Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Chicago Fire - Section 8 Chicago

Ring of Fire

Talk to the majority of English Premier League fans about the MLS and they will more than likely turn their noses up in disgust. Knowledge is the bomb though, so don't knock it until you've tried or at least heard a little about it. Nobody can deny that a fair amount of EPL games are played out against a backdrop of near silence in the stands nowadays. Compare that with the growing trend of ultra groups, raucousness and passion that's increasingly emanating from the stands in America.

Earlier in the year, I caused a bit of a furore on these pages with a couple of articles about both the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers. The fans of those two teams tore each other to shreds on the comments section and it took me quite by surprise. I drew positives from that experience though, after all, where would football be without rivalry!?

Fast forwards to December 2009 and I found myself researching another MLS club with fans worth investigating - Chicago Fire. To find out more, I dialled up Tom Dunmore. Tom is the editor of the award winning and rather fantastic Pitch Invasion blog as well as being the Vice-Chair of Section 8 Chicago (more of them in a minute). So, pull up a chair as Tom and I discuss footy, fans and beer 'American style'. You never know, you may soon find yourself on a flight to the "Windy City":

America's best kept secret (at least this side of the pond anyway) is the ever growing passion that is being shown on the terraces at MLS matches. Tell us about Section 8 at Chicago. Section 8 is the name given to the standing, singing sections at the Harlem End of the Chicago Fire's current home, Toyota Park. There are usually about a thousand supporters in Section 8, though that can be more for big games (we had almost 2,000 packed in for the recent Eastern Conference final across three sections). We do all that ultras jazz in the tradition of our continental European and South American counterparts: waving flags, producing big banners, and letting off pyrotechnics now and then (not that I approve of that), along with keeping up chants for 90+ minutes straight, led by a Capo on a stand gesticulating at us plebeians to sing louder. Outside of games, we socialise a lot: we like to drink beer now and then, and my own little supporters group is rather keen on ensuring there's whiskey ever-present on our regular away days to support the Fire.
The name "Section 8" references the original home for supporters when the Fire played at Soldier Field, in Section number 8 of the stadium. The name also has many other appropriate references in the United States that have made it stick to us, and Wikipedia's disambiguation page for the term "Section 8" never fails to amuse me.

But to bore you for a second, it's also important to note that Section 8 is not actually a group you can join, but just a general term used for all the individual supporters and supporters' groups that make-up Fire supporters as a collective. For example, I am in the groupWB05, which has maybe a dozen members. As Wikipedia notes, we do have a non-profit Independent Supporters' Association called Section 8 Chicago that has an annually elected board and acts as the liaison between supporters and club management. Somehow, I was elected as the vice-chair for 2009, and a year of my life has since gone missing.

And how do the club themselves view the actions of your group? Inconsistently. At times, they love what Section 8 does to support the team across the country (and we're pretty useful marketing-wise, given our kind of passion isn't much seen elsewhere in Chicago's professional sports stadiums), and certainly the players appreciate the support at every game. At other times, club management give us serious headaches (and to be fair, sometimes we give them headaches): we've had a few protests over the years that have silenced the stadium, such as those against the firing by the Fire's ownership of club president Peter Wilt and against racist security guards in the stadium. We have our traditions as supporters and those in the front office foolish enough to fuck with them soon regret it, to be honest. Right now, after a lot of hard work on both sides of the fence, we have a good working relationship with the club (the front office has had a lot of turnover, and most of them are now very friendly and supportive of Section 8) and we recently sat down with Fire owner Andrew Hauptman for an open and productive meeting. We still have some issues to resolve as the treatment by security of fans around the stadium is still very poor and the pyrotechnics certainly cause problems for everyone, but we're starting to take more substantial steps by working on a fan charter and getting more support in growing the supporters sections further. Right now, I believe relations with the club are better than they have been since Peter Wilt was fired. But of course, we never know what's around the corner.

The players must love it though? Everyone of them I've ever spoken to has said they do, and I'm sure it beats having to play in front of the crappy crowds in a few otherMLS cities I could name.

We are loving this......all rise for the Chicago Fire

Didn't Chicago Fire win the league and cup double in their first complete season as a competitive club!? Only in America eh....Yep, though to be fair, it was only the third season of Major League Soccer as a competition itself (the league began in 1996). In 1998 we joined as an expansion team, and the focus of the league on "parity" via the salary cap means it's relatively easy for an expansion team to have a shot to win it all. And we did, thanks to these guys and many others. Sadly, I was still living in England at the time and had barely heard of the Chicago Fire. We still remain the only team to achieve this feat in our expansion first season (sorry, Seattle).

What is Toyota Park like and is it comparable to any grounds here in England? It was one of the first "soccer-specific-stadiums" in MLS, a name that belies its actual multi-purpose use: like Wembley, it's also used for concerts and other sporting events. Unlike Wembley, it sports a permanent stage area at one end, though fortunately seating in front means it is a four-sided ground. Roofing only (just about) covers two sides, though we play in the summer, so the rainy games are rare (but hell for those of us in the uncovered Harlem End when they do happen). In terms of capacity, facilities, luxury suites and the like it's probably similar to a decent Championship side's modern stadium.

