Ishwara Glassman Chrein ’02 Is Making Chicagoans Feel the Fire

Glassman Chrein
It’s a crisp spring afternoon in Chicago and hundreds of soccer fans have descended upon Soldier Field, home turf of the Chicago Fire Football Club, the city’s Major League Soccer team. There’s a carnivalesque atmosphere in the stadium: people milling about with drinks and hotdogs, Chicago’s iconic skyline behind them. The tens of thousands of spectators who have shown up for the match today are a testament to the work of Ishwara Glassman Chrein ’02, SIPA’03, who recently finished her first year as the club’s president.

This is Glassman Chrein’s first gig running a sports team, but she’s loved sports her entire life. As a child growing up in San Diego, she loved attending Padres and Chargers games with her family. But though she was immersed in football, baseball, basketball, hockey and tennis, she — like many Americans — didn’t watch soccer. Indeed, part of what attracted her to the Chicago Fire was the chance to help popularize the game in the States. “One of the reasons I took this job is that there is so much opportunity to grow,” she says. “Chicago’s the third biggest [sports] market in the country, so there are lots of potential fans and corporate partners.”

Glassman Chrein is responsible for all business aspects of the club, from finding sponsors, to selling tickets, to ensuring that fans have a great matchday experience. Her goal is to create a positive workplace for her 150 employees, collaborating closely with the club’s owner, Joe Mansueto, founder of the Chicago-based financial services firm Morningstar. (Mansueto also owns Fast Company magazine, where I am a senior staff writer.) Glassman Chrein came on board in the midst of the pandemic, but she’s managed to increase attendance at games over the last year partly by pitching them as a safe outdoor activity. Fire matches attract 25,000–31,000 spectators, which is a feat given Chicago’s crowded sports market. “I don’t see us competing directly with other sports,” Glassman Chrein says. “Going to a game on a Saturday night theoretically competes with going to a Cubs or a White Sox game, but it also competes with going out to a bar, restaurant or the theater, or going to the lake or beach. We want people to see this as a form of entertainment.”

She’s also working to cultivate a connection between the team and the city. One ad campaign features posters of players native to Chicago in the neighborhoods where they grew up. And when the Fire brings on players from Latin America or Eastern Europe, the team organizes meet-and-greets in communities with a connection to that region. “Chicago is a city of neighborhoods,” she says. “For instance, it has a big Mexican-American population, so when we signed a Mexican player we had him meet with that community.”

If this sounds like a distinctly global approach to running an American soccer team, that’s because Glassman Chrein has always loved international relations. At the College, she studied economics and political science, then earned an M.I.A. from SIPA. Her plan was to work in politics. She ran the Columbia College Democrats and threw herself into Hillary Clinton’s Senate run and Al Gore’s presidential campaign.

After she graduated, she decided to get business experience by working for McKinsey and then Lehman Brothers, which eventually allowed her to pursue her passion for sports by launching the sports technology company Watermill Works, and then running the sports partnership division at Verizon Media. While her career has taken her away from politics and international relations, she’s found that her training has been invaluable. “One of the things I like about soccer is how global it is,” she says. “Last season we had 15 players from 15 different countries on our roster. Studying international relations means that you can walk into a room and talk to a player from any country about what’s going on in his life and what’s going on in the world.”

As Glassman Chrein enters her second year as president, she wants to continue building on the Chicago Fire’s success, but she’s equally excited about bringing a love of soccer to a new generation of Americans. “Major League Soccer is on an upward trajectory in the country,” she says. “There are plenty of soccer fans in Chicago, from youth soccer kids to people who are fans of British or Mexican teams. I’m on a mission to turn them into Fire fans.”

Elizabeth Segran ’05 is a senior staff writer at Fast Company and the author of The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life. She lives in Boston with her CC’05 husband, whom she met freshman year; daughter; and books.