NASL commissioner Bill Peterson opened the door to speculation about a NASL franchise coming to Chicago during recent interviews by acknowledging that Chicago is a market that the league is interested in. Fire Confidential has confirmed that the NASL has indeed been in discussions with a group interested in fielding a team here. When reached by phone, Peterson told Fire Confidential that the potential group has been exploring the idea but it’s in the initial stages and there is nothing close to a finalized deal in place or an announcement being made regarding an expansion team as of yet.
Adding Chicago to the league is an attractive proposition for the NASL despite the crowded sports landscape according to Peterson. “Chicago as a marketplace in NASL is very viable for a number of reasons,” he said responding to a question about the possibility of a new team. “One, obviously the market size is more than big enough to support an NASL team. Two, there’s a rich tradition there with the Sting and there’s still a lot of people that have favorable and fond memories of those days. It’s an incredible soccer market. The marketplace is very viable and we’d be honored to have a team there but the fact is that we don’t have an organized ownership group right now that’s working on putting a team there, although there’s been some interest and conversations I wouldn’t say anything is organized at his point. We’ve had some people reach out to us as well but it’s in the very early days so it’s hard to predict what that process will look like and what will pan out but the marketplace would be great for us.”
Peterson has also referenced fan support for the new franchise via a twitter campaign separate and independent from the proposed ownership group. “We’re obviously happy to see those people organizing and love the passion for our league and the Sting. Hopefully that sort of passion resonates with potential owners that there is some level of built-in marketplace or awareness for the Sting and NASL,” he said.
The mention from Peterson has piqued the interest of supporters in Chicago who fondly remember the Chicago Sting during the original NASL’s glory years in the late 70’s and early 80’s. That Chicago Sting last played an outdoor match in 1984 and ceased operations after the 1988 MISL season. The name and the history of that team, or at least the rights to the name, the logo and merchandising, were acquired by today’s version of the NASL in January of 2014 when they filed a legal trademark claim on the property.
The Sting’s original owner, Lee Stern has not shown much of an interest in reviving the franchise over the years but now he no longer owns the name and there is some stirring. The group of investors, who have yet to identify themselves publicly, is legitimately considering the pursuit of an NASL franchise in Chicago. That team may bear the familiar black and yellow colors and name that soccer fans who followed the sport locally in the 70’s and 80’s all reminisce about but that’s not set in stone either. “It’s an idea. Obviously there’s a lot of sentiment to that name but we always leave that decision up to the ownership group to decide what they feel the best way forward is,” said Peterson.
Getting the idea off the ground poses some hurdles however.
Nostalgia is one thing, but actually selling another soccer team in a sports town that, let’s be honest, generally treats soccer as if this was still 1985 and there was no major professional outdoor league in existence, is quite another thing. On the surface, more soccer in the local market can never be a bad thing for those of us who care and want to see the game grow domestically but questions about the viability of another NASL/Sting franchise in Chicago are concerns that the proposed, unnamed ownership group is surely weighing.
The obvious hot issue right from the start pertains to a stadium site or home for the proposed NASL team. The potential ownership group has been in contact with Peterson and the NASL, and has gone as far as to begin scouting locations for a home throughout the Chicagoland area. Although he says that those talks are exploratory and very preliminary.
“It’s always an issue,” said Peterson of the difficulty in finding a location within Chicago city limits. “What is your short term and long term stadium plans? Many times, it’s the hardest piece of the puzzle to fit in. I wouldn’t want to weight in myself and say it has to be this or that yet but it will be evaluated very closely. There is a pattern of wanting a stadium in the city centers but at the same time, Chicago is so big, I would imagine that just like other major cities its size, it’s really tough to find the real estate to build stadiums. I don’t think you can rule anything out at this stage. Every option has to be evaluated and obviously you want to make the choice that will create the most success but that’s one of the most difficult parts of the whole process,” he said.
The Fire attempted to find a permanent home within city limits before Bridgeview Mayor Steven Landik stepped in with an offer that couldn’t be refused. At the time when the deal was struck, the Fire didn’t have many have options within City limits as there was little interest from the Daley administration in accommodating available land for a soccer stadium while Soldier Field sat empty for the majority of the summer. That issue is still evident today. While there may be a handful of properties that possibly could squeeze in the required amount of real estate for a soccer stadium, public transportation is also a major concern. Building or finding a viable stadium location is no easy task. Neither is renovating any of the number of smaller “soccer sites” scattered throughout the area. A renovation of a smaller park will just perpetuate the “minor league” dismissal that the NASL probably wants to avoid.
