Frank Sinatra is the cue. As soon as you hear Ol’ Blue Eyes start to sing, it’s time to take your seat. Then the music changes, and your pulse quickens. Images of Sloan, Van Lier, Jordan, Pippen, Rodman in flight. The national anthem. The opposing lineup. The lights go down. You hear the familiar strains of “Sirius”…and the chills begin.
Welcome to a Chicago Bulls game at the United Center.
It’s sometimes called the House that Jordan Built, although His Airness was still in the midst of his first retirement when the United Center opened in 1994. But it’s the memory of Michael Jordan that sets this place apart among basketball stadiums. He played at the United Center from 1995 to 1998, winning three straight championships to finish his Bulls career. His statue stands outside the stadium and his jersey hangs from the rafters. Only recently, with the arrival of the sublime Derrick Rose, has the #23 jersey had any real competition in the crowd.
Beyond the championship aura, the United Center is a stadium that’s easy to appreciate and hard to love. From a design standpoint, it’s a model of efficiency. In terms of character, though, the name is not the only thing that’s reminiscent of an airport.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
No matter where you sit, the staples are within easy reach - $4 jumbo pretzels (hot and fresh, $1 extra with cheese), $4.75 French fries and $5.25 popcorn (flavorful and a fair size), and $5.75 Vienna Beef hot dogs (a nice, flavorful snap with the bite; condiment stations by the wall for mustard, ketchup, and gooey onions and relish from packets). The United Center's pizza supplier seems to change every season, and the current $6.25 DiGiorno slices are merely adequate. Avoid the $6.25 nachos (thick, stale chips; too little cheese, too many jalapenos). Coke products are on sale ($5.25 / $5.75). Kids sizes are available for almost everything.
Vendors sell Budweiser products from cans at $7.50, while domestic draft beers are $8 from concession stands. Margaritas ($9) and cocktails ($9.75) are also available from several stands; Mai Tais ($9), champagne ($8.25), and wine ($7.25) aren't hard to find either.
The specialty options at the United Center are excellent. Sweet Baby Ray's, between sections 118 & 119, has very long lines for highlights including smoked beef brisket sandwiches ($13.75), BBQ chicken tenders ($11.25), pulled BBQ pork sandwiches ($11.75), half-slabs of baby back ribs ($15), and mac and cheese triangles ($4.75). But the biggest crowds are at the Windy City Grill, which has both ordinary hot dogs and cheeseburgers ($7.25) along with Polish sausages and brats ($6.25). There are also some unique variations like the satisfying "Da Burger", a 1/2 pound pork burger topped with Canadian bacon and barbecue sauce ($8.75).
For dietary restrictions, the United Center also excels. If you're counting calories, visit the gourmet stand outside section 114 for salads ($7.25), bakery sandwiches ($8.25), and healthy snacks like fruit cups ($3.75). Gluten-free options are available there and at a few concession stands, and the Windy City Grill has a surprisingly decent veggie burger ($6.25).
Most of the specialty options are also represented at least once on the 300 level, but they're further apart - you may have to walk to the other side of the stadium and check each menu as you pass. (The closest equivalent to the Windy City Grill is outside sections 321-322.)
Lines are predictably long at halftime and don't begin to clear until five minutes into the third quarter. If you're looking for dessert after halftime, here's a tip: you can order from any register that's connected to the dessert window. For example, at the Windy City Grill, the soft-serve sign is at the far right, and that's where people line up for ice cream. But you can place the same order at the neighboring register with the burger signs above it. Dessert-wise, hold out for the terrific hand-scooped waffle cones ($5.50), a little harder to find but a much better value than the Häagen-Dazs bars ($5.25).
Beer sales end after the third quarter. Staff members say they're under instructions to avoid spoilage, so popular items may run out early, and plenty of concession stands will close well before the game is over. By the fourth quarter, you have to take whatever you can get.
Since there's nowhere else to drink in the immediate area, the United Center has several pseudo-bars that open with the stadium doors (typically 90 minutes before tipoff). The Budweiser Select Brew Pub outside section 108 is packed from start to finish; try the DiGiorno Corner outside section 120 instead, which isn't as well advertised and (despite the name) serves drinks, too.
If you have a ticket for the 200 (club) level, visit the Chicago Stadium Bar, which is the best in the building - great atmosphere and friendly staff, like a timewarp into a classy Chicago joint from the heyday of its namesake, the Bulls' previous stadium.
There are a few "view bars" on the 300 level: the Crown Royal, Don Julio, Captain Morgan, and Smirnoff Bars (sections 306, 312, 323, 329), and the Ironworks Bar & Grill, which is behind a basket (section 309) but also serves food. If your seat is in the nosebleeds, you can nurse a drink and take in a better view of the court from the perches at these bars.
