United Center – Chicago Bulls
Once you hear Sinatra’s voice, it’s time to take your seat. Scenes of the city play under Ol’ Blue Eyes, who helped open this place on his farewell tour. Then the music changes, and your pulse quickens. Images of Sloan, Van Lier, Jordan, Pippen, Rodman in flight. The 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.
Michael Jordan was still in his first retirement when the United Center opened in 1994, but it’s the memory of His Airness that sets this apart among basketball stadiums. Jordan played at the United Center from 1995-98, winning three straight championships to finish his Bulls career. His statue stands outside the stadium and his jersey hangs from the rafters.
Thankfully, the United Center doesn’t live on memories alone – you’re more likely than not to see good basketball and have a great time at a Bulls game.
The United Center concessions might be the best in Chicago sports. The staples are done well and within reach of every seat – $4.50 jumbo pretzels (hot and fresh, $1.50 extra with cheese), $5.50 french fries (but avoid the more expensive garlic parmesan fries), $5.75 popcorn (flavorful and a fair size), and $6.25 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 $6.50 DiGiorno pizza slices are decent at best, but they’re consistent and easy to handle. The only dud are the $6.75 nachos (thick, stale chips; too little cheese, too many jalapenos); instead, get a friend to split the restaurant-quality chicken or beef nachos grande, which come in a big bowl and are more than worth the extra cost.
The specialty options are excellent. The standout is Sweet Baby Ray’s, between sections 118 & 119, which has long lines for highlights including smoked beef brisket sandwiches ($14.75), carved smoked turkey sandwiches ($12.75), BBQ chicken tenders ($12), pulled BBQ pork sandwiches ($12.50), half-slabs of baby back ribs ($15), and sides of pork baked beans ($4.50) and sweet potato fries ($5.50); and the Windy City Grill (several locations), which has cheeseburgers ($7.50), Polish sausages ($7.25) and brats ($6.50), and some variations like the satisfying “Da Burger,” a 1/2 pound pork burger topped with Canadian bacon and barbecue sauce ($8.50). However, the grilled chicken sandwiches ($9.25) are dry, twisted lumps of disgust.
Coke products ($5.75 / $6.25) and Culligan bottled water ($4.50) are sold throughout the stadium. Narcoleptic basketball fans will be happy to know that Red Bull is now available, too ($6). Vendors sell Budweiser products from cans at $8, while domestic draft beers are $8.50 from concession stands ($9.50 premium draft). Goose Island is the best beer in the house (look for the aforementioned brew pub on the 100 level or the stand on the 300 level). Margaritas, cocktails, mai tais, champagne, and wine aren’t hard to find either ($8-$10.50). Alcohol sales end after the third quarter.
The United Center excels for those with dietary restrictions. If you’re counting calories, visit the gourmet stand outside section 114 for salads ($7.50), bakery sandwiches ($9-$10), and healthy snacks like fruit cups ($4) – also available in a couple of spots on the 300 level. Gluten-free options are available there and at a few concession stands, and veggie burgers ($6.50) are available almost everywhere that regular burgers are – pretty good, if a tad dry (hit ’em with some ketchup).
Most of the 100 level specialty options are 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.
Most lines aren’t bad during game action, but they’re predictably long at halftime and don’t begin to clear until five minutes into the third quarter. The major specialty stands will take pre-orders through the United Center’s mobile app, which allows you to skip the lines, though you’ll have to go to the 100 level for pick-up.
If you’re looking for dessert, go for the terrific hand-scooped waffle cones ($5.50), a little harder to find but a much better value than the Hagen-Dazs bars ($6) or the Edy’s Mini Ice Cream Bites ($5.50). To save time, bear in mind that 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 register on the left with the burger signs above it, which might have a shorter line.
Since there aren’t many other places to drink in the area, the United Center has several bars that open within the stadium doors (typically 90 minutes before tipoff), mixed between beer and specialty liquors. The new Goose Island Brew Pub outside section 108 is by far the best place to sit and drink for a while before the game starts, and it has good food, too; if that’s too crowded, try the DiGiorno Corner outside section 120 instead, which isn’t as well advertised and (despite the name) serves drinks. 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 time warp 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 might want to nurse a drink and take in a better view of the court from the perches at the view bars instead.
