On October 8, 1871, legend has it that a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn belonging to Patrick and Catherine O’Leary located at 137 DeKoven Street on the southwest side of Chicago.
Dry weather and an endless supply of wooden buildings provided the ideal fuel as the ensuing fire—whose true cause is still a mystery—spread throughout the Windy City. Over the course of two days, the conflagration turned thousands of buildings into ash and rubble, killed 300 people and led to an estimated $200 million in damages.
Despite the devastation caused by the Great Chicago Fire, the resilient city rose from the ashes as reconstruction efforts spurred great economic development, including the world’s first skyscrapers, and a population boom. In less than 20 years, Chicago’s population increased from approximately 324,000 to more than one million—trailing only New York City at the time—as the city evolved into a major economic and transportation hub. A reborn Chicago was on full display in 1893 as it hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, which welcomed 27.5 million people.
“At its face it was a story of destruction, but really it’s a story of reinvention and it’s a story that speaks to the resilient attitude and bravery of Chicago and that Midwestern spirit,” said Kyle Sheldon, Chicago Fire FC senior vice-president of marketing.
Similarly to the aftermath of the Chicago Fire of 1871, Chicago Fire FC is seeking a rebirth and reinvention of its own with its primary crest and brand identity through its fan-focused Crest Project, a direct response to a much-criticized change unveiled in November 2019.
Introduction of the Fire Crown
In an effort to not only signal a change in ownership when billionaire businessman Joe Mansueto became the sole owner of the club on September 13, 2019, and its return to Soldier Field for the 2020 season, Chicago Fire Soccer Club sought to alter its name, crest and color scheme to usher the club, originally founded in 1997, into the future.
Chicago Fire Soccer Club officially became Chicago Fire Football Club and the Fire Crown badge and a new brand identity was unveiled on November 21, 2019. The primary crest featured a mirrored icon not only representing the Chicago Fire of 1871, but also the city’s triumphant rebirth that followed.
“The mirrored icon—with flames inverted to become a crown, hence the Fire Crown—tells the story of a dramatic rebirth and a city’s triumph,” explained the club release, while “the change from ‘soccer’ to ‘football’ reflects a long-term vision for the club as Chicago’s global ambassador to the world’s game.”
While the symbolism was present, not everyone was on board with the change which eliminated all references to the club’s original Florian cross crest, an emblem that players and fans proudly wore since the club’s inception which included the 1998 MLS Cup, 2003 Supporters’ Shield and four U.S. Open Cup championships (1998, 2000, 2003, 2006).
“I would say the biggest misstep from the current Fire Crown is that it didn’t pull enough through; really it only pulled the name through,” Sheldon said. “The story was embedded in the mark, but visually it didn’t really speak to the previous identity and our long-time avid fans didn’t have anything to attach to, and they have not been shy about sharing that with us.”
Mansueto, a Midwesterner who attended the University of Chicago and whose company, Morningstar, is headquartered in the city, quelled concerns by offering a solution. On January 8, 2020, the Chicago Fire FC owner and chairman told The Chicago Sun-Times: “We want a great badge that’s fitting for a great club. Ultimately, if it’s not working, we’ll fix it. We want something that works for our fans.”
Mansueto told fans to be patient and wanted to see how the new badge would settle in on the uniform, at the stadium and in its other uses. Would fans warm up to the Fire Crown or would they still clamor for the old Florian cross?
Despite not being able to celebrate their return to Soldier Field with an anticipated 60,000 supporters in attendance for its 2020 home opener, Chicago Fire FC played the season with the Fire Crown and a blue primary jersey, another change that was met with criticism.
Understanding the crest and rebrand was still drawing resistance and objection, the club devised a fan-centric plan to let Chicago provide input to the new iteration. The Crest Project enlisted the input of supporters, Chicagoans, Illinois residents and anyone willing to provide an opinion on what the new crest, to debut for the 2022 season, should look like.
