“It shouts Chicago,” says Chicago Fire Senior Vice President of Marketing Kyle Sheldon of the club’s new crest. “The response [towards the new logo] has been more positive than we could have hoped for, and I think it’s because the mark represents the club and the city of Chicago very well.”
Connecting the Fire with the city the club has called home throughout its 24-year existence has been a staple of the club’s ethos since Joe Mansueto arrived on the scene and purchased the team from Andrew Hauptman in 2019.
It was a key element of the rebranding process that helped develop the new Chicago Fire logo. It also remains the backbone of the work Sheldon and his team do every single day.
“Our key mission has been to celebrate Chicago, celebrate the sport, and drive connection with the club to Chicago sports fans,” Sheldon said in an exclusive interview with On Tap Sports Net. “It is a central focus of ours.”
But before discussing how Sheldon and his team aim to do that, it is important to look back at the events that put him in a position to succeed at doing so.
Beginnings of a “Soccer Guy”
Sheldon was exposed to the game of soccer from an early age. He played the sport at the collegiate level, suiting up for St. Olaf College in Minnesota.
Sheldon went to college during the formative years of Major League Soccer and, as his college career went on, realized he wanted to have a career in sports. Soccer was the obvious choice.
“Early on, I was very excited about having a professional league in the States,” Sheldon said. “I realized through college that I may be able to make a career out of this in the sport I love.”
After graduating, Sheldon set on a path that has led to a 13-year career in Major League Soccer. He first worked for D.C. United, one of the founding members of Major League Soccer and winner of a then-record four MLS Cups.
After a brief stop at NASCAR, Sheldon found his way back to MLS, working for the Seattle Sounders, one of the most successful and well-supported clubs in the history of North America.
Sheldon learned many lessons working for two well-run, supported clubs that were deeply ingrained in their communities. Those lessons have informed him of how to best take on the task of reinvigorating the relevance of the Fire and the relationship between the club, its city, and its fans.
“Each stop provided takeaways that can be applied to the task of growing relevance in Chicago – and, ultimately, getting more people to care more deeply about the club,” Sheldon said. “While the game, players, and results are clearly most important, I’d suggest that connecting to what makes the city and community unique is not far behind.”
Where Did It Go Wrong?
While Sheldon was helping make two great MLS clubs even more popular and connected with the cities they called home, the Fire’s relationship with its fans and city crumbled.
Many point to the unpopular 2005 dismissal of fan-favorite Peter Wilt, the club’s first president that oversaw all but one of the major trophies the Fire have won to this point, as the beginning of the downfall.
Andrew Hauptman then became majority owner in 2007, and while the new ownership was seen by many as a fresh start for a club that had just moved into a new stadium, it proved anything but.
Simply put, the on-field product was nowhere good enough under Hauptman. The Fire made the playoffs only five times in Hauptman’s 12 seasons, including just twice post-2010.
The signings of popular international players such as Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Freddie Ljungberg and Bastian Schweinsteiger captured fans’ attention, but only fleetingly, as Fire teams failed to consistently perform on the field.
Poor results, combined with Toyota Park (now SeatGeek Stadium) being located outside of the city away from easily-accessible public transportation, led to a decline in popularity and relevance of the Fire within Chicagoland.
No wonder Sheldon emphasized the importance of moving back to the Fire’s spiritual home of Soldier Field multiple times during our chat. “Moving to Soldier Field gives us the opportunity to connect with fans that we otherwise were not able to do at SeatGeek.”
When asked if the Fire have their sights set on a soccer-specific stadium in the future, Sheldon quickly dismissed those thoughts. “That is not really our focus. We’re thrilled to be at Soldier Field. It’s an iconic stadium and our move back symbolizes a belief in Chicago and what is possible here.”
Sheldon: Mansueto “A Man of His Word”
It is impossible to begin thinking about the present and future of the Chicago Fire without mentioning current owner Joe Mansueto. The founder of Morningstar bought full control of the club from Andrew Hauptman in 2019 and has been described as “a man of his word” by Sheldon.
“It’s been really great to work with and alongside Joe,” Sheldon said. “He just loves the sport. He’s passionate about the sport and he’s passionate about Chicago. His investment and resources and financial support [have been] meaningful. Moving back to Soldier Field [and breaking the SeatGeek Stadium leasing agreement] did not come at little expense.”
The new ownership also re-instated Sector Latino, one of the most avid and passionate Fire supporters groups, as an “official” supporters group after the Andrew Hauptman-led Fire revoked the group’s supporter privileges nearly three years prior.
Mansueto also listened to the broader fanbase and its disdain for the current Chicago Fire logo, which Hauptman implemented right before he sold the team, saying he would give fans time to potentially warm up to the logo but act accordingly if fans continued to express criticism.
Mansueto did just that, agreeing to lead an effort to create a badge that all fans would be proud of. As Kyle Sheldon said, Mansueto has shown himself to be a man of his word.
As Sheldon and his team have now worked under Mansueto’s ownership and the leadership of the club’s first female president, Ishwara Glassman Chrein, a big task presented itself this year; the creation of a new team crest.
“We’ve modeled the crest project after [Mansueto],” Sheldon said. The project involved consulting key supporters groups and season-ticket holders – the most fervent of Chicago Fire fans – who were asked what they wanted to see in the new logo.
“We were highly connected to and engaged with fans throughout the process,” Sheldon said.
The “C”, the Florian Cross from the Chicago Fire Department logo, and the Chicago city flag were necessary components to any new logo the club came up with.
“I’m glad to say the response was very positive. The reason, I think, was that we gave fans what they asked for. They were clear in what they wanted; a connection to our past and the city, the flag in particular. We were fortunate [lead designer] Matt [Wolff] really nailed the design that brought together all of those elements.”
Another example of the club’s commitment to reconnect with the city has been Burnham Downs, the Fire’s new fan experience.
“We’ve really tried to reimagine the fan experience and how to make Soldier Field our home,” Sheldon said. “Burnham Downs is the anchor of that experience.”
Fans at Burnham Downs, located just southwest of Soldier Field, can find games, music, live art, and more. The kicker is, Burnham Downs is free and open to the public beginning three hours prior to every Fire home match.
“It is just another way to create ample opportunities to connect with fans, no matter who you are or where you come from. It’s all about building, enhancing, and optimizing relationships with our fans.”
At the end of the day, the on-field product at Soldier Field is all that matters, and there is room for improvement in that department. Sheldon and his team will be the first to say there is room for improvement off the field as well.
The Fire are still not as relevant or successful as they once were, and there is room for a deeper connection between the club and its fans.
But if the club’s actions say anything, it’s that Sheldon and the rest of his colleagues certainly care about the club and are committed to building the relationship with the city and its supporters for years to come.