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Tomorrow is the Chicago Fire’s birthday, and to mark the occasion the team and Section 8 Chicago, the Independent Supporters’ Association, are co-hosting a birthday party at Toyota Park. Major League Soccer’s first venture into expansion (along with its dead fraternal twin Miami) turns 12 on the 138th anniversary of the great conflagration that made the city, the Great Chicago Fire.
As some of you have heard, the powers that be at Philip Knight’s Portland based world empire Nike had (unbeknown to me. . .and the Fire’s owner, AEG’s Phil Anschutz) already named the team the Chicago Rhythm when I was hired as the team’s first employee in June of 1997. Nike had named and designed logos for its other sponsored MLS teams: San Jose Clash, Tampa Bay Mutiny, Dallas Burn, New York/New Jersey MetroStars and the lone surviving name, Los Angeles Galaxy.
We were quite surprised when we began our name search to find that the good folks at Swoop Central had not only named us, but had also created our logo and colors. One of my biggest regrets from my Fire years is that I misplaced the only tangible proof I’ve seen of their vision — a 2″ embroidered patch with the words “Chicago” and “Rhythm” circling a neon yellow coiled, tongue spitting cobra on an optic blue field.
To the joy and relief of many, we avoided a lifetime of misspelled team references, bad Catholic birth control method jokes and just plain poor branding when at my urging Phil Anschutz intervened at the highest levels to Nike and told his counterpart Phil Knight that it was his team and he was going to name it whatever he wanted, but it sure as sheep sh*t wasn’t going to be “Rhythm”. OK, he probably didn’t say “sheep sh*t”, but he wasn’t happy.
“Chicago MLS”, as we were known prior to October 8, 1997, was headquartered in a series of suites in the Equitable Building on prestigious Michigan Avenue, downtown Chicago. We started with a single suite for the original three employees — Allison Holmstrom (now Gregory), who was my executive assistant and absolutely the most valuable employee during the team’s first year, Denis Hamlett (then scout and community relations representative, now Head Coach) and me. Every time we added three more staff, we added a suite until we reached critical mass soon after the team name announcement and relocated to the much loved loft space in River North. The exposed brick and timber offices provided a great working atmosphere and were conveniently located between the Chicago’s greatest Italian joint, Club Lago, and Chicago’s best Irish pub, The Brehon.
While we hammered away with Nike on the name issue, we were prevented from holding any sort of public name contest, so instead we bought a list of names (who knew such a thing existed) and brainstormed internally. The list included the usual Chicago suspects, many of which popped up again during the WPS’ Chicago Red Stars public name the team contest last year: Blues, Wind, Mob. . . .and Fire.
I don’t recall there being significant internal debate, as most of us preferred Fire. The three concerns we had were potential connections to the failed World Football League team of the same name, connection to a disaster, and conflicts with the city’s Fire Department. We actually held an advance meeting (where we swore them to silence) with Chicago Fire Department officials to make certain they would be supportive of the team and name.
While short-staffed from July through September of 1997, we outsourced much of the PR and marketing functions to Aaron Cushman, Cardenas-Fernandez and the MLS office. It was Cushman that came up with the idea to send out misleading invitations to the team’s launch event at Navy Pier. The invitations, which were sent to media, potential sponsors, soccer and community leaders, featured a pen drawing of the Blues Brothers and led many people to assume we were going to be called the Chicago Blues.
My memories of the announcement day are fading, but I recall my nervousness while walking down Illinois Street from our offices to Navy Pier with our staff who I barely knew at this point. Up until that day, I was on a VERY short leash held by the powers that be in Colorado — Phil Anschutz and his right hand man on his sports and real estate projects, Bob Sanderman. They had a bad experience with their first general manager with the Colorado Rapids and had expressed concern with my young age (37) prior to my hiring. Their daily phone calls and close attention to our operation was both helpful and a little nerve wracking for me through the first few months: though that was about to change beginning on October 8, 1997.
I remember (probably more from the video that I’ve seen dozens of times) making the announcement “Ladies and gentleman, CHICAGO FIRE!” followed by a large banner dropping to reveal the logo and showers of pyrotechnics framing the Fire’s now recognizable maltese cross. Loud applause and cheering faded and we went inside Navy Pier’s historic Grand Ballroom for a celebration that lasted the rest of the day.
We didn’t make a night of it, though, as it had been a very long week already preparing for the announcement and we knew the real work began the next day when season tickets went on sale. We had full page ads placed in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times as well as heavy rotation on network and cable television. We all came in early the next day hoping the phones would ring. At 10:00 am central time on October 9th, our prayers were answered and the phones lit up like Foster Brooks on New Year’s Eve. Everyone, including Denis, learned how to take a ticket order.
We quickly surpassed our sister team’s (the Colorado Rapids) season ticket numbers, which was our internal measuring stick, and eventually climbed to the top of MLS. While nowhere near the Seattle or Toronto numbers, back in 1998, our 6,000+ season ticket base was turning heads. Every sale we made took more pressure off of me and gave me more confidence to lead the team. On April 4, 1998, a crowd of 36,444 watched the Fire’s inaugural home game at Soldier Field.
I’ll always remember October 8, 1997 as the birth of my favorite soccer club, but I’ll also remember it as a day that I became comfortable with my abilities to lead a major league team.
Happy Birthday Chicago Fire, and here’s to many more!
Peter Wilt writes every Wednesday for Pitch Invasion. Follow him on Twitter @RedStarsCEO.