The three-pronged approach involved a web submission form, virtual roundtable discussions and a quantitative survey. To date, more than 15,000 responses and interactions across those platforms as well as on social media from fans in 65 Chicago neighborhoods, 152 Illinois cities, 28 states and 10 foreign countries have been gathered and analyzed.
“This project is really the outcome of what our fans have been asking for,” Sheldon said. “The approach we’ve taken, which is uncommon in the world of sports branding, has come directly from our fans. The high levels of engagement, the ongoing dialogue and providing project updates really comes from the starting point of fans asking to have meaningful input, and per Joe and his word, we’re giving them meaningful opportunities to provide their input.
“We’ve purposefully dubbed this a ‘Crest for all Chicago.’ It’s most important it represents our current and long-standing fans, but we want something and want to create something that stands for the entirety of the city.”
While the club is encouraging fans to offer their input, a team of expert designers and marketers are the ones responsible for taking the most frequently expressed symbols, feelings, emotions and thoughts and turning it into a new crest ahead of Chicago Fire FC’s 25th season in Major League Soccer in 2022. Respected designer Matthew Wolff, who was behind the crests for clubs including New York City FC, Los Angeles FC, Oakland Roots SC and Racing Louisville FC, and creative firms Studio/Lab and rEvolution are tasked with the creation.
Sheldon said the Crest Project is in Phase 2 at this point, having pinpointed four major Chicago-related themes—the city flag, the six-pointed star (found on the city’s flag), the letter ‘C’ and the Florian cross—as the most mentioned by supporters.
Despite identifying these four themes and symbols as the most mentioned during this process, Sheldon is aware that there may still be some critics when the new crest and brand identity is revealed.
“What we have said from the very beginning and continue to say if anyone’s asked us, is we went into this project knowing we can’t please everyone and it’s really about trying to identify the collective voice as best we can,” he said. “… Of course we’ve heard some criticism from fans over the course of the project, but largely the reaction has mainly been how do we create something great together?”
Future of the Fire
The Crest Project is still accepting submissions from fans even though four main themes have been identified.
Sheldon said the club will announce the new crest and identity by midyear, understanding production timelines. The Fire will play with the Fire Crown and in their primary blue uniforms for 2021, but the new crest and identity will officially make its debut for the 2022 season.
Knowing the uniform color is also a hotly contested topic, Sheldon said red will become more prominent with the club in the near future.
“We’ll be able to apply the new crest to the existing kits that are designed for 2022, so any return to red will have to happen in 2023,” he said. “We haven’t announced publicly that that’s absolutely going to happen, but certainly the sentiment from fans has been a desire to see a return to red kits on the field.
“I think it’s fair to say I think you’ll see the color red representing the club more fully as we go forward.”
The fans have certainly spoken and Chicago Fire FC has answered. The open and transparent Crest Project is a product of Mansueto’s ownership; the billionaire has taken shots of Malort with fans, visited supporters on road trips and sat in on virtual roundtable discussions during this process.
The increased transparency and dialogue may even dictate how the club operates in the future. Fans may be able to provide input into what music is played at the stadium, offer content series ideas or even social media content. For Sheldon and Chicago Fire FC, it is a welcomed outcome, especially during the ongoing pandemic where fans may feel even more disconnected to their favorite club and players.
“For the club, it’s a bit of a turning point with how we think about how this communication and dialogue evolves past this project,” Sheldon said. “Whether we’re looking across match day or social channels and decisions we’re making around content, are there opportunities for fans to lend their voices? It’s incumbent on us to be creative and figure out where we can ask fans for their opinion.”
Fan input or not, Sheldon is well aware that at the end of the day, the final crest and brand identity will be what the Crest Project is measured on.
“One of real positives and benefits of this entire project is we have created this dialogue with our fans in a way that’s been moving,” he said. “Hearing people speak with passion and love for their club and their city has really been special for those of us who have been working on the project. Just hearing in their voices and reading their words how much they care about the club and the place they’re from or have come to has been really meaningful, and I think our fans have felt that.”