#SeeRed Nation is dwindling. #FireGarPax Nation, on the other hand, is amassing soldiers like never before. As the Bulls sputter through another mediocre season (27-29, currently 7th in the East) the once-proud Chicago fanbase is quickly losing interest. The Madhouse on Madison is still rocking for the Blackhawks, but the United Center’s nickname is laughably inaccurate when the Bulls hold court. The atmosphere mirrors a smattering of disinterested, still-hungover college kids sitting through a boring lecture on Monday morning. Not only that, fans at home are either turning off their TVs or changing the channel as the Bulls’ ratings are flirting with a ten-year low.
Unfortunately for those Bulls fans desperate for change, crowd ambiance and TV ratings don’t tell the whole story. Team owner Jerry Reinsdorf can easily weave a different one: the Bulls remain one of the most valuable NBA franchises with the best home attendance numbers and high merchandise sales. So what will it take for Reinsdorf to actually pay attention to the growing anger among his organization’s enormous fanbase? More over, what will it take for the owner to finally do something about it?
Let’s look at this dilemma from both sides.
The Michael Jordan Era Bulls took the NBA’s popularity to a whole new level, both nationally and globally. Through most of the late 1980s and ’90s, new basketball fans without a hometown team (or a bad one) adopted the Bulls simply because Jordan was the best show to see. When the dynasty broke up in 1998, most fans stayed and suffered through a long and painful rebuilding process. Count yours truly among them. I stayed up late on school nights to watch Elton Brand, Ron Artest, Jamal Crawford, Tyson Chandler, Eddie Curry, Ben Gordon and their sidekicks get pummeled by just about every team in the league. Why? Because I was hooked on the Bulls, regardless of the product. The glory days had a firm grip on the neurons in my brain that should’ve told me to cut bait and run from such a mess.
That’s the same reason these 2016-17 Bulls are still pulling in great numbers across the board. Bulls fans have a uniquely indestructible form of loyalty because of the dynasty. We’re all eagerly watching and waiting for our team to get back to the NBA mountaintop, because we know how great it feels to be there. The arrival of hometown hero Derrick Rose finally pulled the franchise out of the rebuilding dog days, and his MVP season (at just 22 years old) had fans believing more banners were coming. But bad things happened, and the Bulls haven’t gone any further than the second round since 2011. Nonetheless, brainwashed fans continue to buy tickets and merchandise despite the poor product on the floor this season.
Shut Up & Take My Money
The Bulls lead the league in home attendance this season. On average, 21,600 fans pour into the United Center for every home game. That’s actually an attendance percentage of 103.3%, given the seated capacity of 20,917. But Bulls fans are so desperate to see their beloved team that tens of thousands more buy standing room tickets over the course of the season. In fact, Reinsdorf’s team has led the league in attendance every year since 2010. From 2005-10 Chicago ranked second every year behind Detroit, except in ’07 when they ranked first. Starting to get the idea about the unbending loyalty?
Not only are fans paying big bucks to see the Bulls play at the Madhouse, they’re spending lots more on jerseys and other merchandise. Forbes released an article last month ranking the jersey and overall merchandise sales of NBA players and franchises. Dwyane Wade’s Chicago homecoming sparked a huge wave of purchases, as his #3 Bulls jersey ranked 6th among all players from October-December in 2016. Rising star Jimmy Butler’s #21 is also a hot item, coming in 9th overall in that same time span. In total sales for team merchandise, the Bulls came in 4th, trailing only the Lakers, Cavaliers and Warriors. That would be the two most recent NBA champions and one of just two teams (LA and New York) with a larger market than Chicago.
Perhaps the offseason departures of franchise staples Rose and Joakim Noah (whose jerseys both hang in my closet) prompted thousands of Bulls fans to rush out and update their wardrobes with Wades and Butlers. Still, that minor uptick wouldn’t account for the entirety of the 4th place finish in overall merchandise sales across the league. On the big picture scale, that’s all about the blind obsession of the greatest fans in all of sports. “The Bulls are underachieving this season? Who cares! Shut up and take my money!”
As lifer Bulls fans, we are all Fry; eagerly hurling our money at an inferior product that’s wildly overpriced. When will we ever learn to put our collective foot down and say no?
Well, that might finally be happening.
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