Not Just a Game
There’s action at the United Center from the moment the gates open until the final tick of the game clock.
Benny the Bull | Bucket Boys | BullsKidz
August 17, 2005—From a sea of people, you emerge to glance up at the bronzed immortalization of the greatest basketball player the world has ever seen. A smile comes across your face as you enter the building that carries on a winning tradition that spans 39 years, and you make your way through the very walkways that legends trod.
Overhead banners breeze gently in the rafters in reverence toward previous world championships and in anticipation of victories to come. Energy flows through the hallways and through the veins of players and fans alike who have gathered in the Windy City’s greatest indoor arena, the United Center.
There is no question—this is one very special place.
Look around and you’ll see. Every age group, every ethnicity, every Chicago neighborhood and every rung of the social ladder is represented. In everything from $2,000 Armani custom suits to tattered jeans and T-shirts, people from every walk of life come together for the sole purpose of having a good time.
For the thousands who flock to the city’s West Side for each Bulls home game, it isn’t just about watching basketball—it’s about experiencing the joys of life. And regardless of the season’s record or the night’s final score, fans can rest assured that they will leave with a smile on their face thanks in great deal to the Bulls’ dedicated game entertainment staff.
Fan satisfaction has been Executive Vice-President of Business Operations Steve Schanwald's specialty for the past 18 years.
“The basketball game lasts 48 minutes, but people are in their seats for 2 and a half hours,” says Schanwald. “That means there is more than an hour and a half when no basketball is being played. And not every game is a classic. It’s our job to keep the fans entertained from the moment they enter the United Center until the moment they leave—to give them as much value for their entertainment dollar as possible. To give them their money's worth.”
Fans can always count on plenty of sizzle from Chicago’s favorite mascot, Benny the Bull.
Entering his 13th season with the team, Director of Game Operations Jeff Wohlschlaeger has the demanding job of throwing a party for roughly 20,000 people a night.
“We try to provide our fans with more than just basketball,” says Wohlschlaeger. “Maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere where fans can come to cheer and enjoy time with friends has always been important to the Bulls.”
Greeted by talents such as rock, soul, country and R&B bands, balloon makers, tarot card readers, magicians and face painters, Chicagoans know that the fun has begun as soon as they walk through the United Center’s doors. Themes that vary from Mardi Gras to Elvis Presley night ensure that there is something for everyone.
“My goal is to keep the game-going experience as fun and entertaining as possible.” says Wohlschlaeger, “And to make the game’s final outcome as moot as possible so that people walk away thinking, ‘Hey, I want to come back because I just had a great time.’”
And that’s exactly what he does.
“A lot of my ideas come from driving around the city,” Wohlschlaeger admits. “I try to bring Chicago’s culture home and turn it into fun entertainment. There is just a ton of talented people in Chicago—all I really have to do is just look around.”
One of Wohlschlaeger’s proudest achievements is having discovered the most talked about acts to take the NBA hardwood, the Bucket Boys. While walking along Chicago’s world-famous Michigan Avenue one afternoon while shopping with his wife, Wohlschlaeger came upon a crowd of people who had gathered to listen to a group of street corner drummers banging on pickle buckets and looking for tips. “I immediately thought, ‘That’s Chicago!’
“They were unbelievable....so high energy, so entertaining. I knew I had to get them to come to a game to perform.”
Discovered while performing for tips along Chicago's famed Magnificent Mile, the Bucket Boys have parlayed their talent into nation-wide fame.
But the Bucket Boys aren’t the only act attracting fans’ attention these days. The Matadors, which feature some of Chicago’s “biggest” Bulls fans, are by far the most popular recent addition to the Bulls’ entertainment lineup. Selected for their energy, personality and, of course, their “dancing” skills, the 14-man boogie squad brings a high level of enthusiasm to the court and excites the crowd night after night.
“Being at the games is awesome,” says Matador Jim Bannon, a born and raised Bulls fan. “We love being able to perform for huge crowds. We practice hard and we’re out there to make the crowd laugh. All in all, we get along really well, and we have a great time together out on the court.”
