In the middle of a football city, at the home of an NFL charter franchise, the North American president of Adidas dared to ask a question Wednesday night that surely had George Halas turning in his grave.
“How do we make soccer the most powerful sport in America?” Mark King asked before the MLS All-Star Game at Soldier Field, in which Real Madrid beat the All-Stars on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie in regulation.
Somehow, the buttons in King’s dress shirt managed not to pop. His company had just signed a whopping six-year, $700 million sponsorship agreement with the MLS that reflected the growth of the league. King felt so emboldened by the development that, at an earlier event, he predicted that “20 to 30 years from now, I think MLS can be as big as the NFL.”
This is probably the wrong week for football supporters to argue, but that’s a debate for another day. This one clearly belonged to soccer.
Commissioner Don Garber sounded nearly as ambitious basking in the economic boon for his sport, which league research shows has become the second-favorite among fans between the ages of 12 and 34. The sport where you can’t use your hands appeals to fans most comfortable using their thumbs, texters and tweeters who see the world through the prism of Instagram and Snapchat. Youths also embrace technology easier, like the Video Assisted Referee system the MLS will implement next week.
With the financial backing of Adidas, Garber believes soccer will continue to creep into the consciousness of teens and millennials the way it did on a rainy summer night on the lakefront.
“A real seminal moment in our league,” Garber called the deal with Adidas.
It practically overshadowed the exhibition that brought both men to town, the friendly between the best of the MLS and a world-class team with enormous popularity. The MLS roster included a league-high four players from the Fire, including German sensation Bastian Schweinsteiger, voted a captain. When Schweinsteiger walked onto the field for the first time at Monday’s practice, he offered an endorsement that pleased the Chicago Park District as much as his 4.35 million Twitter followers.
“It’s just amazing,” Schweinsteiger said surveying Soldier Field.
Somewhere in the drizzle, Mayor Rahm Emanuel smiled. In June 2016 while attending the Copa America Centenario tournament in the same stadium, Emanuel and Garber killed time during a rain delay getting better acquainted. Emanuel suggested bringing the MLS All-Star game to his city. The league staged the All-Star game at Toyota Park in Bridgeview in 2006 and Garber, on the job since 1999, liked the idea of returning to a bigger venue. The resurgent season of the Fire — 11-5-5 and averaging 16,410 fans per game — only helped make the decision look like a smarter one.
“We’re really thankful the Fire has their mojo back, yes,” Garber told the Tribune. “We were waiting for the perfect opportunity to come back. Real Madrid was the alignment of all the soccer stars in one moment.”
The Cubs and White Sox both played home games Wednesday but more global focus surrounded the futbol game played before a crowd of 61,000 midway between both baseball parks. The league issued about 700 media credentials. Flags from all over the world flew at pregame tailgate parties. JenCarlos Canela, a 29-year-old international pop star, sang the national anthem. Heck, the game was considered a trendy enough ticket to attract Dwyane Wade, the connoisseur of cool.
Take it from someone familiar with the football team that calls this place home; this game lured more stars to the stadium than any NFL game will in 2017.
“It’s our own version of the Mid-Summer Classic,” Garber said.
As much as Garber enjoyed himself, it still falls short of the most fun he has had in Chicago. His wife, Betsy, hails from Highland Park and the couple were married at Spiaggia in 1985 — “way before President Obama and Michelle were having regular meals there,” Garber joked. He almost was late for his rehearsal dinner because he attended a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and ran into traffic.
“So you can see I love this city,” Garber said.
Visiting Chicago again was good for Garber’s future. At an owners meeting before the game, David Beckham showed up with an investor to make a pitch for an MLS expansion team in Miami. Beckham was so persuasive that owners voted to authorize Garber to proceed with plans to expand in south Florida.
“David was passionate, articulate and focused,” Garber said of Beckham.
“Becks” also might have been the biggest soccer celebrity on hand with Cristiano Ronaldo, the planet’s most popular player, on an extended vacation. In a 45-minute pregame news conference, Garber neither addressed nor was asked about Ronaldo’s absence. But you didn’t have go far to find a No. 7 “RONALDO” jersey in the stands.
Carlos Gonzalez, 25, loaded 10 of his friends in his white Ford van and drove down from Milwaukee, all wearing Ronaldo jerseys, with hopes that the Portugese superstar might show up at the last minute. They tried to make the best of the situation by throwing a football around the Waldron Lot and cooking steak on a grill.
“We spent $130 apiece on these tickets,” Gonzalez said. “So we are very disappointed Ronaldo isn’t here.”
The only consolation for the MLS if too many fans agreed: They’re young. They’ll get over it.