Kyle Sheldon was one of many people at Chicago Fire FC, from owner Joe Mansueto on down, who devoted many months of hard work to the rebrand process that culminated in the unveiling of the “Fire Crown” badge and new color scheme in November 2019.
Calling time on that new look and committing to a comprehensive redo 14 months later was no easy thing for any of them. But as fans continued to register criticism of the change, it clearly became the right thing to do – and now the Fire aim to gain redemption from the setback, much as their city did after the fateful conflagration of 1871 that inspired the club’s name.
“The starting point of this is, ultimately, our owner Joe is a man of his word,” said Sheldon, Chicago’s senior vice president of marketing, in a recent conversation with MLSsoccer.com. “After sitting with the current crest for a couple months, [Mansueto] said pretty quickly that if it wasn't working for fans that he would fix it. He wanted to live with it for a year and see how it sort of settled in or didn’t, but ultimately said if it wasn't working for fans we'd fix it.
“So we are starting a process to build something together ... We've asked all of Chicago to be the creative director for this identity.”
After criticism of the Fire Crown, they’ve taken a dramatically different approach to its replacement, scheduled for a 2022 rollout. The Fire are spearheading a months-long process intended to enlist a variety of stakeholders representing a broad swath of not only the community around the club, but of Chicagoland as a whole.
They’ve connected with their supporter council, launched a new entity called the “Stand For Chicago Council” to ensure a diverse array of voices, and secured the input of respected designer Matthew Wolff – the brain behind the New York City FC and LAFC crests, among a litany of others – along with two creative firms with experience on Fire projects and soccer work in general. Fans have been asked to share their own ideas and reflections directly via an online portal, and upwards of 1,200 submissions and counting have been received over the first two weeks, with surveys, round-table discussions and interviews to follow.
The hope is that the crest can eventually become a bridge to stronger relationships all around.
“Sports at its best creates community and connection, and I think this project feels like a bit of a microcosm of what the club can and should be and what we're striving for,” said Sheldon, a veteran of the MLS scene who previously worked at D.C. United and the Seattle Sounders.
“We want to create something special that people have an attachment to and feel connected to. So we're hoping this project is a bit of a catapult into creating a deeper connection with both our existing fans and hopefully bringing in some new folks who maybe otherwise haven't been connected to the club, for whatever reason.”
Sheldon is tasked with collecting all these perspectives and synthesizing them into usable ideas for the designers, a vital but tricky element of this effort. He’s well aware of the risk of the proverbial “too many cooks in the kitchen,” and acknowledges that these projects have “undoubtedly” become more difficult amid the swift, ruthless judgments of social media. But he and the club believe the payoff is well worth the extra complexity.
“It's going be an exploration,” he said. “My sense is that this will be one of the most open, transparent collaborative identity projects in pro sports history. And we are excited about that, it gives us a real energy, but there will be things we'll have to figure out as we go. And so I've asked for a level of patience from our supporters, because we're doing this for the first time.
“But I think when you approach it with the mindset of trying to be collaborative and connected and make it a discussion and a dialogue, my hope is that just bears fruit at the end,” he added. “It's not an easy task, but I think we're okay with that discomfort and we're truly energized by doing something that very few have done, taking an approach that very few have taken.”
The Fire’s original overhaul was intended as a visual manifestation of a new chapter under Mansueto’s leadership, signaling a bright future without losing sight of their two-plus decades of history. Sheldon notes that while reviews of the Fire Crown were mostly quite harsh, the submissions they’re received for the new effort so far point to broad agreement on the value of doing something new.
“The thing that has come through very clearly is a desire for whatever the new identity is to speak to both Chicago and the history of the club,” he said. “It's a club that has 20 years of history, and a history of winning a number of trophies and certainly some low lows, but some significant highs as well.
“Certainly there are a number of people who say, just revert to the original [crest’s] Florian cross, but I'd say, at least through the submissions I've read and getting feedback [from the supporter council], people understand the need for it to be updated. They understand the need for a new identity to kind of move into the future ... [and] they want to feel some attachment to the previous history of the club, which is more than reasonable.”
The timing of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Chicago’s launch into the Mansueto era particularly hard. It wrecked their 2020 season opener, the Fire’s much-anticipated first match back at Soldier Field – to which they’d sold nearly 60,000 tickets before its postponement – and kept fans from attending home matches throughout the year, complicating their plans to reconnect with the city as they returned downtown after 14 years at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview.
Now 2021 offers a fresh start in all respects: Another year for head coach Raphael Wicky to mold his youthful squad in his possession-oriented philosophy. Another chance to make a splash down by the lakefront. And another shot at a badge, colors and kit that everyone in the Second City can rally around, as devilishly difficult as that may be.
“Joe’s direction was, let's create something with no restrictions,” said Sheldon. “And so really the call to our fans and all Chicago is to help us inform what those elements should be, what should we pull through. Chicago’s such a city with such a rich history and such incredible iconography that that’s, in some cases, actually more challenging.
“When you think about the city flag, which is one of the most popular in the country, think about the municipal device, the water tower that really represents the Great Fire, the six-pointed star that's in the flag. And then you've got our history. So all of those things are on the table to pull through and ultimately that's what we're hoping our fans and Chicagoans can help us identify.”