Onlookers may not have known it, but Peter Wilt was “spectacularly nervous” on October 8, 1997, the day the former Chicago Fire general manager unveiled the club's name, colors, uniforms and logos at a press conference at Navy Pier on the city’s North Side.
The Fire celebrated their 15th anniversary on Monday to much fanfare. But on that day in 1997, when Wilt officially kicked off a new era in Chicago soccer, the fledgling club was on tenuous ground.
“So much rode on this,” Wilt told MLSsoccer.com. “You have one chance to make a first impression, that’s what this was. We were flying a flag up a flag pole and seeing if anyone was going to salute.”
Wilt had hired just 10 employees to work for him at the time, and he says the pressure from the Fire’s owner, the Anschutz Corporation, was immense.
Everything seemed like it was coming together for the Fire on Oct. 8, the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The name had been kept a secret, and the club had even sent invitations to the press conference intimating that the team would be called the Blues.
The makeshift stage was set up with pyrotechnics, a podium and two framed jerseys, which were to be covered by banners and unveiled by two Fire employees. The club had even wrangled an antique fire truck to sit nearby, with sirens set to go off when Wilt gave the word.
“There was this palpable sense of anticipation,” said Steve Pastorino, who was hired as the Fire’s marketing director. “We were doing very mundane things, throwing collateral into the car, we’re trying to figure out how to get stuff into the printer, we’re trying to figure out what we need in terms of tables and chairs and banners, and everything is being rushed to printers or vendors.
“There was this feeling of it all coming together.”
But there was a constant worry surrounding the Fire in those days, something implicit in the launch of an expansion team.
“What if we throw a party and nobody shows up?” Pastorino recalled thinking. “What if we throw a press conference and we think we’ve got this well-scripted press conference and an unveiling, and nobody shows up?”
But hundreds of people did show up.
And when Wilt said the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, Chicago Fire,” and the jerseys were unveiled as pyrotechnics were fired off, Wilt got exactly the reaction he wanted.
“When you unveiled the name and the logo, I think there was a little bit of a gasp,” said Yaro Dachniwsky, the Fire’s director of corporate sales at the time who revealed one of the jerseys. “It was a fun, fun day.”
The next day, phones for season-ticket sales, which all of those 10 employees were trained to answer, lit up “like a Christmas tree,” Wilt said.
It was clear that all of the work the club had done, culminating in a scramble to put together that unveiling press conference, had worked.
Almost all of the anxiety surrounding the Chicago Fire melted away.
“I’ll tell you what, after the news conference and the positive reaction, I felt incredibly better,” Wilt said. “Then the next day, after the season-ticket sales went wild, it was like a huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders, and there was no more nervousness.”