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Fire owner Andrew Hauptman in the team’s locker room at Toyota Park; photo by Akin Girav

On a Roll

by Matt Lee | Men's Book Chicago magazine | July 10, 2012

Soccer is heating up in Chicago. With several key acquisitions, Frank Klopas enjoying his first full season as head coach and an energized fan base, the Chicago Fire is poised for success. We caught up with the team’s owner, Andrew Hauptman, to discuss the season, how he’s boosted ticket sales and soccer’s growing popularity in the U.S. Hauptman is the chairman and CEO of Andell Holdings, which owns the Fire; a film producer responsible for movies like State of Play; and founder of the L.A. chapter of educational nonprofit City Year.

Were you always interested in owning a professional sports team? Did you play a lot of soccer growing up? No, owning a sports franchise was never a goal. Yes, I did play soccer growing up, and later lived in London for a decade. For this particular opportunity it was the combination of a lot of factors, most importantly my passion for the sport, my love for Chicago and my drive to build enterprises that are unique and relevant. I like to build things.

The numbers are indisputable: There are 600,000 people in the Chicago area playing soccer, more than 1.2 million actively consuming the sport and the numbers are growing faster than in any other sport. The quality of the soccer has gotten better and better, the development of soccer-specific stadiums like Toyota Park has made the experience special, and we’ve formed successful partnerships with companies like Quaker. All of that’s really helped to activate a growing fanbase. At the end of the day we have the ability to expand our reach across the city in a way that few sports can. And that’s the idea behind our slogan this year, ‘Our City. Our Club.’ We like to say that our club is as diverse as the community that supports us, and that’s something we really embrace.

Ticket sales and sponsorships are up; the youth development system is way up. What’s your secret? There have been two components. The biggest factor has been the cultural shift, building a culture that believes in its product, is collaborative and entrepreneurial. The second component is increased investment across all areas, from personnel to operations to our youth academy to our stadium. Our newest investment is the Second Star Club, which is a members-only club akin to a directors’ box at Chelsea or Manchester United. With the combination of those things we’ve begun a period of what should be sustained growth.

With our youth academy, we’ve grown that from 400 players to more than 10,000. We’re in six different states. I say, ‘It’s a story of deepening our connectivity and expanding it over time.’

What convinced you to sign one of your new stars, Pável Pardo? Who wouldn’t want to sign Pável Pardo? He’s been a winner and competitor on every level. He brings a level of professionalism and character that sets the standard for all of our younger players. This is a guy who was the captain of the Mexican national team. He went to Germany, to Stuttgart, and captained that team to a title in the Bundesliga, which is one of the best leagues in the world. We’ve also brought back Chris Rolfe, who was the Fire’s second all-time leading scorer, after a couple successful years in Denmark. And we bolstered our back-line defense with the addition of a two-time German World Cup veteran, Arne Friedrich. Arne started for Germany in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

What’s the biggest challenge to growing soccer in the U.S.? I still see this as early days for the league but our future’s bright. We have the biggest sport in the world, combined with the largest market globally. There was a recent ESPN poll that showed that soccer is now the favorite sport among 12- to 24-year-old [Americans], after only the NFL. So we can see the growth everywhere—with new stadiums, new teams, ticket sales and sponsorship. We have a new national TV partnership this year with NBC and we’ve had an explosion of social media coverage.

Having said that, it is a struggle to be covered by the traditional media outlets consistently, to be front and center in a city where there are lots of other sports teams competing for airtime.

Another issue I see is the disconnect in the U.S. between the perceived quality of the soccer on the field and the actual quality. On the Fire we currently have players who have played at the highest levels on the global stage, many for their national teams, and we have players from 12 different countries. Most people don’t know that the spine of the team comes from one player who came from the first division in Argentina, Sebastián Grazzini; one player who used to captain the Mexican national team, Pardo; one who started for Germany in two World Cups, Friedrich; two of our players have recently been called up to the Ghanaian national team; one is currently playing in Guatemala. So we work every day to shift the perceptions around the Fire and get people to recognize the quality.

What do you do to relax when you’re in town? Grabbing my iPod and heading out to the lake for a run tends to be my first course of action. My family and I enjoy Millennium Park and taking the bridge to the Art Institute. As far as restaurants, I like Gibsons, Nellcôte, Girl & the Goat, Blackbird, RPM.

State of Play was a great movie. Are you producing any other films? I’m really proud of State of Play. Currently I don’t have plans to produce more movies, but I’m still part of the process of trying to bring a movie about Vince Lombardi to life. As with most films, it’s a long process. I enjoy creative enterprises but currently I’m focused on the business of our holding company as well as the challenge of growing the Fire and winning games.