Behind the Scenes
CHICAGO COACHES AREN'T THE ONLY ONES WHO PLOT GAME STRATEGY
before the Bulls take to the hardwood at the United Center.
Preparing for the sellout crowd that fills the structure at 1901 West Madison to watch the Bulls takes an extensive game plan, determination and solid team effort. It takes weeks of preparation in some instances, and in others only hours are available to transform the United Center into a basketball arena. Workers' schedules are determined six weeks in advance, food is ordered for the concessions, suites and banquet areas weeks before a game and the arena itself is converted for basketball less than 24 hours before game time.
A whole different game takes place off the court at the United Center.
"Many people think you turn on the lights, get the sound ready and open the doors," said Jonathan Zirin, former director of event operations at the United Center. "In reality, the game itself takes the least of our time. The real time and energy is spent leading up to and after an event. The event itself is the easy part."
Converting the United Center from hockey to basketball
Since the United Center is a multipurpose building, workers are constantly reconfiguring the arena to accommodate a specific event. In addition to the Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks, the building is used for concerts, ice shows and in 1996 hosted the Democratic National Convention. Last year for example, 18 conversions from concerts to hockey to basketball were required during the month of March alone. During postseason play, the possibility exists hockey and basketball games might be played on the same day, requiring workers to convert the arena floor the from one sport to another in relatively short order.
Transforming the United Center from basketball to hockey and vice versa is a major undertaking. And although the building is state-of-the-art, the conversion requires nothing but manual labor.
Typically the transformation from ice to hardwood begins three hours after the start of a hockey game. It requires the brute strength of about 50 people and takes an average of four hours to complete.
After a year and a half and hundreds of conversions, Jim Koehler, director of building operations, has the process down to a science. Everything -- whether it be sections of the basketball floor, a deck of chairs or handrails -- is stored in a specific place, numbered and color-coded.
According to Koehler, "Everything goes in and out in order, and everything goes back to its own spot." Still, he is always looking to make improvements that speed the process and make it a safer operation. "Our first conversion took 24 hours. Many people thought we'd never get it below eight hours."
But improvements and modifications have allowed Koehler to trim what was a 32-step process at the beginning of the 1994-95 basketball season to 22 steps. He has also cut his workforce by one-third. The United Center conversions go so smoothly that management groups from other stadiums look to Koehler and his staff for advice.
In addition to his staff of seven full-time workers, Koehler uses 20 laborers from Job Link, a temporary agency that provides day laborers from the community, to remove the dasher glass and struts from the hockey arena. These same workers cover the ice with homasote, 530 four- by eight-foot, one-inch thick insulating boards that are laid over the ice before the basketball floor is put down.
Another group of part-time workers is responsible for pulling out the telescopic seats at the east and west ends of the stadium. Decks of seats and 600 folding chairs are moved from storage areas to provide additional courtside seating. Arranging the seating is a two-hour process alone.
Handrails and steps must be installed to accommodate the additional seating. The conversion also includes hanging 20 10- by two-foot signs that advertise Bulls sponsors, setting up six scorers tables, backboards and nets.
"Tomorrow night we'll be putting it all back for hockey," Koehler said recently while watching workers transform the United Center from hockey to basketball.
Food service is in a league of its own
There's a good chance that most of the guests who fill the stadium will purchase a drink or something to eat. And with 216 suites, 47 concession stands, separate banquet facilities, portable beverage stations and 50 roving beer vendors, Sam Karatas, executive vice president of Bismarck Enterprises, begins ordering food for Bulls games weeks in advance.
Employees prepare food for the suites as early as 24 hours in advance of a game and the morning of the event for concession sales. Food is delivered to the suites about one and a half hours prior to game time.
Building operations want fans to feel like guests
From the perspective of Zirin, the United Center's director of event operations, the building never sleeps. And it's intentional.
"You only have an opportunity to open a building like this once," he said. "We not only wanted to open it in the right fashion, we want to ensure that the fans, our guests, have a positive experience from the time they walk through the door until they leave."
One of the first things the United Center partnership, which consists of the owners of the Bulls and the Blackhawks, did was form an internal company, At Your Service, to oversee event management. In contrast to the Chicago Stadium, where outside firms were used to provide security, ushers and other game day personnel, the United Center employs about 900 workers year-round to perform these duties at both the United Center and Comiskey Park, home of the baseball White Sox.
Responsible for the center's day-to-day operations, including security, housekeeping, event services, event management, guest relations, scoreboard operations and parking, Zirin and his staff begin planning for a Bulls game weeks in advance.
The operations department works closely with Bulls management to coordinate promotional giveaways as well as on-the-court and in-stadium promotions. The Bulls also provide the operations department with such information as estimated attendance, who will sing the national anthem, dressing room assignments and special pregame events.
About three and one-half hours before a Bulls game is scheduled to begin, Zirin does a complete walk through of the inside and outside of the building, checking to make sure turnstiles are in place, the floors and bathrooms are clean and the trash outside the building has been picked up.
"We call it the white-glove treatment," Zirin said.
They also work with local or national television crews to ensure that cameras are in place and equipment is working properly. Because the United Center is prewired, the four-hour setup time for television crews is half of what it was at the Chicago Stadium.
Stadium workers begin arriving as early as 3 p.m. for a 7:30 p.m. Bulls game. Around 4:30 they receive their assignments for the evening and attend a briefing session in which guest-related issues from the previous game are addressed. Zirin calls all departments via walkie talkie about 15 minutes prior to opening the doors of the United Center to the public. Ten minutes later they make a general announcement instructing workers to take their positions, and another announcement is made when the doors open.
After the game, 100 or so workers remain to begin cleaning the United Center for the next event. Another crew of 70 employees show up the following morning to complete the task.
"It takes a lot of coordination to bring it all together," Zirin said. "Most of our guests don't realize what it takes and they shouldn't have to."
Did you know?
- At nearly 1 million square feet, the United Center is in a league of its own. Most arenas average between 600,000 and 700,000 square feet.
- The United Center hosts about 300 events a year.
- Between 800 to 1,000 workers staff a Bulls game.
- It takes 300 man hours to clean the United Center after a Bulls game.
- Eight to 10 tons of trash is generated during one Bulls game.
- More than 200 people staff 47 concession stands.
- One hundred fifty kegs of beer, 2,800 slices of pizza and 3,500 hot dogs are consumed during one Bulls game.
- Bulls fans eat more ice cream than do hockey fans, but hockey fans consume more beer than Bulls fans.