His club’s slow start to the season notwithstanding, Fire owner Andrew Hauptman likes the way his club is progressing.
Hauptman, chairman of Andell Inc., bought the Fire from original owner Phil Anschutz in 2007. It was the Los Angeles-based Hauptman’s first venture into sports, an area where absentee ownership hasn’t always been a good thing. As Hauptman sees it, though, things are working out just fine.
"I spent the first two years watching, learning," said Hauptman in a far-ranging interview conducted between the Fire’s season-opening 4-0 loss at Los Angeles and last Saturday’s 1-0 defeat in the home opener against the New England Revolution. "In the last few years I’ve taken a very active role in the direction of the club. It’s not been easy building the club from the ground up. There have been a host of challenges."
He endured a heart-breaking home loss to Real Salt Lake, a match decided on penalty kicks, that deprived the Fire a berth in the Major League Soccer Cup final in 2009. Then there was a coaching change that didn’t work, the Fire suffering through its worst season in 2010 under the guidance of Carlos de los Cobos, and the loss of a jersey sponsor -– a serious revenue blow for any soccer franchise.
Now, despite the early losses on the field, things have gotten much better.
"I’ve been here awhile now, and I feel exceptionally good about the team," said Hauptman. "Overall, I’m incredibly proud of the spirit in which things are done and the integrity of the team."
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Key moves were the shift of Frank Klopas from the front office to the head coaching job midway through the 2011 season, a move that improved results on the field almost immediately; the signing of Quaker Oats as the jersey sponsor; and a front-office adjustment that resulted in Javier Leon assuming the role of president of soccer operations.
But there’s more to it than that, Hauptman said.
"We’ve more than tripled our season tickets. We’ve grown our youth academy from 400 players to over 10,000 in seven states," he said. "On the field we’re coming off a season where we had our best record in 12 years, and our best home record ever. On the social media side we’ve added over 100,000 followers in just the last two years. Our corporate partnerships have more than doubled in the last two years. On the media side we’re producing over 100 hours of content, a dramatic change from the past. We’ve launched a host of new community events and expanded our charitable profile."
Globally, the Fire now has partnerships with Club America in Mexico, Atletico Madrid in Spain and teams in China, Thailand, Dubai and Brazil. All were made under Hauptman’s watch.
"I view my role as an owner as being a steward," said Hauptman. "That means thinking about how we build the right culture and create an infrastructure that supports a sound business. Thinking long-term is a lot about what I do. We have a lot more employees today than when I bought the club, but we still can’t do everything. That’s frustrating."
On other topics, Hauptman offered these thoughts:
MLS' new, longer season schedule: "It’s a giant challenge for the league. There are commercial realities, competitive issues. We’re trying to balance a host of challenges. This league is different than the rest of the world, and studying about what this scheduling would mean is ongoing."
Calling the shots from afar: "I have larger investments, but this club still takes up a disproportionate amount of my time. I let it, because I believe in what we’re doing. I like to be involved…. Everything I’ve done, every decision I’ve made has been based on what’s right for this club."
Quality of MLS in the soccer world: "There’s the big four (Italy, Spain, Germany, England). Outside of those, MLS is very competitive. In the offseason I was invited to go to Argentina, and that was an interesting opportunity to watch their process. It was really surprising, and the biggest surprise was that the quality wasn’t any better than what’s here."
An in-city stadium: "Would it be easier to have a stadium downtown? We don’t have it, so it’s not even in my brain. Everything is about perception. When I came in awareness (of Toyota Park) wasn’t very high. Toyota Park wasn’t even in Mapquest, and it took about 10 seconds to fix that. But if you just consider the area in a five-mile radius of Toyota Park, you’re talking about a pretty big population.’’
Toyota Park: "That’s our home. That’s where we have a lease with the village (Bridgeview). Our task is to fill our parking lot week in and week out. We have a world-class pitch that’s actually heated. We can have green grass throughout the year. The village and its financial circumstances aren’t something we’re very involved in, but we have a good relationship with them. Before my time it wasn’t exactly stellar.’’
Bottom line: "When I first got to the club its mission statement was to `Make Fans Proud.’ That was good, but it really wasn’t a vision. Now we want to be the premier soccer club in MLS on and off the field and we want to be a true club that embodies the spirit of our city. We’re ambassadors for this global game.’’