Fire hope their move to Soldier Field will draw a crowd, but seats will stay empty for a while
The Chicago Fire seemed to have momentum on their side in their efforts to pack Soldier Field for this season's home opener.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
After an unsure start to the off-season, the Fire found their footing the last week of 2019 by adding Georg Heitz as sporting director and Raphael Wicky as coach, then kept making good moves the first couple of months of 2020.
Their biggest splash came when the club moved its local TV broadcasts to WGN, a big step up from just streaming games on ESPN+. Then the Fire signed a big-name team for their TV broadcast booth: well-known play-by-play man Arlo White, who will join the team during the English Premier League off-season, and former U.S. national team goalkeeper Tony Meola as color commentator.
And the club employed its enlarged social media and marketing staffs to good effect.
After a decade of losing, the Fire needed a way to grab sports fans' attention, especially when they didn't add a big-name player -- such as Chicharito -- to the roster.
It seemed to be working. The team announced Feb. 28 that it had sold more than 30,000 tickets to its home opener March 21 at Soldier Field.
"Since announcing our return to Soldier Field, ticket sales have been remarkably steady and momentum is building," Fire President Nelson Rodríguez said at the time in a team news release. "The reunion of Fire fans with our city promises to make this opening day a special homecoming."
Those efforts needed to work. After all it was a tremendous gamble to move from 20,000-seat SeatGeek Stadium in southwest suburban Bridgeview, where the club averaged a league-low 12,324 fans last year, to the 61,500-seat football stadium along the lakefront.
Putting 30,000 people in the stands for the home opener would be a good start, if still a long way from averaging 30,000 throughout the season. But the Fire desperately needed a good start.
Now the Fire's big gamble, like the season itself, is on hold. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the MLS season has been suspended through at least April 8.
The league on Sunday told teams they can't even train before March 21.
"We are simply trying to do our part," the Fire wrote in a team statement. "We support the decisions of our city, state and national authorities. At the same time, we will seek the places and moments where we can serve our greater community in whatever ways make the most sense.
"As for our opening game at Soldier Field, our Homecoming will still arrive. It will be later but no less special. And all Chicago will be welcome."
What will happen when the league resumes its season is anybody's guess. The Fire said they will honor all tickets bought for the home opener at the second-chance home opener, so the Fire won't have to start from scratch.
But it might be that some people who have tickets to the rescheduled home opener, whenever it is, won't feel comfortable congregating in a large crowd just yet. Some might not feel moved by the excitement of the event like they did the Fire's first home opener in 1998, when 36,444 attended.
If and when the MLS season resumes, the Fire will have to try to find a way to build momentum again.
It was a tough task the first time around. It will be even tougher the next.