No Messi, no problem? Chicago Fire show MLS how to capitalize without the main attraction

Tens of thousands of fans came to Soldier Field on Wednesday night in Chicago to watch Lionel Messi, many paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to see the Argentine legend in person.

They arrived to discover that Messi remained back in Fort Lauderdale with an injury that has now kept him out four consecutive games. The Argentine’s absence made the sold-out crowd even more of a microcosm of the quandary Major League Soccer faces with Messi filling stadiums across the league.

How do you convert Messi fans into Chicago Fire — or MLS — fans?

The Fire did the best they could with the moment, crushing Inter Miami, 4-1, with two goals from designated player Xherdan Shaqiri and a beautiful combination from Ousmane Doumbia to Maren Haile-Selassie on the second of his two goals. The finishes notably got the announced crowd of 62,124, the biggest in team history, to its feet, even some of the fans wearing pink jerseys. 

It was the type of win the Fire hopes might bring new fans in the door. 

“I don’t think that all the people in pink were from Miami today,” Fire captain Rafa Czichos said. “So I hope they’re going to be there on Saturday or next season with a different color.”

Fans in Chicago on Wednesday night hold signs for Messi. (Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

It is rare to get a second chance at a first impression. For the Fire, Wednesday night’s game against Inter Miami was a third chance.

Three years ago, the Fire left their soccer-specific stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., to move back to downtown Chicago. The hope was that they could reintroduce themselves to the market under new owner Joe Mansueto with a rebrand and a sort of rebirth. Like many legacy teams in MLS, the Fire have failed to penetrate one of the biggest markets in the country. The Fire boasted the league’s best record from 1998-08 and had robust support, but they have the league’s worst record from 2008 to today and, understandably, the interest waned with the results. Chicago sold more than 50,000 tickets to what was supposed to be their first game back at Soldier Field back in March 2020. The hope was that it would spark something in the Windy City and lure fans back to support the Fire. Just two weeks before the game, however, the league shutdown due to COVID. The game was eventually canceled, and Chicago would play the entirety of that first season in an empty stadium.

That lost opportunity was compounded by the Fire’s continued struggles over the last four seasons. Chicago averaged just 10,702 fans per game in 2021 and 15,288 in 2022. They continued to rank near or at the bottom of the league in revenue, even as Mansueto spent significantly on player acquisitions. It continued to feel like an uphill climb to pull fans in.

When Messi announced his intention to sign with Inter Miami on June 7, the team had sold around 8,000 tickets for its midweek game against Inter Miami. They sold 10,000 more in the 10 hours or so after Messi’s announcement. Eventually, even with rising prices on tickets at the NFL venue, the club announced it had sold out, despite Messi’s status up in the air. The Fire made north of $9.5 million in revenue on the game, about 55 percent of the team’s 2023 revenue and a record for a single MLS game, according to Sportico. 

But the game represented much more than just revenue for the Fire.

“You have to grab these opportunities and moments, especially when you get a place that’s packed (like) tonight,”  said Fire coach Frank Klopas, who was raised in Chicago and is in the club’s ring of fame. “And I guarantee you that a lot of people will go home and say, ‘Man, that was a great performance. The game was entertaining.’ I think both teams came to play, it was an open game, they saw some great goals and I think that’s what people want to see. It’s still about putting the show on the field.”

In the end, Messi did not travel to Chicago and he did not step on the field, but his absence didn’t alter the opportunity. The stadium was full on Wednesday night, and while the stands were speckled with a good amount of Inter Miami pink, the crowd started to turn for the home team over the course of the night. They stood and roared when Shaqiri opened the scoring with a back-post finish in the 49th minute. And after Miami equalized four minutes later on a penalty kick, the crowd again got to their feet when Haile-Selassie restored the lead in the 62nd minute. Shaqiri and Haile-Selassie added another goal each to secure the results and set off celebrations. 

It was exactly the type of performance the Fire needed as they aim to fend off Miami for a postseason spot. 

Chicago has gotten creative in their attempts to lure fans back to Soldier Field. With tickets for Wednesday’s game at a premium after Messi’s arrival, the Fire tried to pull in repeat customers by giving any fans who signed up for 2024 season tickets a free seat to the Miami game. And on Tuesday, when it seemed more likely than not that Messi would stay home, the club announced they were issuing a $250 credit toward a season ticket package or $50 credit for any single game in 2024 to fans who purchased single-game tickets to Wednesday night’s game. 

The promotion served as a make-good for fans who shelled out big money to see a player who didn’t play, but it also gave the Fire another chance to convert Messi fans into return visitors. 

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Shaqiri signs autographs for Fire and Messi fans after the match. (Photo: Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports)

In addition, the win put the Fire one step closer to their first playoff appearance since 2017, another chance to convince the market they are turning things around.

“I’m pretty sure they’re going to come again,” Shaqiri said. “Because they saw today a team that will fight to try to win every game. At the end of the day it was important to win the game, because now every game is a final and we have to do everything to try to be in the playoffs. And we are in a good way. It’s everything in our hands now.”

The task won’t be simple for MLS, though it will have time to find a solution. Messi signed a reported 2.5-year contract with an option for one more season. That Messi is playing here during a window in which the U.S. will host the 2024 Copa America, the 2025 Club World Cup and the 2026 World Cup only ups the stakes. The task now is to try to leverage his global popularity into something more permanent. The answer isn’t yet clear, but it will involve elements like league rules and team spending, TV deals and whether it’s even possible to replicate or extend the type of attention a player like Messi brings. 

On this night, though, the Fire’s crowd and the team’s performance showed that while the league is still figuring out how to best leverage the Messi effect, there are chances for tangible wins along the way.

(Top photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

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