Jose Santos decided that as a gift for his son Tyson’s fourth birthday he would take him to the United Center to see his first Bulls game.
The Glenview man, 38, had grown up in the Philippines rooting for Michael Jordan — just like everyone he knew — and he wanted to share his Bulls devotion with his son.
But before Santos would plunk down money for the tickets, there was one condition.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for the discount, I probably wouldn’t be here,” said Santos, who recalled getting about a 40 percent price cut through his job at Northwestern University. “It’s just they haven’t been good. They haven’t been good in a couple years. Management is trying to make them better. But I don’t necessarily know if that’s what is happening.”
Santos represents the tension within the Bulls fan base: loyalty to a franchise that has fallen on hard times.
And the Bulls recognize the issue. They had nine straight seasons of leading ticket sales in the NBA and have topped the league 13 times since Michael Jordan’s last Bulls season in 1997-98.
The Bulls’ streak of 315 sellout games ended on Nov. 17, 2017 against the Hornets.
According to Elias Sports Bureau data, the Bulls are now third in average home attendance (with 19,896) behind the 76ers and Mavericks — and that’s with the United Center having the league’s largest capacity at 20,917.
Last season the Bulls led the league at 20,776 per game, so this season they’ve experienced an erosion of about 4.2 percent. If that trend holds through the rest of the season, it also would be the fourth straight season that attendance has declined.
To combat the decline, the Bulls have become more aggressive, boosting sales staff, offering discounts, selling packages to corporations and schools, giving musicians and other entertainers opportunities to perform on court if they buy group packages, adding new restaurants, ramping up their in-game entertainment and even giving season-ticket holders more access to Bulls management.
“You have to be a really good listener,” said Keith Brown, vice president of and premium seating.
“For the last few years we’ve done ‘chalk talks’ with our season ticket holders featuring Michael Reinsdorf, John Paxson and Gar Forman to speak about the direction of the team and to answer questions from season-ticket holders,” Brown said. “So it’s been very important for us to listen to our fans and take their constructive feedback.
Brown noted that the Cubs and Bears went through similar fan base erosion before becoming competitive.
“There are (Bulls) fans that want — understandably — immediate gratification, they want to win now, and they’re a little bit more upset,” Brown said. “And then there’s a segment of fans that understands we’re on a path to success and they’re patient.”.
To get a sense of what the fans are feeling, we interviewed several at the Feb. 13 Bulls-Grizzlies game, as well as some others we identified via social media. Two Bulls players also weighed in on their interactions with fans.
Sami and Maryam Hassan
Hassan, 26, remembers taking his wife, Maryam, also 26, and his mother and brother to a Bulls game in November. For him, his family’s experience epitomized two camps that represent Bulls fans these days.
For Hassan, an environmental scientist, and his brother, “it was a very not so fun time because they were getting blown out. Now for mom and my wife, two people who don’t follow basketball whatsoever, they had a great time. The Jesse White Tumblers did a pretty acrobatic halftime show, and then (there were) these small little races. Benny the Bull was doing his dunks at halftime; he’s throwing popcorn at people.
“My mom and my wife, they really enjoyed it. They walked out of there as we lost by 25 or 30 points, they were saying this was a fantastic time. … Any time you watch basketball live, for me it’s still a great time, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t have as much fun as I would have had if it was a competitive game.”
Hassan is a little more in tune with the fan base than other Bulls devotees. As the administrator of Die-Hard Chicago Bulls Fans, a Facebook page with nearly 360,000 followers, he sees the spectrum of Bulls fans’ leanings.
Over the past two years on his page, Hassan has noticed a growing segment of fans — many who post the #FireGarPax hashtag — who actively encourage others to boycott the games until the team dismisses John Paxson and Gar Forman.
“The fan base is outraged about (chairman) Jerry Reinsdorf and all these trades for cash considerations. Money going to ownership’s pockets, it’s kind of like a slap in the face for fans. (Fans are) spending their money to watch the team develop, to watch the team compete, and you’re sitting here trading future draft picks for money. The most notable one was Jordan Bell,” said Hassan. “It’s just become a joke. We’re the laughing stock of NBA.”
Hassan has noted more empty seats this season, particularly on the 100 level of the United Center.
“I was 7 years old when they won their last championship. My most recent memories when I was a kid was the Marcus Fizer days, the Eddy Curry days, the Tyson Chandler days. So it’s been rough ride for me as a Bulls fan.”
Shaw, 61, grew up in Northbrook as a Bulls fan and he and a friend used to mow former coach Jerry Sloan’s lawn when they were in high school. Shaw remembers watching Jordan’s famed 63-point game against the Celtics on TV in 1986 when a friend remarked that if they didn’t buy season tickets after that performance, they might never see another Bulls game in person.
Shaw recalls saying, “‘Oh, you’re crazy.’ Well, he was right.”
In 1998 — after six championships, Jordan’s retirement for the second time and the start of the Bulls’ first post-Jordan demolition — Shaw was finally able to get season tickets: Section 312, Row 2, Seats 1 and 2.
There he has remained every season since, resisting invitations to upgrade. “I used to recognize faces,” Shaw, an attorney, said. “I don’t get the impression there are many people (in that section now) with full season packages.”
