The Professionalization of the Chicago Fire’s Independent Supporters’ Association

Section 8 Chicago ISA logo

Section 8 Chicago has formalized its structure & become a proficient non-profit with an annual six-figure budget.

The nature of the Chicago Fire’s organized fan support has matured over the years much like MLS itself.

Section 8 Chicago, the Chicago Fire’s Independent Supporters’ Association, held its Annual General Meeting last Saturday in the Toyota Park Stadium Club and it was remarkable to me how far the supporters have come.  A dozen years ago, there were a couple of Fire supporters groups, the Barn Burners and Polish Ultras, who worked separately and successfully to organize support for the expansion MLS team.  The groups met in bars and discussed activities online as S8C does today, but the depth, breadth and formality of the organizing has grown tremendously.

The original supporters groups, while not as formalized as today’s S8C, were critical to the success of the team in the early years and critical to the success of today’s supporters groups as well.  Barn Burners 1871 and the Fire Ultras laid the foundation of today’s professionalized Section 8 Chicago, an umbrella association working on behalf of more than a dozen supporters groups and thousands of independent fans.

The Barn Burners and Ultras had bus trips, tifo, scarves and tailgates as do today’s supporters, but the level of all has grown along with the professionalization that has emerged under the leadership of the S8C independent supporters association’s first two chairmen, Marcin Tłustochowicz and Ben Burton.  Under Tłustochowicz, S8C instituted board positions and responsibilities, added more road trips, merchandise sales and more regular tifo displays.  Under Burton’s leadership the last three years, S8C increased its fundraising, amended its by-laws and grew its marketing and road and home support.  Much to his chagrin, S8C failed to finish its club charter with the Fire under Burton’s watch, but it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of effort or passion on his part.  The Fire is finally taking the club charter seriously and will likely ratify the important document in new chairman Tom Dunmore’s first term.

barn-burners-logo

The Barn Burners were the original Fire supporters group.

Saturday’s meeting exemplified the organization’s growth.  The location of the AGM alone is a sign of growth  both for the team and the supporters.  Prior to Toyota Park, the Fire never hosted a supporters event, which normally were in back rooms of local bars and restaurants.  This time, printed copies of the AGM’s agendas were passed out at the door and the AGM started with an hour-long social that brought supporters together with club seat holders and Fire staff.  Unfortunately, the timing didn’t allow any players or coaches to attend.  There was no upper management present, but Fire broadcaster Fred Huebner attended and a very nice letter from Fire owner Andrew Hauptman was read to the 100 or so in attendance.

The meeting itself was more IBM and less Animal House than previous AGMs…though the presence of beer and Jim Beam at the board members table served as a reminder that this was still a meeting of fans that included the election of a Whiskey Bros. 05 supporters group member as its new chairman.

The formalities of the meeting began with a welcome from outgoing S8C Director of Marketing Melissa Hamming, who served as the AGM’s moderator.

Director of Finance Mario Ortega led the audience through five pages of proposed by-law amendments, which revised board of director titles and descriptions, allowed absentee voting and created a clearer process to amend by-laws in the future.  A couple of friendly amendments were added by those present and the changes were agreed to by acclamation.

Next came the annual election of officers highlighted by the uncontested elevation of Vice-Chairman (and Pitch Invasion Founder and Editor) Dunmore to Chairman.  Dunmore accepted graciously and rightly showed his appreciation for the herculean efforts of Burton, his predecessor, over the last three years.  He promised continued growth, improved relationships with the front office, outreach to Fire fans and peace in our time.

Dunmore’s Vice-Chairman role will be filled by Joel Pitkel, another longtime Fire supporter who has been active in efforts to organize a North American affiliate of Show Racism the Red Card.

Director of Events and Director of Operations were the only two contested positions. Josh Graning won the former with the help of a well designed campaign flyer highlighting his “experience, initiative, honor and dedication” as well as his “humility”. Graning won over absentee candidate Marc Bahnsen who was out of town for work at another AGM…US Soccer’s…and had his campaign speech read to the supporters by the moderator.  Michael “Giaco” Giacometti was re-elected to head up operations over perennial candidate DJ Racis who gave an eloquent and serious speech that was followed by an equally thoughtful extemporaneous rebuttal by Giaco.

Ortega was re-elected Director of Finance after reviewing the 2009 finances with everyone.  The gross income and expense of approximately $154,000 isn’t challenging the GNP of any small island nations yet, but is still impressive for the registered non-profit. Road trips, ticket and merchandise sales and tifo displays are the main areas of revenue and expense for the S8C.

From the left: Peter Wilt, with past and present S8C Chairs Ben Burton, Tom Dunmore and Marcin

From the left: Fire's founding GM Peter Wilt with Section 8 Chicago Chairmen Ben Burton, Tom Dunmore and Marcin Tłustochowicz in front of the Toyota Park player tunnel and Section 8 touchstone from Old Soldier Field.

A few further things I picked up on from the day:

Learning: I learned more about how Chris Rolfe originally came to the Fire’s attention.  While Fire Assistant Coach Mike Matkovich deserves tremendous plaudits for coaching Rolfe with the Fire Reserves, developing his skills and promoting his ability to the Fire, two others deserve mention as well.  Rolfe was discovered for the Fire reserves in 2003 by Fire Reserves Assistant Coach Jeremy Alumbaugh.  And then during the 2004 PDL season, Fire Assistant Coach Craig Reynolds importantly served as a mentor to Rolfe and nurtured his development in the summer before the Fire drafted him.

Observation: I saw several club seat holders at the meeting including longtime Chicago soccer supporters John Keller, Chet Young and Doug Thompson.  Club seat holder participation in the AGM is a very good sign.  While active volunteers for S8C primarily consist of fans who stand in Section 8, as an independent supporters’ association, it represents all Fire fans.  Under Burton’s leadership, they have worked to open lines of communication with fans in all areas of Toyota Park both with themselves and with the Fire and Toyota Park staff.

Learning: Fire player developmental staff tells me that new Head Coach Carlos de los Cobos has done a great job already integrating the developmental staff with the first team staff to create a true club culture.  This marks a sea change from the separation of departments that existed previously.

Observation: New Fire Communications Manager Brendan Hannan brings soccer and MLS knowledge, enthusiasm and sensibility to the job.  Brendan, multi-lingual Communications Coordinator Franco Sui Yuan and Jeff Crandall, also added to the communications department from the USL, give the Fire a level of soccer acumen that will pay off dearly.

Learning: While both are working on new languages, de los Cobos’ English is improving faster than Matkovich’s Spanish.

Observation:The AGM attendance was diverse in its gender, ethnic, age and socio-economic makeup.  Soccer is known for the diversity of its fan base, but it was still refreshing to see that old and young, rich and poor and people of various ethnic backgrounds came together for this meeting to show their support of S8C and the Fire.

Learning: Fire staff are optimistic that Collins John’s trial will lead to his signing and reunion with former Fulham FC teammate Brian McBride.  As usual with any trial, how he fits in to the team and his salary needs will ultimately determine the outcome of the trial.

Observation:

Tradition is a continuum. While it is natural to think about a team’s tradition pertaining only to what’s happened in the past, it’s very much about what’s happening in the present.  While the off season is always a time for optimism, early indications in 2010 provide good reason to think that the Fire’s rich tradition will continue to grow.

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