Ishwara Glassman Chrein has a lot on her plate as the Chicago Fire president. But perhaps no priority is bigger than making Soldier Field work for the MLS team.

By Jeremy Mikula

Ishwara Glassman Chrein has an ever-growing list of priorities as the new Chicago Fire president.

Glassman Chrein, who filled the vacancy left by Nelson Rodríguez’s departure earlier this year, previously worked at Yahoo Sports/Verizon Media as the head of sports partnerships and business development. She recognizes the uphill battle that comes with fighting for attention in a crowded sports landscape — but also the potential.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to build something,” she said of joining the Fire. “We’re all going to be so excited about what we build here, together between the fans and the sporting side and the real estate we’re working on. It’s really exciting. It’s an amazing opportunity and there’s no reason we can’t be successful.”

Since starting June 1, Glassman Chrein has helped bring in a few corporate partnerships — MadeGood Foods and Proven IT — but the biggest business priority comes this offseason when the Fire’s jersey sponsorship deal with Motorola comes to an end.

In addition to front-of-jersey sponsorship, Major League Soccer allows teams to sell space on the sleeves, something Glassman Chrein said she’s aiming to complete in time for the 2022 season.

“We’re at a phase in the process where we’re looking at all different options,” she said. “We’re looking at local companies, national companies, international. It’s an opportunity because the jersey travels. We play 17 games here, but we play 17 games all over the country. So I think it’s an interesting opportunity ... but it’s broadly really important for us to be tied to Chicago and the community and the corporate community in Chicago.”

Business objectives aside, perhaps none is bigger for Glassman Chrein et al. than making Soldier Field work as a long-term solution for the Fire.

Surely a good deal of that falls on sporting director Georg Heitz, technical director Sebastian Pelzer and coach Raphael Wicky to build a winning team — something that so far hasn’t happened in their 1½ seasons at the helm with just 11 wins in 46 matches.

But the Fire need to find a way to attract fans into what Glassman Chrein called a “beautiful facility” and keep them coming back — regardless of results.

“We want to build a front office that can be resilient through winning and losing seasons,” Glassman Chrein said. “We all want to win.”

The Fire’s attendance numbers have struggled since July 3, when the team announced no capacity restrictions. Though Soldier Field seats 61,500, the typical soccer capacity is around the 25,000 mark with the option to open the upper decks.

But since July 3, the Fire have yet to have more than 15,000 in attendance, with the best-attended match coming against Atlanta United in front of 14,898. The Fire also have had three matches — all midweek contests — with fewer than 9,000 fans.

Those numbers fall well short of owner and Chairman Joe Mansueto’s expectation. When the Fire announced their return to the lakefront during an event Oct. 8, 2019, the Morningstar founder said he considered 25,000 a realistic target.

And a few weeks ago during a conference call after his purchase of Swiss team FC Lugano, Mansueto reiterated his belief the Fire should be attracting that number, saying he has “no doubt we can do that” considering the population of the Chicagoland area is about 9.6 million.

“I’ve been to Cincinnati when they’re at the bottom of the table and they’ve got 25, 30,000 fans,” he said. “No matter what the results are on the pitch, that cannot be any excuse whatsoever for not driving fans into the stadium. And we’ve got a great product to sell today, we’re playing exciting football. And so we’ve got a lot of great entertain(ing) soccer that we can sell to the fans of Chicago.”

It’s not as if soccer fans don’t exist locally. International matches at Soldier Field, such as the CONCACAF Gold Cup, have no problem attracting high attendance. The same goes for preseason friendlies between European powerhouses despite star players rarely playing.

And as for the 20,000-seat SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, the Fire’s former home, an exhibition between Chivas and Pachuca of Liga MX in July was well attended.

Converting those soccer fans into supporting the Fire — and by extension MLS — is part of the challenge that the entire club, not just Glassman Chrein, faces.

“I’m not trying to have them stop rooting for Man(chester) U(nited) or a Liga MX team, I’m hoping that they can also add the Fire,” she said. “I have an NL and an AL team, there’s no reason you can’t add more teams to your love or fandom. But we want to do a better job being out in the community and being a part of these communities.”

Certainly, Soldier Field has its advantages as a centralized stadium with access to public transportation. But it also comes with drawbacks not related to capacity.

Being a secondary tenant to the Bears results in a lopsided schedule for the Fire, who are in the midst of a six-game trip — an atypical length for a team not dealing with stadium construction.

And the Bears have a five-day window before home games that prevents the use of Soldier Field, meaning the Fire’s Sept. 29 match against New York City FC has to be played at SeatGeek Stadium.

“The Soldier Field crew is doing a good job making the field as good as possible,” midfielder Fabian Herbers said last month. “Obviously it’s a little bit more bumpy when the Bears play maybe the weekend or the week before us. But we have to deal with that. We are always dealing with difficult conditions, no matter where you go, and it’s not that bad. So obviously the (American football) lines are on the field and you see everything that’s going on, that the Bears had a game.”

So what’s the solution for justifying working around the Bears?

For Glassman Chrein, it’s having good attendance and starts with “sampling.”

“Once fans come to Soldier Field, they have a great experience,” she said. “It really is. It’s a beautiful facility. There’s transportation, we have good food. We have Burnham Downs where you can go and have some food and drinks and play a few games before (the match). It’s about reintroducing ourselves to Chicago.”


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