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updated: 4/9/2014 11:57 PM

Fire trying to reignite fans' interest

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By Orrin Schwartz

It doesn't take much for a professional soccer club to wind up on the pay-no-mind list, especially in a tough sports market like Chicago.

Just mismanage the roster, miss the playoffs three seasons out of the last four, shoot yourself in the foot in a very public way off the field and you've got a recipe for fan apathy.

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Some soccer fans got angry. Most just tuned out the club.

While teams in Kansas City, Seattle and Portland have become the pride of Major League Soccer, the Chicago Fire has languished.

Now the Fire seems like it has a plan to create a much-needed buzz around the club.

"We're going after it, and we're excited to do that," said Fire chief operating officer Atul Khosla.

The highlights of the Fire's re-engagement plan with Chicago soccer fans include:

• Starting to fill the soccer void on sports-talk radio by buying time for a one-hour Saturday morning radio program dedicated to the team on ESPN 1000-AM that will run throughout the season.

• Putting up billboards throughout the Chicago area to promote the team as part of a seven-figure marketing campaign that will include TV advertising and digital advertising, some of it built around this summer's World Cup.

• Reaching out to soccer organizations throughout the area, including local park districts and the Arlington Heights-based Illinois Youth Soccer Association, to coordinate activities where appropriate and assist where it can.

"Our goal is very simple: We want to own that soccer conversation," said Khosla, in his third year with the club. "What I mean by that is we want to be part of the soccer ether.

"If someone is thinking about coaching, they're thinking about refereeing a game, they're thinking about their kids' travel teams, we are somewhere in those conversations."

• Building a $20 million soccer facility on the North Side of Chicago with two full-size fields where rec leagues can play and the Fire can train in bad weather.

The facility also will include retail, a training center, meeting areas and a Fire-branded pub. This is the biggest, most important piece of the Fire's plan, with about 250,000 people a year expected to go through the 15,000-square-foot building.

"From ownership down there is clearly that (sense), hey, we want to grow this aggressively," Khosla said. "And that's why as much as it's been an incredibly busy six months or nine months, it's been a lot of fun for that reason."

It will be a lot more fun if the marketing program works in conjunction with more wins on the field.

The goal is more fans in the stands and a return to the atmosphere of 2009, the last time the Fire hosted a conference championship match.

The Fire lost that championship match, but it won some hearts with a sold-out stadium and an electric atmosphere. And then it squandered that feeling in succeeding seasons.

A team that saw a significant drop in attendance last season is making a number of changes on and off the field to try to reverse that trend.

The team hopes to sell 7,000 season tickets this season, a still modest number by MLS standards but a step up for the Fire.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for the Fire will come at the end of this season, when its jersey sponsorship deal with Quaker expires. Khosla said the club and the company already are in negotiations to extend the contract.

"We've had good dialogue," Khosla said.

It will be a more interesting conversation if the Fire can become a hot topic in Chicago again.

• Follow Orrin on Twitter @Orrin_Schwarz

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