Is it one of those out of town stadiums? Yes. It's just outside Chicago's city limits, in the gritty Village of Bridgeview. It's not easy to get to via public transit, though beer buses that we run from city bars sure make the 30 minute drive pass by easily enough. It would be great to have a stadium in the city centre, but it wasn't viable at the time, and we really needed a stadium to call home anywhere near Chicago after playing in three different stadiums in the club's first half-dozen or so years of existence.

How much would a match ticket set us back? In Section 8, $10-15. So what it would have cost you to watch an English league match about twenty years ago. My season ticket is just $200.

100GBP a season AND a free flag. What's not to like!?

What sort of crowds do you attract and how does that compare with the multitude of other sports in Chicago? The average this year was about 15,000. Not the best in the club's history, though we did sell out both playoff games. It's not a patch on theNFL's Chicago Bears, who easily sell-out Soldier Field's 60,000+ capacity for every game, or the millions who pour through the gates of Wrigley Field (Chicago Cubs, baseball), US Cellular Field (Chicago WhiteSox, baseball) and the United Center (Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks ). Chicago shares with New York the unique distinction of being home to major league teams in football, basketball, ice hockey and two teams in baseball: it's sports-mad. That has made it hard for the Fire to carve out as distinctive niche, but it's slowly coming along.

Do you struggle for press coverage in the Chicago Tribune? Yes, for the reasons mentioned above: every day of the year, there is a bigger team in the city to headline the sports section. Right now, the Tribune do not even have a dedicated reporter to the Fire, though they have a couple of decent bloggers covering the team.

Unsurprisingly, the 'beer bus' caught my eye on your website. Free beer on the bus to matches!? Surely not!? You'd be hard-pressed to find a Section 8 activity that doesn't involve cheap, and fairly often free beer....

Free (free!) beer and flag displays. Welcome to Chicago folks!

What is the beer of choice in Chicago and is it weak, fizzy and tasteless? There's plenty of weak, fizzy and tasteless beer consumed, from Budweiser to the Fire's sponsor beer, the execrable Miller Lite. However, America also has an outstanding craft brewery industry that has grown up over the past decade or two, and Chicago is no exception: several local breweries produce outstanding beer, including -- gasp -- Real Ale, and we often have a keg of the excellent Half Acre at our tailgates in the parking lot before games. Great blokes, great beer.

Talking of beer (again), can we get a decent beer and a famous Chicago 'deep-dish pizza' inside the stadium on matchdays? Yes, they serve a few decent beers inside and they have Connies pizza, which isn't bad, if far from the best Chicago pizza. But it's overpriced inside, so I'd recommend eating at our barbecue outside before the game and drinking the aforementioned Half Acre or bringing your own beer to our tailgate. Tailgating is a Chicago sports tradition, and it's hard to beat it: good beer, grilled food and hours of socialising with friends before the big game. Did I mention beer? (yes you did, we're renewing our passports as we speak - Ed).

"Good beer, grilled food and hours of socialising" Where do we sign!?

Are there any fans of the Fire now that used to follow the Sting or the Power? Absolutely, though I wouldn't say it's a large number.

Who are your rivals? Everyone. No, seriously. We seem to have managed to piss off pretty much everyone everywhere we have gone in MLS. Dallas was a long-time rival (see the Brimstone Cup), but we no longer play them as often as we're not in the same conference, so in recent years New England and Columbus have been the most noticeable rivals. Toronto can be considered a rival if they ever make it to the playoffs to play us there, Seattle don't seem too keen on us, and I guess Kansas City dislike us, though we don't pay a lot of attention to them. I'm not making friends here, am I?

Is it true that you have an informal alliance with the fans of the Portland Timbers? Yep. The Timbers Army have long had much of the same spirit and energy for supporting the team Section 8 has had, and kudos to them for doing it just as well in the lower divisions. Their DIY culture is something to be admired, and many Section 8ers have made friends with members of the Timbers Army on more than one trip out there. Most recently and famously to Seattle's chagrin, many members of the Timbers Army travelled up to Seattle to support the Fire in our first league match against the Sounders along with many Fire fans who took a bus up from Portland after flying out there first. It'll be interesting to see what happens to the alliance when Portland joins the league in 2011, but I think we're both mature enough groups of supporters that we can be rivals for 90 minutes then make fun of each other over a beer afterwards.

