Earlier today, Peter Wilt shared his views on the Chicago Fire’s prospective name change. As the first President and General Manager of our club, his perspective and thoughtful words express what our team’s name means to our community better than anyone else.
Tradition, Honor and Passion. #SAVETHEFIRE
Tradition, Honor and Passion. That is more than a motto for the Chicago Fire Soccer Club. They are words that the club has endeavored to live up to for more than two decades. The Fire’s tradition began October 8, 1997, the 126th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire that threatened to ruin the greatest of Midwestern cities. The hardworking spirit of Chicago famously rebuilt the city from the ashes into a great American metropolis beyond the imaginations of those living in the pre-conflagration city. The team, named in honor of that spirit quickly grew traditions and passion with foundational supporters clubs like the Fire Ultras 98 and Arsonists as well as the Barn Burners who made Section 8 at old Soldier Field its spiritual home that served as a crucible of support and helped lead the MLS expansion team to unprecedented success.
The fans’ passion added to the club’s tradition by helping bring home countless honors: an unforgettable inaugural 1998 season that grew to mythical proportions featuring an 11-game regular season winning streak and the MLS Cup and US Open Cup championships. The Fire’s winning tradition and honors grew as the club became Kings of the Cup with US Open Cup championships in 2000, 2003 and 2006. The 2003 Supporters Shield, numerous conference titles and runner up position for the 2000 Supporters Shield, the 2000 and 2003 MLS Cups and 2004 US Open Cup all stoked the fans’ passion and added to the tradition and honors of this great club.
The tradition continued with the construction of the club’s dedicated home in Bridgeview. SeatGeek Stadium (nee Toyota Park) is a 20,000-seat soccer centric venue designed to look like a Firehouse, display the Illinois State Soccer Association Hall of Fame and put fans close to the action from every seat in the venue. The 2006 season provided the excitement of the new venue highlighted by the MLS All-Stars defeating Chelsea FC in the mid-season classic and the Fire winning another US Open Cup championship. 2007 was the start of an electric three seasons with Mexico legend Cuauhtémoc Blanco leading the club to three straight conference finals. Section 8 Chicago became a model independent supporters association with professional leadership, charitable giving and displays of support previously unseen in American club soccer. Sector Latino, fueled by Blanco’s popularity, grew into a major supporters group and brought welcomed diversity to the club’s fan base.
Since 2009 however, it has been a bleak decade for this once proud club. On the field, two knockout round playoff losses in ten seasons are the Fire’s only connection to the MLS playoffs. Five semi-final losses and one loss in the finals were the best the former Kings of the Cup could muster in the tournament they once dominated. Contentious experiences with fan groups have been numerous and leadership rotation has occurred at an alarming pace. After only two head coaches in the club’s first decade, the Fire has churned and burned through six in the last decade. There have been at least four different people calling the player personnel shots and four others leading the business during that time frame.
The business results have been poor in the last decade and that is the apparent reason for the club’s pending departure from SeatGeek Stadium and the club’s consideration to abandon or alter some or all of its name and visual identity.
No one from the current Chicago Fire administration has asked for my opinion on this topic, but as a member of the Ring of Fire, the team’s first general manager and longtime club president, I feel an obligation to share my thoughts publicly to those now leading the club. The move to the city is an understandable attempt to locate closer to the desirable young adult demographic on the city’s north side, soccer passionate new Americans throughout the city and affluent north shore youth soccer families. While the move would distance the club from DuPage County and other soccer hotbeds, Soldier Field is better located for public transportation accessibility and could help improve attendance.
The change of brand identity however will only serve to sever, or at minimum obscure, the past and provide the perception of a fresh start – a fresh start with no tradition, no honor, no passion and no trophies. This is of great concern to me and others who have supported the club over the last 22 years. The name and visual identity of the club represent our connection to the glory days and our hopes of a return to the top of the League. We understand that down periods occur naturally, especially in a league like MLS that values and promotes parity. But we want to return with “OUR” team, with the Chicago Fire. Returning to the top is made sweeter by going through difficult times. It is appreciated more if it is still our team – the Chicago Fire.
Famously, the original Chicago MLS ownership and I stood up to an apparel supplier and insisted on naming the team the Fire instead of the Rhythm. We asked various constituent groups in Chicago what the name should be, and their input guided us to embrace “Chicago Fire”. The logo designer was instructed to develop a timeless mark that would fit in with the Original Six NHL logos. He succeeded. From the Maltese cross representing a fire department badge to the six-pointed municipal flag star edging out of the mark’s inner circle, the Fire’s crest is classic, traditional, authentic and speaks towards Chicago and the club’s values of leadership, integrity and dedication.
The brand did not cause the “terribilis decennium” and changing it won’t fix it. Wiping the slate clean and disconnecting with the past – the good, the bad and the ugly – is the epitome of the cliché “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. Save our baby. Nurture it back to health and be proud of building the club back to relevance and success.
Brand and venue changes alone assure no positive steps towards building a new identity of tradition, honor and passion. That comes only with hard work, authentic and widespread community engagement and winning. If those things are done with the current brand, the Chicago Fire will return to its rightful place of prominence in Chicago and will build on its considerable foundation of honors and support. If those things are done with an altered or abandoned brand, a new fan base will slowly attach themselves to the new look club, but it will be at the expense of a generation of tradition, honor, passion and OG Chicago Fire fans.
Along with all like-minded supporters of the Chicago Fire, we implore the current caretakers of the club to preserve the Chicago Fire name and identity for future generations to love and support.
Very Best Regards,
Peter J. Wilt
Ring of Fire 2006
Chicago Fire Fan Forever