Shaw said Bulls account service executive Jen Hall checks in with him once a month and they’ve forged such a relationship that he and his wife, Irene, look for her whenever they’re at the United Center. “She treats my wife and I very nice,” he said. “We got to see Benny the Bull close up in the locker room. My wife a big fan of Benny the Bull.”
Shaw said he’s decided to stick with the team “through thick and thin.”
But he has seen friends in the 100 level give up their seats.
“They couldn’t even give them away,” said Shaw, referring to season ticket buyers who try to sell their unused tickets. “If you’re talking $450 (for two tickets), even if people didn’t mind spending that kind of money, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table. … They didn’t go to enough games to justify the loss.”
“They play horribly,” Mojica said. “Their defense is horrible. They can’t score enough points. They get a lot of good players and then they just get rid of them for draft picks. That’s not how you’re supposed to run a team,” he said before a game against the Grizzlies.
And yet Mojica is a regular ticket buyer, showing up to the United Center about once or twice a month.
”I walked in and I bought (the tickets) here to get out the house,” he said. “It’s still a Chicago team. I’ll still support them, they’re just not that good. I don’t even remember how much they were, I just brought my little brother with me to see a Bulls game.”
Jackie and Erich Staskal
He’s into the games. She’s into the players — with a (maybe?) healthy obsession with former Bull Joakim Noah, whose return Feb. 13 with the Grizzlies drew her and her husband to the game.
Still, Jackie supports the current Bulls. “At the end of the day I want to see all my Chicago teams win, but it’s just an added bonus that (Noah) played for Chicago and he’s coming tonight. I’ve been a fan of his since he was with Florida (and) I followed him ever since. I celebrated when he started with the Bulls. I cried when he left. I followed him in New York and now I’m following him in Memphis.”
Erich brought his wife to the game as an early Valentine’s Day present, but he’s rooted for the team despite reservations about its direction.
“I don’t know if management changes can be affected by me as a fan,” he said. “I don’t know if (a) boycott’s going to do anything. If it would, I’d be more than willing to help.
“Sometimes as a fan I just gotta go through the ups and downs. And I appreciate where they’ve been — it’s a struggle to be where they’re at right now — but truly there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Erich said don’t count him amongas talent evaluators.
“It’s easy to look at people in charge and say, well, I would do this differently,” he said. “A lot of things would’ve been different if Derrick (Rose) wouldn’t have gotten injured. Sure, management probably could’ve made better decisions but at the end of the day unforeseen things affect everything. So I just gotta stand behind them and keep hope alive for the future.”
Brown, 22, moderates a Facebook group of 10,670 members called ChiBulls4Life. He’s been a Bulls fans since the Derrick Rose days and his personal Facebook page is awash in Bulls hats, shirts and images of players.
“I support them because I’m such a die-hard fan. I tune in every game,” he said.
“I do have some (friends) joke around (about the Bulls) but not in a negative way,” Brown said. “They know I’m a die-hard fan. They know I rock with the Bulls every day. It’s the history, the whole tradition, the six championships, the dynasty. It’s just a lot of history.”
It was Hauch’s second Bulls game, but the first for his teammates on the SISU Copenhagen youth basketball team — “the best team in all of Europe” — who were in the area for a tournament.
“The NBA is the best of the best, so we come to watch a game,” the 14-year-old said. “The Bulls are not that good this season but they gotta tank to get Zion (Williamson).”
Back home, the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic has a big following, but among the Bulls, Hauch is partial to Zach LaVine. “ I just like the way he plays.”
The Bulls now create several opportunities for fans to meet players — outside the locker room, on the court, and even during the national anthem — based on the ticket package a fan buys.
Relaxing in the locker room before a recent game, several players such as Robin Lopez and Wendell Carter Jr. kept watch of the clock to see when it was time to dash out for meet-and-greets with kids and their parents.
“Yeah, it takes a little bit of time from us but it’s really important,” Markkanen said. “It means a lot to us that they’re here so we gotta show our appreciation to them as well. We don’t take it for granted. We’re happy to do that stuff.”
Selden came to Chicago, along with MarShon Brooks, via a deal with the Grizzlies that sent Justin Holiday to Memphis. Both fan bases have been supportive, he said, “but coming here you see that crowd is a little more full, a lot more electric.”
“It’s more of a classic feel,” Selden said. “A lot of teams are trying to keep up-to-date with what everybody else has going on. The Bulls keep real traditional and you gotta respect it because of the legacy behind it all.
“I’ve only been here a month. I feel the fan support all over. For example, my social media has grown a ton since I’ve been here. … I don’t have my car here yet, so I’ve been getting a lot of Ubers, and people recognize me.”
Henson, 15, joined classmates and students from other schools on a field trip to the United Center to learn about marketing from members of the team’s marketing department. “We learned why we should get into it and how it’s good for us,” he said. “They talked to us as a group, did presentations.”
But Hoffman Estates High School 10th grader Henson already is sold on the Bulls.
“They have a lot of potential going forward in drafts; early draft picks,” he said. “This is my first actual basketball game. … I’m looking forward to seeing Zach LaVine, my favorite player on the Bulls.”
Like Henson, Durkin was at the United Center that day to learn marketing strategies from the Bulls.
Long term, the sophomore said he believes in the Bulls’ youth movement.
“They have a young team and it’s fun to watch Zach LaVine play,” Durkin said. “When they become good and win championships you can’t call us loyal fans bandwagons.”