The United Center was designed to accommodate huge crowds, and it does that well. The facility shows virtually no wear-and-tear for its 18+ years of operations - especially remarkable considering that it hosts crowds of 20,000 or more, night after night, for teams in two major sports and concerts (not to mention the circus). But there's a sense of anonymity to the space, perhaps in part because it serves so many different purposes and places such an emphasis on efficiency. From materials to design, it's oddly reminiscent of United's terminal at O'Hare International Airport.
Lines are slightly shorter to enter on the Monroe/Adams side (Gates 6 & 7), but not by a lot. Expect a thorough security check. The 100 level concourse is very wide, and the 200 (club) level invites leisurely, contemplative strolls. The 300 level concourse is tighter, but still offers plenty of room. The only traffic jams form after the game and are easy to escape via exits directly to the street.
The bands that play in the concourses before the game are a very nice touch. The concourses do not offer a view of the playing area, though, so if you're still in line for food when play begins, you'll have to settle for TVs to keep up with the game.
Team benches are on the north side of the stadium. The Bulls sit in front of sections 101 & 102, and sections 110 & 111 face toward them. They enter and exit through the tunnel between sections 103 & 104. (The lower portion of section 105 is also close.) Tickets are checked for access to any part of the 100 level, even during shootaround.
Sightlines are uniformly excellent. Seats are comfortable, though there will be some encroachment if a larger than average person sits next to you. Legroom is tight but adequate. The lack of cupholders, though, is kind of ridiculous. You shouldn't have to worry about kicking over your beer (as people routinely do) every time you leap up to cheer.
The Jumbotron is exactly the right size - easily visible from everywhere in the stadium, but not so large as to distract from the actual game. Replays arrive quickly after the action. The Bulls have an exceptional video production team, and the team videos and highlight reels tend to be top-notch. Tommy Edwards, the PA announcer, keeps a warm, mellow tone throughout the game, though he's capable of going loud for player introductions. However, trite sound effects (Austin Powers? In 2013?) work against him, and many of the music cues are straight out of the Generic NBA Team cookbook.
The United Center aims to deliver a family friendly atmosphere and largely succeeds. At times, though, they seem to believe that family has a serious case of attention deficit disorder. Every break in the action is occupied with a blast of noise, a performance, or a contest. There are some clever fan games during the first half, but the constant activity can become grating by the fourth quarter. It's particularly frustrating during the last minute of a close game. One team hits a basket. The other team calls timeout. The tension is thick...and then here come the t-shirt cannons, miniature mascots riding tricycles, and "Rock And Roll All Nite", because the United Center doesn't trust the fans to care about what's happening in the game.
In a city as densely populated as Chicago, the sheer nothingness that surrounds the United Center is downright weird. There just isn't anything here. People arrive, watch the game, and depart. A 2010 survey claimed that this was the most dangerous neighborhood in the United States, but it included areas several blocks from the United Center, well out of the range of where fans have any reason to go. There's no cause for concern about safety while attending a game.
The only decent place to eat within a short walk is the Billy Goat Tavern & Grill at Madison & Ashland, but the burgers there aren't any better than what the United Center serves. On a weekday, you might have a pregame meal at the Palace Grill, a longer walk east down Madison, but that's more of a tradition that belongs to the United Center's other tenants (and isn't open on weekend evenings). Near the Palace Grill is the WestEnd, a fairly typical gastropub that runs shuttles to the United Center before the game and will be open afterward.
Your best chance to catch one of the Bulls or a visiting player having a postgame meal is at Gibson's or Morton's Steakhouse, both in the River North neighborhood of Chicago.
Bulls fans can be a frustrating lot. They deserve credit for continuing to buy tickets in league-high numbers during the lean years after Jordan. They make noise for praise-worthy plays and acts of injustice, and even during a lifeless Bulls performance against the also-ran Suns, they kept tuned for signs the team might be mounting a comeback (it wasn't), and didn't begin heading for the exits en masse until there were two minutes left. Though sound evaporates into the United Center rafters, Bulls fans are capable of making a respectable amount of noise in the fourth quarter.
It's when the Dunkin Donuts race comes on the video screen - or the Bulls are nearing 100 points and free Big Macs for everyone - that the place goes truly wild and you realize these crowds do have an extra gear, but they rarely reach it for anything basketball-related.
Part of the problem lays in the success of the front office in selling a Bulls game as a fun evening out, as a larger than life spectacle above and beyond the sport of basketball. It works gangbusters from a financial standpoint, but it results in crowds dominated by casual fans who need extensive cues to cheer and boo. If you want to talk about basketball during a timeout, your chances of being seated near a diehard Bulls fan aren't high.
