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Bulls still winning off the court

12/3/2004 - Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls have been the greatest success story in basketball over the past six seasons. Not on the court, of course -- there they've lost more games than any other team in the NBA, by far. But since Michael Jordan's departure, the Bulls have enjoyed the highest attendance in the league and, with low team payrolls, have secured a place among the league's most profitable franchises.

Their amazing success off the court has been the result of groundwork laid by several key people, and has affected the earning ability of many others. But they may not be able to keep it going.

Max Waisvisz remembers the glory days, when he'd be making calls and picking up tickets right before the opening tip, easily turning them over before game time and raking in thousands of dollars in profit in only a couple hours' time. He and his partners made so much money off the Bulls -- who sold out 610 consecutive games from 1987 to 2000 -- that they used some of it to buy a $2.5 million apartment complete with a rooftop to overlook Wrigley Field.

It has been more than six years since Michael Jordan left the Bulls for the final time and Waisvisz is only now considering reducing the 60 season-ticket plans his brokerage company, Gold Coast Tickets, buys each year.

"I don't know if I can take it anymore," Waisvisz says. "All I do these days is sell the opponents."

Even that's not doing the trick. Wednesday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers marked the first time Waisvisz sold some of the tickets to the matchup for below face value. He's skeptical about how he'll do over the next two weeks as some of the best teams in the NBA visit Chicago -- the Miami Heat, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Dallas Mavericks.

That there's a secondary market for the Chicago Bulls at all is a remarkable feat. Since Jordan helped Chicago to six championships in eight seasons, the Bulls' fortunes have plummeted. Over that time period, they have won 120 games, by far a league low. Even the woeful Golden State Warriors (154 wins) and the cursed Los Angeles Clippers (158 wins) have won more games.

Meanwhile, the Bulls have averaged nearly 20,800 fans per game, a league high that is somewhat misleading because the team plays in one of the largest venues in the league, the United Center. Still, it's an accomplishment considering that the team has outdrawn the San Antonio Spurs, who have won two championships over that span and, until recently, played in the larger Alamodome.

Through the first three home games this season, the Bulls averaged 19,825 fans a game, a 16 percent increase from last season, and good enough for third-highest home attendance in the league behind the Detroit Pistons and the Mavericks.

Steve Schanwald, the team's executive vice president for business operations, says that current attendance is a combination of many factors, including the success of the previous decade, the importance of sports in the city's culture and the work of the Bulls' front office staff, which prepared for the leaner times during the team's championship run.

"We understood the cyclical nature of team sports," Schanwald said. "Glory is fleeting in the sports business. During the 1990s, when we were winning all those championships, we worked really hard to prepare for the inevitable downturn as our players aged and buy our basketball department the time it needed to retool the product."

While No. 23 was still suiting up, the Bulls started a season-ticket waiting list that grew to 25,000 names. The team devoted resources to creating one of the largest fan databases in the league -- that list now has about 800,000 names.

Schanwald was in the audience 15 years ago when then Portland Trail Blazers executive Jon Spoelstra talked about database marketing. Under Spoelstra's watch, the Trail Blazers sold out a league-record 814 consecutive games from 1977 to 1995.

"Back then, Steve was already thinking about what the Bulls would do when Michael Jordan was gone," said Spoelstra, who, in one of the strangest trades ever, gave one week of his time in 1983 to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for point guard Don Buse. "If they tried to gather names in Jordan's last year, it wouldn't have worked. Most teams that have played as bad as they've played in the last six years would be drawing 8,000 a game by now."

For the first couple of years following Jordan's departure, the Bulls continued to sell partly because so many people couldn't afford to pay scalper's prices to see the inside of the playing palace while his Airness was still ascending to the hoop. But in more recent times, the Bulls staff has simply been good at selling.

"I think this is the best sports marketing story in the last decade," said Spoelstra, who now oversees five minor league teams under Mandalay's baseball properties, including the Dayton Dragons, a team that has sold out its past five seasons. "They've turned database marketing into an art form. What isn't a story is Shaquille O'Neal helping the Miami Heat sell out their season. Fans called the team for tickets. That was supposed to happen."

Schanwald said the team sells about 3,000 tickets per game in group sales, which would be among the league's best. Approximately 90 percent of the sales made to those groups are executed by the Bulls staff, who are on the phone pitching the virtues of attending a game, Schanwald said.

The Bulls, like most other teams, don't announce how many season-ticket holders they have, but clearly their numbers are much higher than those of other NBA bottom-of-the-standings dwellers.

"Fans remember the 13 straight years of sellouts," Schanwald said. "How tough it was to get a ticket to a Bulls game and what a valuable and precious commodity it was. They don't want to let their season tickets go because they know they will never be able to get those locations back again."

To be fair, being in the nation's third-largest market certainly helps, along with the absence of the Chicago Blackhawks, who have not stepped on the ice this year due to the lockout. During the 1995-96 season, the Blackhawks became the first team in the NHL to average more than 20,000 fans per game (20,833) for a 41-game home slate. Attendance has steadily declined in recent years, with last year's crowd averaging little more than 13,000 per game.

The Bulls' incredible attendance numbers combined with a perennially low team payroll helps make them one of the most profitable teams in the league. Over the past six seasons, only the Clippers have spent less on player salaries.

"Our fans have been very understanding and patient, but in the end, great game entertainment will only carry us so far and eventually we will have to deliver great basketball," Schanwald said. "All we have been trying to do on my end of things is buy our basketball department as much time as we can to rebuild the on-the-court product."

Waisvisz said he doesn't think the Bulls have much more time with their attendance honeymoon. He sold Lakers tickets for $14 on Wednesday night.

"This is it," Waisvisz said. "This is the year that's going to break the camel's back. The Bulls have been making tons of money without a product and everyone who has stuck with the losing, losing, losing, hoping that just in case they turn it around, is going to give up."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.