Of course the option to build just outside of City limits always exists, but then the new NASL club will be faced with the same dilemma that Bridgeview currently presents for some Fire supporters. Ideally, staying within close range of the downtown area would help but that’s likely not going to happen. As fans of the original Sting remember, the MISL version of the team moved from the Chicago Stadium to what was then called the Rosemont Horizon and that relocation helped cement their demise. There is no easy answer here.
The other major hurdle will be that “minor league” perception. While the current NASL does include a resurrected version of the New York Cosmos, how much demand really exists for another professional soccer team in Chicago? Soccer in this crowded pro sports market is generally an afterthought for major media news outlets and much of the general sporting public who attend live events. That’s evident by the fact that the Fire are still paying for air time on Comcast Sportsnet despite the recent new agreement for broadcasts and content. Peterson has said that he’s expecting the NASL to grow to 18-20 teams in the next few years but that’s a long way from the current 11-team format considering that Minnesota United will depart for MLS and Indy Eleven’s long term plan is probably a jump as well. Will Chicagoans really care about a second or possibly even a third division soccer club regardless of what the name is? The soccer market in Chicago is still largely untapped but will the NASL be able to siphon what MLS hasn’t?
Peterson is still bullish on the prospect and won’t discount entering other MLS markets if the opportunity arises. “We look at each market on an individual basis,” he said. “Each market has to be evaluated on its own merit and sometimes markets will have multiple teams in multiple leagues and other times they don’t. It just depends on what you think the capacity is to add to that marketplace. Chicago is obviously a place that could handle multiple professional soccer teams and it’s not one that we’d be concerned about having a team in MLS there.”
There will be some support for a Sting resurrection from those that can remember the days before MLS and seek an alternative, and those that are unhappy with current Fire ownership but the question should be asked if that’s really enough to sustain a new franchise past the initial introductory bump. The original Sting played outdoors from 1975 to 1984 and only averaged a little over 8,000 spectators over those ten seasons. There were some big crowds for a few individual matches and the indoor version was actually more popular for a brief period but that wasn’t enough to sustain the continued investment from Stern and the rest of the league. The team moved indoors exclusively after winning the Soccerbowl in ’84 and four years later they closed shop for good. The climate for professional soccer has changed in the present day but selling a franchise based on not being owned by Andell or Major League Soccer is probably not a premise for long term stability.
On the positive side for Fire supporters, a NASL competitor could theoretically force MLS and Andell into pushing more resources toward ensuring that the Fire succeeds. Chicago, as the third largest market in the country, is vital for MLS’ continued growth and success. The last five seasons which featured one playoff appearance and growing fan apathy due to the lack of results have not gone unnoticed in league circles. Furthermore, continued issues with the Village of Bridgeview have become contentious, particularly after last season’s turf fiasco. The Village has upgraded their maintenance crew and appears to have addressed some of those issues but this is something that bears watching over the coming months. The Fire have hurdles to overcome as well, but a contending and entertaining team will mask some of those. A competitor could mean a spark for the Fire (pun slightly intended).
A successful run in Chicago would also help elevate the NASL into more of a serious competitor for MLS but some have questioned the league’s long term stability and ability to compete monetarily for enough quality players outside of the Big Apple. The New York Cosmos may be able to spend more than the other clubs in the league but the original NASL has already been down that road. Should Indy and San Antonio jump ship in another future round of MLS expansion, how does NASL continue to survive?
Regardless, the NASL is moving ahead with expansion plans and continues to be an interesting alternative competitor for the affection of the domestic soccer supporter. Whether that happens in Chicago in the near future remains to be seen with Peterson setting no time table for an announcement. “What I’ve learned over the years is that these expansion processes all work at a different speed and as soon as you think you know what the timetable is going to be it changes. I really have no idea at this point how long it could take. There’s a lot of work to be done before we announce an expansion city or an expansion partner and I characterize it as early days,” he said.
All of the questions do illustrate one important concept, however. Soccer in America has emerged from the dark times of the post-original-NASL days, when there was no viable first division league to speak of, to the current era where legitimate competition for support and the sporting dollar is a real possibility.
A Sting return would delight fans who are sentimental about an era gone by or those disgruntled over the last five seasons of less than mediocre results but the big question remains. Can it work?
Most would welcome more soccer locally but it will be a tough sell and no one wants to see the Sting fail twice.