This is a marquee team in a major city, so plenty of premium tickets are held by corporate sponsors, law firms, and the like. As a result, the level of passion near the court often leaves something to be desired. Fans on the 100 level are infamous for complaining when other fans stand up to cheer. That isn't a problem on the 300 level, where fans are generally free to be as excited or distracted as they wish.
Visiting fans will not encounter any hostility, even while wearing the opposing team's apparel, although something as patently offensive as a Bill Laimbeer jersey might be going too far. Crowd disruptions are almost unheard of, and staff members are quick to respond in the rare instances that something does occur. And Bulls fans always deliver during the Kiss Cam, which counts for something.
The United Center is surrounded on all sides by vast, barren plains of asphalt, which makes parking easy to find. Approaching from the east on Madison, non-team lots begin at $19. The first tier of team lots cost $20-$22, with a couple blocks walk to the game. Prices reach $35 for lots with direct access to the stadium. There are also $19 lots west of the United Center, past Damen, but don't head too far into these, as the crowds drop off quickly (and with them, safety). Thanks to the overall lack of activity in the area, you can expect a relatively easy exit after the game.
The majority of fans take CTA buses to the game, either the #20 Madison (24 hours) or the #19 United Center Express, which runs from the Loop starting 90 minutes before games. In favorable traffic, it's about a 20-minute trip from the Loop, but add a half-hour to be safe on weekday evenings. After the game, a fleet of #20 buses will be lined up on Madison heading back to the Loop. Buses run past CTA elevated and subway lines as well as Ogilvie Station for connections via Metra rail to the Chicago suburbs. The #9 Ashland and #50 Damen buses are options for travelers heading north/south, but they run less frequently and have more traffic to wade through.
CTA elevated trains are within walking distance via the Ashland/Lake station (Green/Pink Lines), but you're going through some vacant, poorly lit areas. The walk is basically fine before the game, but travel with a group and pay attention to your surroundings if you're heading that way afterward.
The handicapped lot (G) is on the west side of the stadium. The 100 level wheelchair seating is spacious and easy to reach. I spoke to a fan there who regularly attends games and said that he has never had a problem with access. There are elevators on the north and south sides of the stadium for handicapped visitors heading to the upper levels.
Restrooms are about as clean as one could expect, given the number of visitors who pass through. There are no signs of decay or weird odors, though the floors can get a bit wet from the spattering faucets. There are lines at halftime and after the game, but they move at a fair pace.
Tickets have never been cheap at the United Center; the greatest player of all time was in residence during the early years, and with the emergence of hometown star Derrick Rose, prices have continued to rise. But the return on investment isn't bad, especially since they're offering an elite basketball team (and, with the hoped-for healthy return of Rose, a chance to watch one of the five best players in the world). You pay a lot, one way or another, but you get a memorable experience in return. In other words, it's expensive, but it's not necessarily a rip-off.
Pricing varies considerably by weekdays vs. weekends and star quality of the opposition. 100 level tickets range from $135 to $400, or $300 to "yeah, right" for main floor (courtside). Seats on the main floor have private waitresses and will receive attention from players during shootaround (as well as Benny the Bull during the game).
200 level tickets are pricey, ranging from $115 to $350, but you can see the value they're trying to provide in exchange. The concession lines are practically non-existent, and there are several lounge areas for people who aren't interested in the game. (Also, the t-shirt cannons, parachutes and slingshots practically bury the 200 level in free shirts.) I'd pay for 100 or 200 level seats if I had a child to manage or some party members whose interest level was likely to come and go.
The cheapest seats from official sources are normally $45 but can reach an absurd $100 for certain matchups. The last couple of rows (16 & 17) on the 300 level are really far back, and only worthwhile for playoff games. Row 9 on the 300 level is the best value. Standing Room Only tickets are available ($20-$50); in theory, you could arrive early and secure a spot at one of the 300 level view bars, and then snag some untaken seats on the 300 level during the second quarter. (But stay out of the lower rows to avoid suspicion from the ushers, who watch those.)
On secondary markets, you might find a cheap seat to a low-interest weeknight game as low as $13. If you buy direct from a season ticket holder, their foil-stamped tickets make for a nice souvenir.
There are merchandise stands on the 100 level and near the escalators on the 200 & 300 levels. Prices aren't egregious. If you have time, head to the Bull Market shop near section 117 for a much wider selection. It's worth picking up a program, as the Bulls have a talented photography staff.
The handling of Bulls history is a mixed bag. The team's championship banners and retired jerseys are on display in the rafters, perfectly lit and arranged. A look up at those is always worth a few goosebumps. So, too, are the six Finals trophies on display on the 100 level, near section 117. Fans can pose in front of the trophies, making for a cool photo. And in his current capacity as "senior advisor" to the team, Scottie Pippen is often courtside.
