Early in his tenure as Fire president, Dave Baldwin is making a point of listening. He attended a February town hall at the famed A.J. Hudson’s soccer bar and walked around the Soldier Field parking lots before the team’s March 4 opener to chat with fans.
“I think it was really important for me just to get to know our supporters a little bit,” Baldwin said of the town hall.
Building that connection with fans is one of the high-priority tasks on Baldwin’s list.
Officially hired in December to run the Fire’s business operations after the departure of Ishwara Glassman Chrein, Baldwin inherited a challenging situation beyond the ongoing quest to find a new primary shirt advertiser. The on-field product has been consistently poor since the 2010 season, the team lost a potent marketing tool in WGN when the league nixed local broadcasts in favor of Apple TV+ and playing at Soldier Field presents numerous obstacles.
Intangibly, segments of the area soccer community simply don’t trust the club. That won’t change instantly, which Baldwin was exposed to during the town hall when he heard “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
“We had probably over 100 people crowded into this small little room on a snowy Thursday night,” Baldwin said. “I just got to listen. I got to hear from our fans. It’s apparent to me how much our supporters care and how much love and passion going back to Chicago being such a great city to support their teams.”
Though it was in other sports, at least Baldwin does have experience with marketing difficult products.
Before joining the Fire, Baldwin worked for the Commanders as their chief ticketing officer. The Commanders — owned by the unpopular, incompetent and scandal-plagued Daniel Snyder — are far from their glory days and play in one of the NFL’s worst stadiums. Prior to Washington, Baldwin served as the senior vice president of ticket sales and service for Ilitch Sports + Entertainment, trying to attract fans to Tigers and Red Wings games when neither team was anywhere close to contention. That followed a stint with the Dolphins, another franchise usually on the periphery of winning.
Those teams, however, hold loftier places in their respective markets. Still, some of the same marketing and business principles apply. Early on, Baldwin and the Fire have worked to somewhat-alleviate the high cost of parking at Soldier Field by forming a partnership with SpotHero for a discounted rate.
Beyond connecting with the community, Baldwin aims to provide a “fantastic, world-class experience” for fans and a strong return on investment for corporate partners.
“That’s been a big part of my personal story up until now,” Baldwin said. “I’ve worked for teams that haven’t won a lot recently, but we’ve been able to go out and grow the fan base and grow the season-ticket numbers pretty consistently.”
Clearly, a better product would help Baldwin do that. Though if the team struggles, he won’t use a bad record as a crutch.
“Obviously, wins and losses are always going to make it easier on the business side,” Baldwin said, “but I think we need to find a way to be successful despite that.”