Chicago (actual) Fire

Surely with the distances involved there aren't too many away fans at matches in the MLS? It's certainly a lot tougher than in England: our closest league opponent is over 500 miles east in Columbus, Ohio. But Americans aren't afraid of travelling vast distances, so we take several hundred fans to Columbus each year (and their stadium has hence been named Firehouse East by us) on buses we run. We also run buses out to Toronto and Kansas City, making up our 3-city "Away Season Ticket" package: three bus trips and game tickets for $175 this year. There are Fire fans at all other away games, whether it's just a handful or dozens more for reasonable flight distances like New York. We give the name to these adventures "Section 8 On Tour" and the goings-on have become pretty legendary over the years. As in England, the away trips are the best way to bond with fellow fans, meet new people and come up with more songs to pass the 12 hour bus trip to Toronto.

Do you have a club mascot? Yes, Sparky. Be careful around him. Seriously.

Sparky -Approach with caution.

And a club anthem? Umm, not really.

We've gathered your vocal and visual support is pretty impressive but this is America, do you have any cheese inside the stadium such as music after goals, novelty off the pitch shenanigans, firing t-shirts into the crowd that sort of thing? Yes, though thankfully this has been cut down over the years as MLS has realised it needs to focus on the game itself. There is little to distract the crowd during the action (the t-shirt firing and mini-games on the field happen at half-time). It's nowhere near as spoonfed as in professional baseball or basketball, where at times it seems as if the intent is to make the crowd forget there's an actual sporting contest going on. There's nothing much that bothers me during the 90 minutes, not that I'd notice from the mayhem in Section 8 anyway.

Do sports fans in Chicago cross codes? i.e. do many follow more than one sport? Absolutely. Very, very few Fire fans would not have a passing interest in at least one other sport. Most of them will have grown up supporting local professional sports teams, from the Bears to the Bulls (remember, that Jordan fellow was pretty popular in the 1990s).

Being English, I am of course contractually obliged to ask you about David Beckham. Do you have a view on him and his impact on the MLS? My favourite Beckham-related moment was John Thorrington's goal for the Fire against his LA Galaxy in the final regular season game of 2007, which ensured we made the playoffs....and the Galaxy didn't. I enjoyed that more than anything else Beckham has brought to the league.

And finally, just how windy is Chicago? Not as windy as Brighton, England, the only place I've ever experienced (something like) a hurricane!

- Feel free to comment below -


Jeff said...

Tom, you forgot those DC fans still bitter about the 1998 MLS Cup...

BigDaveOUFCMortimer said...

Nice Interview!! Good Work Again Sir!!

Shame You Never Asked Why They Decided To Name Themsleves After A Disaster?! (The Great Chicago Fire).

lol Keep Up The Good Work!

Will said...

Tom, you also ignore that part of the reason the Dallas-Chicago rivalry died down is the fact that you poor bastards haven't won the season series in almost a decade. No matter how bad FCD is, we've always got the Brimstone.

Ali said...

Good blog again. Nice to see someone giving 'the Ultra' fair publicity.

Different to the Premier league this division actually has passion. Shame on England, we aren't keeping up with what other countries such as America are doing.

It's only in the lower leagues that the ultra mentality seems to be settling and even there everything seems to be slow. But anyhow, England needs a few more groups. Step forward the Lewes Ultra society. lol

Good blog,

Danny Last said...

@BigDave - Cheers for the comment old chap. They named themselves 'Fire' because they formed on Oct 8th 1997 on the actual anniversary the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

@Will - Did you ever find out who shot JR in the end!? ;-)

@Ali - Cheers mate!

DJ said...

per Wiki(but given knowledge to Section 8ers): Nike, the original club uniform supplier, wanted the team to be named Chicago Rhythm featuring a turqouise, black and green color scheme and a cobra adorned logo. Team officials ignored these wishes and developed the Fire identity...we thank Peter Wilt everyday!

Nowak10 said...

You ask about cheesy factors, and Tom's answer was pretty good...but it's worth mentioning that the only music that is played over the stadium PA during a game is reserved for goal celebrations, and it's an adaptation of a Section 8 song recorded by a Chicago punk band whose members are Fire supporters from the start. So it doesn't rate as cheesy a bit to us supporters. Kansas City has historically had the most cheesy music and sound effects, and imagine our delight in visiting Seattle to find that they pipe in crowd noise over the Qwest PA. Of course their customers deny it vehemently. HA!

Danny Last said...

So aside from the Fire, Sounders and Timbers - who else has the best/worst fans in the States!?

@Nowak10 - What's the name of that band please mate!?

@DJ - Good story - Nike, what are they like eh!? ;-)

diana said...

Danny: the band's name is Bad Deals. The song is a one off side project from members of Chicago band Deals Gone Bad.

Sean Moran said...

Nice article Tom. If you ever get out to Portland You will be in for a treat. Best Fans in Amerika and best beer.

Shitcago said...

Some interesting stuff about Portland and Shitcago.

Portland Fire is a defunct WNBA team. :)

Unknown said...

I think you're confusing 'interesting' with 'infantile'.

Anonymous said...

best supporters section in all of north america: the Nordecke, supporting the Massive club week in and week out forever more, Columbus til I die!