The Bulls deliver a well-tuned, high-energy game presentation – family friendly without being off-putting to serious fans, immaculately orchestrated without seeming rehearsed even on repeat visits.
The secret weapon is the video production crew, which does exceptional work. The giant screens outside the stadium make every game night feel like a special event, and the graphics, player videos, and highlight reels are top notch. 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.
Tommy Edwards, the PA announcer, keeps a warm, mellow tone throughout the game, though he’s capable of going loud for player introductions. Most of the fan contests and games are handled by a separate host, who keeps things fun without sounding cheesy or canned. The sound effects and music cues have been freshened considerably over the past couple of seasons.
The United Center was designed to accommodate huge crowds, and it does that well. The facility shows virtually no wear-and-tear for its 20+ 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 an annual visit by 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). 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 nice touch. The concourses do not offer a view of the playing area, but there are huge video screens over most of the concession stands on the 300 level, so if you’re marooned out there in line for food (or tending to a restless toddler), you can keep up on 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 throughout the stadium. Seats are comfortable, though there will be some encroachment if a larger than average person sits next to you. Legroom is tight but adequate, but cup holders are sorely missed.
The United Center is surrounded by vast, barren acres of parking, and not a whole lot else. In a city as densely populated as Chicago, the sheer nothingness that persists around 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 U.S., 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.
With the 2014 opening of a new practice facility across the street from the United Center, there’s at least another presence in the area, and the Bulls keep its windows lit on game nights. Along those lines, the Bulls have done a lot to add light to the area with video boards at intersections on Madison.
For a quick bite, there are only a couple of places in the area. There’s a Billy Goat Tavern & Grill (not the original) at Madison & Ashland, but it can get packed on game days, and the burgers will be underwhelming unless you get a kick from staff doing the SNL shtick. A bit more upscale (but out of the way) is Pita Heaven (1676 W Ogden), which does good, fast-casual Mediterranean. There’s no sports vibe, but it’s a decent place to sit and eat before walking to the stadium.
The Ogden (1659 W Ogden) is about the only bar worth mention within a short walk. It’s a nice place with both craft and cheap beers, but it caters more to Blackhawks fans, and the food – while good – takes too long to consider as a quick pregame option.
Though not one of the elite bands of NBA crazies, Bulls fans deserve credit for turning out in big numbers year after year, particularly during some months of absolutely brutal weather. You won’t see many empty seats even in worst that January in Chicago has to offer. True, far too many fans are paying attention to their phones during the game, but you can hear murmurs of appreciation for hustle plays – when players draw a charge or dive for a loose ball – and the fans do rise to the occasion, noise-wise, during the fourth quarter of close games.
However, when the Dunkin Donuts race comes on the video screen – or the Bulls near 100 points and free Big Macs for everyone – and the place goes truly wild, you realize these crowds do have an extra gear, but they don’t often reach it for anything basketball-related. And, seriously, get off your phones, people.
The energy on the 300 level is far superior to the rest of the stadium. Fans on the 100 level are notorious for complaining when other fans stand up to cheer. It’s been going on for years and it’s inexcusable. But Bulls fans always deliver during the Kiss Cam, which counts for something.
Visiting fans should not encounter any hostility unless they try to provoke it; crowd disruptions are extremely rare, and stadium security is quick to respond when something does occur, with a low tolerance for drunks.
There is no short supply of parking in the surface lots surrounding the United Center. Non-team lots begin at $22 with 2-3 blocks to walk to the stadium. The outer tier of team lots cost $24, 1-2 blocks away; prices reach $35 for lots with direct access to the stadium. Avoid heading too far west (past Damen) in search for parking. Thanks to the overall lack of activity in the area, you can expect a relatively easy exit after the game. I-290 runs close to the stadium for access to the western suburbs, though it’s not very well-marked.
