Sunday is the one-year anniversary of when Joe Mansueto bought the Fire from Andrew Hauptman, and the franchise looks vastly different than it did at this time last year.
“I’m really excited about the direction of the club and where we’re headed and the progress we’ve made over the past year,” Mansueto told the Sun-Times.
Over that year, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed challenges nobody could’ve predicted.
The 2020 season was supposed to be a springboard for the Fire as they attempted to reintroduce themselves to Chicago after heavy investment throughout the business. They were tracking toward a sellout for the scheduled March 21 opener and had plans for the game-day experience in and around Soldier Field.
So far, they haven’t been able to welcome any fans to the stadium. Mansueto said the team will follow the guidance of governor JB Pritzker and mayor Lori Lightfoot about whether supporters could be admitted sometime this season.
“If they give us their blessing, we’d love to have fans back at Soldier Field,” Mansueto said. “It’s not really our call. We’re not the epidemiologists. As soon as they give us the green light, we’re eager and excited to welcome fans back to Soldier Field.”
Though early returns on their long-term partnership with WGN are strong, the pandemic has made some benchmarks like attendance and revenue hard to judge, leaving Mansueto to determine the business’ progress in somewhat different ways. It’s even made the continuing evaluations of the new logo - which Mansueto said will be around next year due to uniform lead times - somewhat tougher because fans haven’t been able to experience it during a match at Soldier Field.
In what he called an anomalous year due to the lack of attendance, Mansueto said the Fire’s financial results aren’t what the franchise originally expected but added “it’s all manageable and we’ll get through it.”
“I look at… are we building the right organization that can deliver long-term success?” Mansueto said. “I think by that metric we’re going in the right direction. I feel confident that this club will be a great franchise over time, and so we’re making investments to get us there.”
The Fire will also need to remain flexible to get through an uncertain climate.
The shape of the 2021 season is unclear. Whether or not COVID-19 is under control will shape plans for next year, and the Fire can’t possibly know what the economy will look like moving forward. Mansueto said the team is preparing for various different scenarios as they plan ahead, spanning from no fans to even full capacity next year.
That said, all of the preparation doesn’t make it much easier to prepare for an upcoming campaign with so many variables.
“It makes planning extraordinarily difficult,” Mansueto said. “You’ve got to be willing to readjust plans late in the year once you have more information. It’s almost futile trying to plan too much right now.”
All of the moving parts are one of the reasons a bulked-up front office is coming in handy, though it’s not for the reasons anybody could have envisioned a year ago.
“There’s a lot of folks who are working through these issues in a lot of detail,” Mansueto said. “It makes it easier to change directions if we need to.”
NOTE: MLS announced the next three games of the Fire’s schedule. They will visit Orlando City on Sept. 19, then host Houston on Sept. 23 and Atlanta on Sept. 27.