions playing the game. I would dare say that the amount of young athletes playing soccer in this country outnumbers the amount of young athletes playing hockey by the hundreds of thousands if not millions. MLS is still a niche sport in America, there's no doubt about that. There's also no shame in that. After 93 years, the NHL is still basically a niche sport in this country despite its popularity north of the border. Locally the Chicago Blackhawks have experienced a massive resurgence after being nearly left for dead in the media for the better part of the last decade despite being arguably the most popular team in the city during the 60's and 70's. The Blackhawks resurgence is something the Fire can learn from.
The Blackhawks have done everything right in the last three years. Of course it helps immensely that they drafted brilliantly by selecting young players who are the foundation of their team today but their success reaches beyond that. During the ten year period before 2007 the Blackhawks had fallen off the sporting radar in Chicago. Attendance was miserable, home games were not televised, the product on the ice was bad, and most importantly the organization managed to alienate their fan base. During this period the Blackhawks organization was actually purchasing air time from WSCR in order to air their radio broadcasts. This may seem unheard of for pro franchises who are accustomed to receiving offers for broadcast rights but it accomplished one thing. It kept the Blackhawks visible to the sports consumer in Chicago and provided a live news and information outlet for their remaining fans. It was one of the few things the Blackhawks managed to do correctly during the final years of the Bill Wirtz regime. Although the Blackhawks were faced with the sobering thought of having to buy air time or become totally invisible they remained patient. Eventually the Blackhawks were able to cash in on a new radio/tv deal once the franchise's fortunes turned around. The reversal of fortune in terms of media attention coincided with the master stroke hiring of John McDonough from the Chicago Cubs front office.
McDonough, who once upon a time worked in the Chicago Sting front office, had deep connections at WGN TV and radio through his employment with the Cubs. Those connections in tandem with the WGN Sports brand began to fuel the media created hype that is now Blackhawks hockey. Under McDonough the Blackhawks organization began to right every wrong it had inflicted on itself over the better part of two decades. Winning of course is essential to the whole plan (although they haven't really won anything yet) but the perception among the media is that they're a hot commodity although they continue to be a niche sport with a hard core fan base that in reality is probably not that much bigger than the Fire's. What they have managed to do is capture the casual fan through brilliant marketing maneuvers. It also helps that the general media has bought into the hype machine and continually encourage support for the team. In the online version of the Sun Times I spotted a section entitled "Hockey Hysteria" with a picture of a few face painting Hawks fans. Hockey hysteria? Really? I love the Blackhawks but I don't get a sense of hysteria from any direction. The Chicago Blackhawks are also not the Bears or the Cubs and they never will be. Despite the resurgence of the local team, the NHL in terms of television ratings and national interest is not much further ahead of MLS despite its 80 year head start.
The Fire organization seems to be headed in the right direction. Team management has made themselves available to fans and a newly found dedication to the Fire academy teams are big steps in the right direction. Unfortunately no amount of outside marketing firm studies or new ad campaigns are going to advance the Fire into a position of prominence in Chicago sports. I'm not suggesting that the Fire needs to hire John McDonough but I would like to see them follow the basic footprint he has layed out for the Blackhawks revival. What makes the Blackhawks marketing plan work was that they gave their fans what they wanted. The growth of the team and the game nationally lies in the hands of the teams and their presentations publicly along with the willingness of the supporters to accept them. That willingness more than exists in Chicago but it needs to be cultivated.
The Chicago Fire/soccer is certainly more popular and boasts a more dedicated fan base than other niche sports that are treated with more respect in the local media. WSCR's afternoon hosts had no problem interviewing the Chicago Rush's head coach and even promoted attendance. I've been to several Chicago Rush games and I had a nice time, although it paled in comparison with the experience at Toyota Park. The crowd was enthusiastic and there were a lot of families in attendance. The problem is that arena football is even less than a niche sport. It's a gimmick with a likely short shelf life based on an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the NFL during the offseason. Yet for some reason members of the media seem more than happy to embrace it while going out of their way to announce that they don't like soccer. The same goes for other local organizations like the Wolves and any number of college teams in the area. The media will continue to miss the boat unless we as fans make our voices heard through television ratings and attendance.
It will take more than the emails and complaints from a few of the dedicated and passionate. But it is a start. They will likely ignore several dozen but they will not be able to ignore hundreds or thousands. I don't need WSCR to cover the Fire. I could care less if they do or not since any discussion there will likely be as useful as the proverbial tits on a bull. All I ask is that they treat fans of the sport with the same respect that they offer to fans of the other sports. After all, this is a station that has aired programs about fishing, golf, college sports, high school sports, and even non sports related programming. ESPN has aired Nascar programming for god's sake. WSCR airs a show hosted by Oney and Ozzie Guillen Jr., which I'm sure has an audience of at least two or three.
The game will grow naturally over the course of time. But it will take time. Now that top flight soccer is available to the nation's youth via outlets like satellite/cable tv and the internet, kids now are very aware of Lionel Messi, Cristiana Ronaldo, and Frank Lampard. They can be seen every weekend. Young soccer players can grow up knowing that there is a choice domestically in MLS or in Europe. Eventually some of the best athletes America has to offer will choose soccer over football, baseball, or basketball because there is now something to aspire to and reach for. When the day comes that the American soccer player is spoken about in the same breath as the most talented players overseas it will mark the day that American soccer is truly credible and the geniuses on sports radio will be forced to acknowledge it. Again, this won't happen overnight but it eventually will happen.
The Chicago Fire will never be the Chicago Bears or the Chicago Cubs but they are gaining quickly on the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Bulls. They have most certainly surpassed the likes of the Rush, Wolves, DePaul, high school sports, and women's basketball in terms of mass relevance. Whether the talking heads on WSCR want to acknowledge it or not the day is fast approaching when they will at the very least be on level ground with the Blackhawks and Bulls. That, I'm sure will happen in my lifetime.