Other aspects of the legacy, though, only call attention to the United Center's lack of character as a venue. There's the famous Jordan statue, but it's just plunked between a parking lot and a side entrance. Nothing about the setting creates any kind of awe, much less evokes the G.O.A.T. himself. The statue is a great pregame meeting place and not much else.
Along those lines, the team had the good taste to add busts of Pippen and Johnny "Red" Kerr recently, but those, too, are shunted off to the side (by Gates 7 and 3, respectively) with no sense of place or setting; they call to mind not so much basketball history as bits of local art in an airport, the kind you pass with a bleary-eyed glance on your way to baggage claim. All told, that's two bonus points awarded for the history, less one for the handling.
Benny the Bull is one of the best mascots in sports. Hardly a moment passes when he's not on the court or in the stands, interacting with fans. (Beware Benny approaching with a bag of popcorn.) As Jay Bilas might say, Benny is a high character mascot with an incredible motor who combines the court vision of John Belushi with the wingspan and athleticism of a young Phoenix Suns Gorilla. That's another bonus point.
I'm awarding another bonus point for the children's activities. Kids will have a great time at a Bulls game. There are tables with posterboard, markers and crayons where they can make signs to hold up during the game, and there are even a couple of face-painting stations. Several concession stands offer kids-sized versions of popular items, so you don't have to pay full-price for a hot dog the kid will forget after one bite. And Benny the Bull will keep their attention during the game. Just make sure to point him out early, and they'll follow him throughout the game. If you have kids, it's worth paying for 100 level tickets to keep Benny in sight.
I'm also awarding a bonus point for cleanliness. A 2010 survey found the food services at the United Center at the top of the NBA for sanitary practices, with not a single violation to be found.
It will be interesting to see how the neighborhood is affected by recently announced plans to build a new Bulls practice facility across the street from the stadium, on the current site of parking lot J. The project is scheduled for completion in time for the 2014-15 season. Will it bring retail, nightlife, and restaurants to the area...or will it be just another building adrift in parking lots? Check back in a couple of years.
In 2010, the up-and-coming Bulls have been replaced by the already-arrived Blackhawks as the hot ticket at the United Center. It is, however, a good time to be a Bulls fan and to be at the United Center.
Opening in 1994, the United Center was fortunate to be born into the midst of the Bulls dynasty, and the return of Michael Jordan to the NBA. Two of the three NBA championships won since the United Center opened were clinched on the home floor (1996 vs. Seattle and 1997 vs. Utah). For such a young venue, it has seen its share of history.
Opening in 1994, the United Center was fortunate to be born into the midst of the Bulls dynasty, and the return of Michael Jordan to the NBA. Two of the three NBA championships won since the United Center opened, were clinched on the home floor (1996 vs. Seattle, and 1997 vs. Utah).For such a young venue, it has seen its share of history.
Every basketball fan has to watch a game in The House That Jordan Built. (Of course, Scottie Pippen had a hand in that as well - look for his statue in spring 2011.) In a league without many historic venues, having been the home of the 72-10 Bulls makes the United Center an essential visit. That's not to say that the UC is an exceptional stadium in and of itself, though. Despite efforts to rebrand it as "The Madhouse on Madison" (a nickname that more properly belonged to its predecessor, the Chicago Stadium), it never gets particularly loud at the UC, and the facility has no real quirks or distinguishing features beyond all of the championship banners. It's functional, though, with uniformly excellent sightlines, easy entrance/exit, and food/drink stands that recently rated tops in the NBA for cleanliness. The game experience is very energetic and family friendly, but may leave a die-hard basketball fan wanting for a sense of Bulls fandom. (If that matters to you, season ticket holders sell their extra tickets through ClickTix on Bulls.com, which is likely to land you among more dedicated fans - season ticket holders tend to be grouped by section.)
I have to respectfully disagree on this one. I grew up pretty much hating Jordan and the Bulls (odd, i know), but I love the United Center experience.
The neighborhood is awful, especially considering Wrigley is so darn awesome. A recent study called it the unsafest (http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/blog/ball_dont_lie/post/Study-finds-area-around-Bulls-arena-unsafest-in-?urn=nba-274955).
The atmosphere is just phenomenal. Their play stoppage promotions are the best in the NBA. The intro, and the energy of the United Center is one of the best I've experienced.
The fans? My hats off to them. Despite being an EIGHT seed, they were in the top 3 of attendance the past two years in a row. Kudos to them.
The extras! Just awesome! Jordan statue, the banners, and the interactive exhibits they have on the upper and lower levels are lots of fun.
A bland, soulless place.
home of Michael Jordan..... need I say more!!
Love coming here. Fans are sometimes loud but when its a big game they bring it
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