Julian Posada left the Fire yesterday after serving for a little more than 2 years as the fifth President* in club history. Like John Guppy and Dave Greeley before him, Posada managed to remain in the post for a relatively short time. Guppy, the man tasked with the unenviable position of following Peter Wilt assumed the title from April 2005 to April 2008 before being replaced by Greeley, who remained with the club from August 2008 to August 2010. In September of 2010 Posada was introduced and immediately addressed his vision for the club while discussing the challenges inherent with the position. His link to professional soccer and MLS was virtually non-existent at that time but it seemed that his established presence in local media and fresh approach may have been a good fit for a club desperately trying to make a name for itself in Chicago's competitive sports market. Twenty-seven months later he's out with media and supporters advised via a "thank you" letter from owner Andrew Hauptman.
The form of the letter was a bit odd given that no official press release was issued to publicly advise the fan base of the departure of the team president but even more interesting was the declaration that no replacement would be named to assume that position. Javier Leon, as President of Soccer Operations and Atul Khosla as Chief Operating Officer have assumed much of what typically would have been the President's duties over the last year or so and will apparently continue to do so making the title of club "President" essentially obsolete. The issue here lies not within the title itself but with the assumption that someone acting as the face of the club while negotiating with both the corporate and public sectors (entities that provide vital support required to establish that name in a crowded Chicago market) isn't a necessity.
Posada, in his tenure as team President really didn't establish himself as a figure who could be relied on to publicly represent the club with media or supporters. Perhaps that was by design allowing him to focus on matters behind the scenes that aren't typically apparent to the general public. His public absence over the last two seasons was strange given his credentials in dealing with local media outlets in previous endeavors. Whatever the reasons were are probably irrelevant at this point and it should be noted that there were several positive accomplishments during the two year Posada era. As Hauptman's letter points out ticket sales are up and the Quaker sponsorship deal has been a huge success. Toyota Park now has a Team Store and the Second Star Club, a feature that should have been incorporated into the design of the stadium initially is now a reality. What's missing in all of this is a dependable, accessible, and forthcoming liaison to the club's most important asset. Its fans.
Understanding that soccer is a different animal is step one. Particularly in Chicago where the Fire are still an afterthought in the consciousness of the local sporting landscape. It won't change overnight or even in two years but the lack of a clear public spokesman for the club on all matters relating to the business of soccer on and off the field should be a consideration for concern. Frank Klopas, who has grown into the role as the face of Chicago soccer due to his association with the past and the present game in the City has given time graciously to both media and fans whenever he's been asked to make an appearance on local television and radio or rally support for a fan event. As the head coach and an individual who also bears the partial responsibility of scouting and player procurement, one cannot expect Klopas to be able to address issues that he is not involved in. This situation came to light this past summer when Klopas told reporters he couldn't comment on Sebastian Grazzini's contractual situation because he wasn't involved in the negotiations. Klopas also can't be expected to address issues pertaining to television and radio broadcasts, tickets sales, and other important topics that a President would be able to address publicly.
By the same token, Javier Leon appears to be more involved in off-field issues and he was available to address the Grazzini situation but being based out of Los Angeles doesn't lend to easy access when the need to provide information to the people who are supporting the franchise arises. Leon is knowledgeable and passionate about the league and the club but again, the lack of a Technical Director since Klopas took over the reigns behind the bench has necessitated more of his time being spent in the area of player personnel. At some point he will need to be more accessible on an every day basis if he is going to assume some of the shared responsibilities that the vacated President's office would have encompassed. Guillermo Petrei, who according to Leon handles contract negotiations with players and agents was never formally introduced to media and fans, let alone spoken publicly about anything is not in a position as Vice President of Soccer Operations to address the multitude of issues that arise during the course of a season.
Khosla, an executive member of the organization who was formally introduced via press release as a Senior Vice President would seem to be fit to address some of the non-football issues as Chief Operating Officer. Will he be the voice heard when and if the networks, newspapers, etc. come calling for a sound byte pertaining to a story that demands some sort of response from an executive in the organization? Is it possible that Hauptman himself will be more readily available during the course of the season to address that type of circumstance? To his credit, he is approachable enough to fans and media alike when he is in Chicago and the annual town hall meeting at the beginning of each season gives supporters an opportunity to bombard him with questions in person but that rapport has to increase in order to gain the trust and confidence of the fan base. The relationship with supporters is the fundamental difference between professional soccer clubs in MLS and the other professional sports organizations in America. It's something that is difficult to understand from the outside looking in and the bond is compounded in multiples when factoring in the localism and pride that is inherent with supporting a team in Chicago.
The club's relationship with their most ardent supporters has been strained on more than one occasion since Wilt was dismissed in 2005. Much of what goes into dealing with Section 8 Chicago from an organizational standpoint entails the logistics of helping a large, organized, and passionate group of fans maintain a level of excitement and crowd support in every match. It's a task that is specific only to soccer and isn't something that other sports executives in Chicago have to deal with. Whether they realize it or not, the energy that Section 8 Chicago brings to every match is vitally important to the atmosphere and thrill of attending a game at Toyota Park. Section 8 Chicago and their counterparts throughout MLS are part of the draw and the culture of the sport that is the driving force behind the growth of the game in this country and shouldn't be minimized when addressing a legitimate concern. At this moment there appears to be an overriding opinion that the front office isn't doing enough to maintain and encourage contact with it's supporters from a top level despite an excellent rapport with game day operations and ticket service executives at the club.
The Fire can't afford to take the "you'll get nothing and like it" approach that the Bears and Cubs seem to take in thumbing their noses at fans while telling them that they'll run the club as they see fit and there's nothing you can do about it. Those two franchises can afford arrogance when exhibiting that type of corporate behavior because, let's be honest they know fans will buy tickets regardless of how much they complain. That being said, they don't have to pander to a vocal minority either. The best example I can think of brings me back to the Blackhawks and the revised business model that brought the club back to life within the Chicago sporting community. John McDonough and Rocky Wirtz are always available to speak to fans through media in order to promote all things Blackhawk related. The effort needed from a soccer club's leadership should be ten fold given that the Fire need to work that much harder just to fill the seats, increase season ticket sales, and draw new interest. That includes simple things like issuing a statement when someone like Mike Jeffries is let go. There has still been no official mention of his departure although his name has finally been removed from the staff directory on the club's website.
The position of President may not be necessary at the moment from a corporate standpoint since Leon and Kholsa assumed those responsibilities some time ago but at some point there has to be someone in the organization willing to speak publicly not only to fans but to potential sponsors and partners as well. That's not even mentioning the headache that dealing with Bridgeview has become at Toyota Park, somebody has to deal with that as well. Maybe that person will eventually be Leon, Khosla, or even Hauptman himself. I don't think it's out of line to suggest that the role of President (maybe not even by title) should ideally be filled by an individual who is familiar with not only the game itself but someone who is legitimately passionate about soccer in Chicago, the Fire organization, and it's duty to supporters. That person should be someone who believes in the game and the club not only because they are being paid to do so but because they truly believe in the cause.
As Posada said in his opening introduction to local media in September of 2010, "You have to ask, what do fans want and deliver it."
*Bob Sanderman served as the club's first President from 1997-2000