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Sports media: Fire may hurt themselves locally by taking their games nationally

For the next three seasons, Fire fans must subscribe to ESPN+ to watch Bastian Schweinsteiger. | Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images

Remember HawkVision?

For those uneducated in the ways of late Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, here’s a synopsis: To protect the alleged exclusive rights of season-ticket holders, Hawks home games weren’t televised. But during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1992, Wirtz was gracious enough to allow fans to pay to watch home playoff games on TV.

Never mind that every game was sold out. If fans wanted to watch from home, they had to subscribe to HawkVision and plunk down $19.95 per game or $16.95 per game for an entire series. The service lasted two more much-shorter playoff runs, at a reduced cost, before dying an ignominious death.

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But I digress.

I thought of HawkVision when the Fire announced their local broadcast deal with the new direct-to-consumer streaming service ESPN+, found in the ESPN app. To watch their team for the next three years, home or away, Fire fans must subscribe for $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year. Games broadcast on national TV are exempt.

ESPN+ isn’t HawkVision – but it’s a corner kick away.

Truth be told, ESPN+ is an incredible value for Fire fans. Included in the subscription is access to MLS Live, which allows fans to watch all out-of-market games. It also includes broadcasts of the lower-level United Soccer League, giving fans the chance to follow Tulsa Roughnecks FC, the Fire’s affiliate.

There are tons of other sports and ESPN content available, but it’s safe to assume Fire fans would invest so they could watch their team, not the complete “30 for 30” library of documentaries or Kobe Bryant’s basketball-analysis show “Detail.” That’s 24 of the remaining 28 games this season, starting with the game at 2 p.m. Saturday in Toronto.

Comcast SportsNet Chicago (now NBC Sports Chicago) carried the Fire for eight of the last 12 seasons, including the last three. But NBCSCH and the team couldn’t agree on a new contract, and the Fire’s talks with other broadcasters fizzled. The team paid then-CSN to air its games. ESPN+ will pay the Fire the first rights fee the club has received.

But while admitting the significant difference that makes to the Fire’s bottom line, team president and general manager Nelson Rodriguez has bigger aspirations in mind.

“Overnight, we’ve become national,” he said. “When you think about the Cubs becoming a national brand, so many years ago that was through WGN. Now, anywhere an ESPN+ subscriber is, they’re going to see the Chicago Fire, and that excites me.”

Rodriguez also cites a young, tech-savvy fan base as a reason to go digital, but he realizes this will take time – and even some consumer education.

“Whether fans realize it or not, even in our previous offering, they were paying extra,” he said. “Chicago Fire games weren’t available on a basic package. Depending upon what system you had, you could have been anywhere between $15 and $30 or so per month, and here it’s $49 for the year.”

But by taking their games off TV, the Fire lose out on viewers flipping around and stumbling on their games. Or viewers who just watched the end of a Cubs or White Sox postgame show and are looking for another game to watch. The Fire have made their games appointment viewing, and that raises a concern among their most ardent fans.

“There’s absolutely no appeal to new fans in the way they’re doing it now,” said Dan Giroux, chairman of Section 8, the Fire supporters group. “You kind of already have to be bought into the ESPN+ model before you’re going to discover Fire games that way.”

The Fire say they must do things differently in a competitive sports city. But the Hawks set themselves back for years by not allowing home games on TV. Now, the Fire are gambling that putting their games behind a digital paywall doesn’t send them to a similar fate.