“I’ve never been to an audition with that much energy,” chuckles Wohlschlaeger. “I was knocked over. I can’t believe how talented, funny and enthusiastic those guys are.”
Timeout and halftime acts such as the Red Panda Acrobat, a talented gymnast who wows the crowd by flipping ceramic bowls onto her head while pedaling a 25-foot-high unicycle, and “Quick Change,” a husband-and-wife dance team that magically changes outfits in the blink of an eye, have become staples at the United Center. In addition to showcasing some of Chicago’s best hometown talent, acts from around the world, including performers from Cirque du Soleil, also perform at Bulls games on a regular basis.
When there isn’t an act or a fan race bounding onto the court, there’s always something happening on the sidelines or in the crowd. Benny the Bull, the team’s most recognizable and most beloved symbol, is always busy entertaining the crowd and urging fans to get up on their feet.
And, of course, who can forget the Luvabulls?
One of the top dance teams in the NBA for over 26 years, the Luvabulls are always a guaranteed crowd-pleaser with their knockout good looks and impressive choreography.
Grace and beauty continue to be a perfect combination for the Luvabulls.
When the Luvabulls aren’t “bustin’ a move” on the court, they’re out working in the business world or going to school on a full-time basis, as well as representing the team at various charity events.
“The Luvabulls are an important part of the Bulls’ entertainment package,” says longtime Luvabulls Director Cathy Core. “They really raise the entertainment value, bringing professionalism, beauty, movement and enthusiasm to the game.
“The fans always appreciate what the Luvabulls do. The girls seem to bring a lot of smiles to everyone’s faces.”
Understanding the mood inside the United Center and tailoring the entertainment to what the fans want to see is an important part of Wohlschlaeger’s job. Using the crowd’s reaction as a barometer, he has to make snap decisions from the sidelines, communicating with the public address announcer and the music and scoreboard operators to direct what the crowd sees and hears. The idea is not to try and create energy in the building, but rather to feed off and maintain the excitement of the fans.
“The fans are very vocal about what they like and what they don’t like, and we certainly listen,” Wohlschlaeger says.
There is never a dull moment at the United Center, and to Schanwald and Wohlschlaeger the constant action is one of the best aspects of working for the Bulls.
“The daily variety and the challenges the job presents keep things exciting,” says Schanwald.
“No night is the same,” says Wohlschlaeger. “I’m not sitting behind my desk all day—I’m out looking for new and creative ways to entertain, and I’m fortunate that I work with a lot of creative people. On any given game night I’m working with upwards of 100 or 150 different entertainers, trying to put on our show. That challenge each and every night is probably the number-one thing I look forward to the most.
“I love basketball—I really have a dream job. I get to work in something that I’m passionate about. I’m in an atmosphere where people are paying to come and enjoy themselves, but I’m the one getting paid to be there.”
Terrific entertainment that the whole family can enjoy and the loyalty of Chicagoans have proved to be a winning combination for a number of years. Though, up to this past season, the team has struggled, the fans have always demonstrated their unbridled support by coming out in droves. Last season the Bulls finished second overall in league attendance, besting by far perennial NBA turnstile powerhouses, like the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks, just to name two.
Pick anyone you want—Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or John Travolta—it’s fairly obvious that no one can equal the silky smooth moves of the Matadors.
“I know our basketball operations people, our coaching staff and our players truly appreciate the incredible support and passion our fans demonstrate on a nightly basis. Even today, seven years after winning our last NBA Championship, you can look around the building and see 21,000 diehard Bulls fans.”
“Chicago’s fans are the best there are,” adds Schanwald. “Knowledgeable. Passionate. The social fabric of Chicago revolves around its sports teams.
“My hope every season is that we will put a team on the floor that will play hard and smart. And that fans will be entertained from the moment they enter the building until the moment they leave.”
The coming season is already looking bright, and Bulls fans have stood by their team through thick and thin. This year however, loyalty won't be the only thing that brings fans to the United Center every night. The chance to be amused by one of the best entertainment staffs in the NBA and the chance to witness the Bulls’ return to greatness are sure to keep the crowds coming night after night.
—By Erin Sweeney