Chicago Fire's sale to Mansueto comes at critical juncture for MLS club

Fourteen months after Morningstar founder Joe Mansueto purchased a 49 percent interest in the Chicago Fire, he took the logical next step and bought out the majority interest of Andrew Hauptman, who has owned the MLS team since 2007.

The sale -- which put the Fire's valuation at $400 million, according to Forbes -- comes at a critical juncture for the club.

The Fire has agreed to pay the Village of Bridgeview a reported $60.5 million over 15 years as part of an agreement to get out of its lease at SeatGeek Stadium and is in the process of concluding a deal with the Chicago Park District board to play its 2020 season at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. (It will also pay Bridgeview $5 million to be used to refurbish and expand the existing soccer facilities around SeatGeek Stadium.)

Chicago has lagged behind other MLS clubs in key areas:

-- Despite carrying a roster that is estimated to rank in MLS's top quarter in salaries, the Fire is about to miss the playoffs for the eighth time in the last 10 years.
-- The Fire is last in MLS in attendance with an average of 11,926 fans a game, down from 14,806 fans in 2018, its lowest average in seven years.
-- The Fire was forced to take a one-year leave of absence from the Development Academy's U-18/19 age group and lost highly regarded U.S. U-17 goalkeeper Damian Las, who signed with English club Fulham as a free agent.

Full circle. The Fire comes full circle with its move to Soldier Field. It played in Soldier Field when it launched in 1998, winning MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup in its first year.

The Fire was Philip Anschutz's second MLS team after the Colorado Rapids. During MLS's severe downturn, AEG owned six of MLS's 10 teams before it began divesting itself of clubs other than the flagship LA Galaxy.

When AEG sold the Fire to Hauptman late in the 2007 season, it had won MLS Cup once, been to two other MLS Cups and won four Open Cups in its first nine years.

AEG had opened Toyota Park (now SeatGeek Stadium) in 2006 as MLS's fourth soccer-specific stadium, but the deal proved to be a disaster for everyone involved.

The Village of Bridgeview paid to build the stadium at a cost of $98 but the debt on the stadium ballooned to $260 million, forcing it to double property taxes, in part to make up for shortfalls in revenues from the stadium. The Fire payments should allow Bridgeview to pay the debt service on the stadium without raising taxes in the future.

The Fire got a soccer-specific stadium but other than the fact it didn't have to pay for its construction, the deal wasn't very favorable. (The Village of Bridgeview kept most or all of the money from revenue sources like naming rights, luxury boxes and premium seating and sponsorship deals -- the very things MLS clubs control and incentivize them to build their own stadiums.)

The Bridgeview stadium was difficult to reach because of its suburban location and lack of public transportation from the city of Chicago to the stadium. Attendance has been on the decline since 2008, Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco's last season with the Fire, with the exception of 2017 when it averaged 17,383, its highest mark in Bridgeview.

The Fire originally left Soldier Field in 2002 due to renovations taking place at the stadium and played at a small stadium in suburban Naperville for all of the 2002 and part of the 2003 season. Chicago's third move to Soldier Field is only considered to be temporary as the Fire will likely attempt to build a soccer-specific stadium in Chicago.

How long? How temporary that is remains to be seen. Other MLS teams have spent years trying to find land in urban cores but failed to secure a deal.

In 2018, Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts was announced as the new majority owner of a proposed USL team in Chicago. He intended to team up with a local developer Sterling Bay as part of its proposed 70-acre Lincoln Yards development.

But those plans quickly collapsed when the local alderman came out in opposition to the deal.

3 comments about "Chicago Fire's sale to Mansueto comes at critical juncture for MLS club".
  1. Ben Myers, September 14, 2019 at 8:23 p.m.

    So this was a fire sale?

  2. Ric Fonseca, September 15, 2019 at 1:19 p.m.

    So it what 'tis in Chicago, that's the way the ball rolls and bounces....  Buena Suerte Chi-Fire!!!

  3. humble 1, September 17, 2019 at 1:28 p.m.

    What's telling about this sale.  Hauptmann bought the team for $35M in 2007.  Sells it in 2019 for $400M.  Captive ownship.  Twelve years of zero soccer inertia in Chicago, the 2nd largest city in USA and home of USSF who are holed up on their fortress mansion(s) on the near south side, and probably not present or accounted for at Fire games.  Not alone.  Owners are sitting on teams (underinvesting in 'product') all over the league because in the end their asset appreciates while their product and attendance stagnates (New England, Colorado, Houston, etc).  They bring in a big name player (Chicago) and/or fire the coach (New England, Houston) periodically to relieve pressure and disguise their true intentions.  In the game of futbol v business of futbol - business wins.  For those of you fortunate to be in markets that have fully invested clubs, keep it going!  

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