For public transit, CTA buses are the best option – either the #20 Madison (24 hours) or the #19 United Center Express (starts 90 minutes before game time). 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. Determined to make this a miserable experience, the CTA insists that these buses get packed to the gills before leaving and will only open one bus at a time for boarding, regardless of rain or cold. 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 instead.
CTA elevated trains are within walking distance via the Ashland/Lake station (Green/Pink Lines), passing by the lovely old First Baptist Congregational Church, an 1869 National Historic Landmark. The walk is usually 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. Fans in that section report no problem with access. There are elevators on the north and south sides of the stadium for easy access 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 reasonable pace.
Check out Parking Panda for some of the best parking options for the game. Use the promo code STADIUMJOURNEY10 for 10% off your first transaction.
Return on Investment 4
Tickets have never been cheap at the United Center, but the greatest player of all time was in residence during the first few years it was open, and the Bulls have been a playoff team more often than not since then. Considering the quality of the basketball and the effort that goes into the game presentation, you can see where the ticket money goes. In other words, it’s expensive, but it’s not a rip-off.
Pricing can vary by star quality of the opposition. Generally, 100 level tickets range from $115 (behind the baskets) to $240 (center court); figure on $400 to $950 for seats on or close to the floor, depending on the game, and at least $2,500 for courtside, if available. Floor seats 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 it’s easy to see the value they provide; the concession lines are practically non-existent on that level, and there are several lounge areas. (Also, the t-shirt cannons, parachutes, and slingshots practically bury the 200 level in Bulls swag.) I’d readily pay for 200 level seats if I had a restless child or friends with varying levels of interest in the game.
The cheapest seats from official sources are normally $38 but can get as high as $125 for certain matchups. The last couple of rows (16 & 17) on the 300 level are really far back. Standing Room Only tickets are sometimes available ($30); in theory, you could arrive early and secure a spot at one of the 300 level view bars, and then try to snag some untaken seats on the 300 level for the second half. (But stay out of the lower rows to avoid suspicion from the ushers, who watch those.)
It’s always possible to find tickets on the secondary market, but the Bulls have been moving away from printed tickets – season ticket holders have e-tickets only – so buying from non-official sources has some risk. If you’re concerned, ask for screenshots from their ticket app before you send money.
All things considered, the best value is the 300 level corner seats in rows 1-3 ($55), which pair a great view with the higher fan energy of the 300 level.
There are plenty of merchandise stands and prices aren’t egregious. If you have time, head to the Bull Market shop near section 117 for a much wider selection, which also permits a gaze at the team’s hallowed championship trophies (across from the entrance).
One bonus point for the Bulls history on display. The team’s championship banners and retired jerseys are hanging 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. In his current capacity as “senior advisor” to the team, Scottie Pippen is often courtside. And there are banners in the windows of the Advocate Center, the Bulls practice facility, next to the stadium.
Other aspects of the legacy could be handled better. 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. Along those lines, the team added busts of Pippen and beloved coach/broadcaster Johnny “Red” Kerr, but those, too, are shunted off to the side (by Gates 7 and 3, respectively) with no sense of place or setting.
Another bonus point for Benny the Bull, 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.
A third bonus point for the children’s activities. Kids will have a great time at a Bulls game (though the bright lights and noise might scare very young ones). There are tables with posterboard, markers, and crayons where kids 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. And Benny the Bull will keep them entertained during the game.
A fourth bonus point for cleanliness. Surveys have found the food services at the United Center at the top of the NBA for sanitary practices. For a venue this size, with two major teams in residence and a busy concert schedule, that isn’t easy.
And a fifth bonus point for the video production, especially the recently added exterior screens on the corners and central gates outside the stadium. The image quality is superb and the investment must be considerable when you bear in mind the weather that these things have to endure over the course of the long NBA season. They go a long way toward transforming what had been a fairly anonymous multi-purpose stadium (Jordan aside) into a place that’s unique and exciting in the here-and-now.
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