Can ESPN+ help Fire achieve their goals?

As they prepare for the Soldier Field move, the Fire are trying to reintroduce themselves to Chicago. And for teams in the Fire’s position, game broadcasts can be a key tool.

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Nelson Rodriguez

Chicago Fire Soccer Club

Right before the 2018 season, the Fire signed a three-year deal with ESPN+, the digital-streaming subscription service, for the rights to their local broadcasts. The Fire and the Chicago media landscape have changed a lot since then, but the deal remains.

The Fire said they aren’t having discussions with ESPN+ about exiting or altering the deal for 2020 and haven’t opened talks with anybody about a contract for 2021 and beyond.

“As we expected, ESPN+ has become the home of soccer in the United States,” Fire president and general manager Nelson Rodriguez told the Sun-Times. “It’s been positive for our club. More people are watching our games than before.” 

According to the Fire, they’re getting more viewers on ESPN+ than on Comcast SportsNet (now NBC Sports Chicago). As of the middle of the season, they said average viewership for Fire games grew 124 percent from 2018 to 2019. The team also said it was fifth across the league in average ESPN+ viewership per game — up from sixth last season — and up from 17th to fifth in average new subscribers per game (based on the first event a user streams after subscribing).

Those numbers don’t appear bad, but perhaps they underscore the team’s limited reach because the Fire are the only MLS club whose local broadcasts aired exclusively on ESPN+ this season. And that leads to another point for the Fire.

Do they have a broadcast deal that can help them gain more exposure in the Chicago market? Marc Ganis, the co-founder and managing director of Sportscorp, isn’t sure.

“It’s going to be very difficult to do with the limited penetration ESPN+ has in Chicago right now,” he said.

In August, Disney announced that ESPN+ has reached 2.4 million paid subscribers. For comparison, NBC Sports Chicago has a regional viewing territory of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and a portion of Wisconsin and is carried on over 50 cable, satellite and live-streaming providers. It’s yet to be seen how many households will get Marquee Sports Network, the new venture between the Cubs and Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Regardless, the Fire are trying to reach more people than ever before.

As they prepare for their move to Soldier Field, the Fire are trying to reintroduce themselves to Chicago after drawing an average of 12,324 fans during their final Bridgeview season. They’ve bulked up their communications and marketing departments, and the team’s presence on social media is robust. They’re expected to aggressively advertise the return to the lakefront and a home that will usually have a capacity of 28,000.

For teams in the Fire’s position, game broadcasts can be a key tool. Ganis said the most important part of a local TV deal for a new or reintroduced team is visibility. Telecasts, he said, can be used as commercials for the team to “entice” fans to come to games and show them how much fun matches can be.

Assuming the ESPN+ deal stays in place, Ganis said the Fire will have to be targeting the second year.

“They’ll have to make the first year a little bit like it’s preseason, exhibition to a degree, and use it to get things done right,” Ganis said. “Use it to create the right atmosphere at Soldier Field, use it to introduce the team to the market and really target the second year for when they’re going to blow it out.’’

NOTE: Dan Kelly tweeted Friday that his 10-year run as the Fire’s TV voice is over.

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