Commentary

UC change?

The Hawks may be passing the Bulls as the most popular tenant of the United Center

Updated: December 23, 2009, 10:48 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Phil Jackson gazed up at the 300 Level of the United Center, an offseason renovation that designated the "Madhouse on Madison" in giant red lights, and offered a droll observation last week.

[+] EnlargePatrick Kane
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastIt's an apples-to-oranges debate, but there's no denying Patrick Kane and the Hawks currently own an edge in quality of play and fan passion at the United Center.

"I guess that applies to hockey, huh?" the former Chicago Bulls coach chuckled.

And that was before Tuesday night.

It seems almost unfair to discuss the relative popularity of the two United Center occupants in the wake of the Bulls' loss to the Sacramento Kings after leading by 35 points, the second-worst collapse in NBA history.

In many ways, the "Madhouse" description fits as the Bulls' fans in attendance could not have been blamed had they required professional help after watching their team disintegrate against the Kings.

"Early in the third quarter I thought, 'Boy, I'll be able to make a quick exit, this is such a laugher,'" said Stan Shulman, a longtime Bulls fan and season-ticket holder. "The Bulls were doing everything right, and then it was just like a switch was flipped and it was so painful to watch. I've been watching basketball for a long time and I have never seen anything like that."

Though booing at Bulls games has been heard off and on during the erratic past few years, Shulman said he had never heard it in earnest as he did Tuesday.

"For 15 or 20 seconds after the buzzer, everyone was still in a total state of shock," he said. "Then there was significant booing, which is the first time I've really heard that. But it wasn't long-lived, and hopefully it's not recurrent."

To say the Blackhawks are the most popular inhabitants of the building these days is like saying that viewing the game from a skybox suite is better than standing room; that char-broiled hot dogs are superior to boiled; that sweet potato fries are tastier than the regular kind.

OK, that last one may be up for debate. But clearly, the Hawks are infusing the place with a quality of play as well as an enthusiasm that serves as the great equalizer to an otherwise apples-oranges discussion.

"It's a huge building, a huge crowd and we have special friends here," Blackhawks' goaltender Cristobal Huet said. "Especially now, I think everybody's very excited to come to the United Center."

From the national anthem through two intermissions, even in the rare home defeats, there is a noise level and an emotional charge at Hawks' games that simply can't compare to the canned noise and static atmosphere at most of the Bulls' regular-season games.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Rose
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDespite their recent struggles, the Bulls and Derrick Rose still are up in television ratings over last season.

While some of that can be attributed to the pace of the average NBA game  even the Michael Jordan-led Bulls' games had its dead spots  the hustle and overall skill level of the Hawks is evident to even the novice fan.

And it is evident as well to those watching from home.

On games telecast by Comcast SportsNet so far this season, the Blackhawks are averaging a 1.92 rating (67,219 households), which is up a whopping 79 percent from last season at this point. The Bulls are averaging a 2.27 rating (79,473 homes watching), up 11 percent from last season.

Both teams would appear to be benefitting from a carryover effect -- the Hawks' trek to the conference finals and the Bulls' impressive seven-game first-round series with the Boston Celtics last spring. The anticipation of Derrick Rose's second season after his rookie-of-the-year campaign is surely attributable, too.

But Hawks' fans are responding in unprecedented fashion -- an all-time regular-season record plus-3 rating on Dec. 9 for a Wednesday night game against the New York Rangers on Comcast SportsNet, and a record (excluding the Winter Classic) for WGN with a 4.1 household rating for the Sunday, Dec. 20 night game against Detroit Red Wings.

The good news for both teams, and for Chicago sports in general, is that we're still watching, still attending, still supporting, even when we're demanding that coaches be fired and players be jettisoned.

Despite the Bulls' recurring bouts of apathy, they have sold out eight of 14 home games and rank second in the NBA in home attendance with 20,551 fans per game (capacity is 20,917).

The Hawks are leading the NHL in operating at 105.1 percent of attendance this season, averaging 20,726 fans per game through this past Sunday (hockey capacity at the UC is 19,717).

John O'Connor's sons are strictly Blackhawks' fans. He is a 40-year season-ticket holder of the Bulls and doesn't plan on going anywhere, even after Tuesday night's epic flop.

"I think just about all of us are the same breed," O'Connor said. "We love our team. [Tuesday night] was one of the worst exhibitions I've ever seen. I don't think Vinny [Del Negro] is the right coach. I get mad, ready to kill them. But that was yesterday.

"Saturday night is the next home game and I'll bet you money, marbles or chalk they'll end up with 22,000 people."

Yep, Chicago sports fans.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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