CHICAGO—When the Chicago Fire embarked on creating a soccer-specific facility on the Northside, they held one lofty ambition:
“To build a soccer lover’s paradise.”
Their efforts evolved into the PrivateBank Fire Pitch, a $22-million, 150,000-square foot multi-purpose playing and event space. Allowing the club to tap into the growing recreational soccer league participation while deepening fan and community engagement, the Fire Pitch has quickly developed into as an integral part of the city’s increasingly buoyant soccer landscape.
“We would love for people to consider this their third home," Vice President of Business Development Jeff Wagner told MLSsoccer.com. "Folks may have their home that they own or rent, they go to work, they go home and then they come here. And when they’re here they can play on their adult rec team, they can hang out in the pub, they can have food and drink, they can work out in the gym, have a place to hang out with their friends, they can come here to watch big soccer matches or other social events.”
And that is certainly what a significant number of the city’s Chicago Fire and soccer fans are doing, with more than 250,000 people coming through the doors each year.
Thanks to investment from Fire owner Andrew Hauptman and minority partners Richard Levy and Jared Schenk, the Fire Pitch opened its doors in 2014 with the indoor dome before the official opening of the adjoining 12,500-square foot Heineken Pub97, gym, shop, office space and restrooms in December 2015.
“Andrew had the vision and the wherewithal to provide a community asset, which is exactly what the Fire Pitch is, to allow us to double the number of people we come in contact with every year,” said Fire Vice President of Communications Doug Hicks. “We average something around 250,000 at games each year at Toyota Park, but more than 250,000 are going through the doors at the Fire Pitch each year as well.
“We are engaged in the city with the core soccer community, not only through the building itself but through programs we run each and every day there.”
Anyone who has played, worked and socialized there, can see why the facility has made such an immediate and lasting impression on its patrons. The atmosphere is typically busy-but-relaxed as players and revelers mix in the bar, which buzzes louder on match night, whether for the Fire, US national team or any other major soccer event. More than 1,500 patrons attended the watch party for the first of the USA’s Copa America games last summer. The open plan – which faces the playing fields – means you are never too far from the action, be it on one of the 12 big screens or the turf outside, with full acces to a tasty menu of classic American pub fare.
The venue has played host to a variety of sporting and social occasions, from birthdays and engagement parties, to bachelor and bachelorette gatherings. One of the highlights in the location’s brief history was the unveiling of German superstar Bastian Schweinsteiger as the Fire’s latest Designated Player in March of this year, but perhaps the most iconic users of the facility were the New Zealand All Blacks, ahead of their 74-6 victory over the USA Eagles in November 2014.
“The very first people to use this facility were the All Blacks,” Wagner said. “They were in town to play a game at Soldier Field and they wanted a private practice location and we hadn’t even opened our doors yet and we said, ‘We’ve got the perfect place because no one knows we’re here.’ To see those guys out there as our first guests was amazing and then a couple of years later they came back and practiced again because they had such a great experience. To see that quality of an organization, even though it was outside of soccer, I think that’s what caught us by surprise, just the opportunities this kind of place can provide us.”
A full-time staff of eight keep the playing side of the venue finely tuned 365 days a year, and some days soccer is played from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. to satisfy the growing needs of its patrons. Meanwhile the pub, run by a different operator due to liquor licensing laws, is serviced by a staff of more than 10 and together they look after the needs of more than 3,500 adults and 800 children each week.
“Andrew often states that the most important word in ‘Chicago Fire Soccer Club’ is ‘Club’,” Hicks added. “He saw the need for a clubhouse, a place that all who participate and enjoy the beautiful game could gather. At its core, that is the PrivateBank Fire Pitch.”
Chris, a long-time Fire fan attending Saturday's Viewing Party, acknowledged the importance of the venue in helping the Fire capitalize on their growing momentum.
“The club really needed a presence in the city and the Fire Pitch gives them a great platform to reach hundreds of thousands of players and fans every year,” he said. “The facility offers everything a player needs to enjoy a game and the bar is a great place to unwind and relax after playing or to just watch a game.”
Players have routinely described the facility as “the best place to play soccer in the city”, while others hail the good food and the possibility of running into current and former Fire players as reasons to visit.
The venue's continued success is integral to the club’s footprint in a hugely competitive sports market, where they vie for media and public attention amongst some of the country's most storied teams. But with the Fire first team capturing a greater share of the local media spotlight on the back of Schweinsteiger’s arrival and their subsequent rise to the top of the MLS standings, it seems the club is well positioned to take advantage of their current higher profile, especially with the 2017 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target set for Wednesday (8:30pm ET | FS1, Univision; TSN, TVAS) at Soldier Field.
“When Andrew bought the team, he saw an underlying passion and an opportunity for this club to grow and become what it has become,” Hicks said. “We’ve not only got a team that is performing at a very high level on the field, but the backdrop to that is places like the Fire Pitch, the programming that we have from Fire Juniors to the academy to our Soccer in the City activations. We’re talking about 1,000 locations, 70,000 people a year that we’re dealing with in this region and then you add in some other things like our broadcasting agreement (with NBC affiliate CSN Chicago) which is regional now.”
“So we’ve really spread our wings, we’ve become a part of the general sports landscape, we have broadened our fanbase and that’s all been sitting there for when the product comes together and right now we’re enjoying real momentum with the club.”