Review originally published on www.StadiumJourney.com
Opening in 1994, the United Center was fortunate to be born into the midst of the Bulls dynasty, and the return of Michael Jordan to the NBA. Two of the three NBA championships won since the United Center opened were clinched on the home floor (1996 vs. Seattle, and 1997 vs. Utah). For such a young venue, it has seen its share of history.
FANFARE Score: 25
F ood & Beverage: 4
There is a great variety of food available at a Bulls game and most of it is great until you remove your wallet to pay for your sustenance. The most expensive item tops out at $13.50 for a brisket sandwich, and while delicious, it’s a tough price to swallow. Other big ticket items include the Madhouse Dog for $10.50 and the Madhouse Burger for $9.75.
Beers can be found for $7 for typical domestics like Budweiser, and premium beers go for $8. I went with Goose Island to keep it local. Coca-cola products are available, but unfortunately can’t be found in souvenir cups.
A tmosphere: 4
The pregame festivities are as well done as anywhere you’ll find in the NBA. At times you’ll think you are still there to see a championship caliber team (at least until the ball tips). In the pregame video tribute, the crowd still cheers for the brief segment featuring Michael Jordan. But when the lights dim and the Alan Parsons Project song “Sirius” goes off, then you know you’re at a Bulls game.
I also want to give special mention to John Vincent for his great rendition of the National Anthem on my visit. I have seen/heard both terrible and great versions, and this was right up there as one of the best. I understand he is a fairly regular performer at Ditka’s on 100 E Chestnut. I think I’ll be going there soon just to check this guy out.
N eighborhood: 3
In an area that is not known for being particularly interesting, or even completely safe, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found for entertainment options near the United Center. The key is to keep to the east side of the United Center, and bring a pair of shoes you don’t mind walking in.
About 3/4 of a mile from the UC, I stopped in to the West End Bar at 1326 W Madison. This slightly upscale, west loop bar features 12 beers on tap, and 30 more by the bottle. I was intrigued to try one of their “signature rolls” (either the Reuben or buffalo, wrapped in a won ton wrapper). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the bartenders attention fast enough, and after 20 minutes I decided to take my business elsewhere. Seemed like a decent place with plenty of screens to watch sports, but I can’t recommend it as a stop due to the poor service.
Just up the street at 1408 W Madison is the Palace Grill, a greasy spoon joint that’s been around since 1938. This is a great place to start your night, if you don’t mind the walk. For one, you can park on the street for free (make sure you check signs). Second, they serve breakfast all day, and they were voted as having the best breakfast in the city by the Chicago Sun-Times in 2008. I went for a Palace Deluxe Burger, a half-pound beauty served on a French roll. You can skip the fries which are sub-par, but make sure you get some homemade pickle.
If you’re up really, really late, well they open at 5 am. I also had to laugh at their “Sorry, we’re open” sign. Also, I was told that they cook 35 pounds of bacon a day. That fact alone would have been enough to draw my business.
My final stop before the game was at the original Billy Goat Tavern. Established in 1934, the tavern became famous because of its owner’s curse on the Cubs after denying entry to his goat, Murphy, during the 1945 World Series. It gained more fame as being the setting for a Saturday Night Live skit (Cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger) in 1978. I found the “cheezborgers” to be decent, not spectacular, but worth the price at this historic establishment.
F ans: 3
I found the Bulls fans to be predictable and about as average as fans can be. They turned out in decent numbers, but if they weren’t prompted by the scoreboard, I’m not sure that half the fans would ever know when to cheer.
I also need to put part of the blame on the people running the United Center. For a facility built in the mid-90’s not to have cup holders is inexcusable. Plus, it’s a lot harder to applaud with a beer in your hand.
A ccess: 4
Bathrooms are clean and plentiful. There is also plenty of parking, ranging from free to $25 depending on how much you’re willing to walk. Basically, every block closer costs you $5, until you get to a place with free street parking about 1/2 mile away. Go east on Madison until you find a spot on the street and park for free.
R eturn on Investment: 4
It’s a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to return on investment. Ticket prices start for as little as $10, which is certainly affordable enough for a family to attend. Lower level seats will cost you over the $100 mark per seat. Food is costly, so I would recommend eating beforehand, but its tastier than most stadium fare. Beer is not out of the ordinary for stadium prices. Parking is reasonable, and can be free if you’re willing to walk a bit. I found prices in the gift shop to be fairly affordable, purchasing a toddler sized t-shirt for my son for $14. Overall, a well-educated consumer can make this experience worth the price.
E xtra Points: 3
One bonus point for the must-see statue of Michael Jordan, perhaps the best team sport athlete of all-time. There were plenty of fans lined up for pictures before the game, it’s located on the east side of the United Center.
Another extra point for getting to spend time in the House that Jordan built, and to sit under all six World Championship banners of the Bulls (not to mention the two of the Blackhawks).
Finally, an extra point for the variety of entertainment that was available for free to fans. During my visit there were cartoonists available to draw renditions of children and adults. There were also several bands staked out throughout the concourses, adding an extra rhythm to your walk around the arena.
My trip to the United Center for a Bulls game was filled with surprises. On the positive side, I found some interesting places for pregame activities, free parking within walking distance, and some free activities for fans inside the United Center. I also really enjoyed the entertainment from the National Anthem to the LuvaBulls to the classic player introductions.
On the negative side, I thought the food inside the United Center was too pricey, cup holders are needed, and fan involvement was less than exciting. Those criticisms aside, this is still a worthwhile experience for NBA fans, and even the casual sports fan.
Paul Swaney is the Co-Founder of Stadium Journey