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Bulls Mon Mar 04 2013
It's that time of year in the second city where with the playoffs looming, bars are dusting off Chicago Bulls banners and display them outside their saloons, proclaiming that their establishment is a Bulls bar. While flags are flown, when it comes to their flat-screens, sometimes the Bulls are a second priority. Like most stir-crazed Chicagoans dealing with winters coup-de-grace week, last Thursday night I had to get out of the square footage that I rent and watch the Bulls-Sixers game at a bar. There was only one problem: not only haven't the Blackhawks lost a game in regulation, they've haven't lost a TV decision in a Chicago sports bar when they're playing at the same time as the Bulls.
I've worked in various Chicago bars for seven years. I even had a gig at the world wide leader in sports bars, the now defunct ESPNZONE. While trying to pour brews, mixing spirits, and answering the inane question of "what's good to eat here?", bar staffers are asked to change the channel to accommodate the patrons' gambling or personal tastes. A conflict arises when you have more games people want to watch than HDTV's can cover. Normally bars have a "first come, first served" approach for television rights, though a committed sports bar manager should have the TV's auto-tuned and preset.
With the Bulls playing regular season games sans Derrick Rose, I find myself frequently having to ask the bartender to put the game on. There seems to be two types of events that take precedence over the Bulls in sports-centric public houses, the aforementioned Blackhawks and college hoops.
Stop me if you've heard this one: a guy walks into a bar not wearing Indiana Hoosiers apparel and 40 eager IU alums ignore him because they're staring at TVs tuned to the Big Ten Network. Guy goes to bartender and asks, "Any chance of getting one TV on the Bulls?" Bartender goes, "that would be a Bobby Knightmare". Awful puns aside (I was going to go with a Michigan State version where the bartender would say "Hell to Izzo-no"), it's a good business move, and sometimes a hat tip toward bar owners' alma maters, to publicize one's bar as a "(insert major university with a decent sports program) bar."
In bars' slow season of January-March, aligning your pub with a school can bring in some steady Sunday-Thursday sales on nights that colleges are playing big, in-conference game. I've experienced this all over the North Side of the city. When that bar's college affiliation is playing a televised game, they'll put the sound on, and nary a TV set set to the Bulls.
Enter the Blackhawks. Be it a reaction to years of not having home games televised due to the financial responsible but brand-building insane "Dollar" Bill Wirtz, their 2010 Stanley Cup run, and the excitement of a strike-shortened season, more and more bars are proud to be "Home of the Blackhawks." The team is hot and fun to watch, so I have no problem with a bar supporting its hometown hockey club, but to Bulls fans, this is a somber reminder of this frustrating year that the team just doesn't have support or excitement from the casual fans as much as the Hawks do.
I was at a sports bar near Diversey and Broadway looking for dinner and a little dual Bulls and Blackhawks action, but all I got was the latter. With both games starting at 7 o'clock, I found myself sitting at the bar around 7:20 wondering why all the TVs were on the Blackhawks, with two stragglers on ESPNU. The bar was busy so I didn't to bother the busy staff to change one of the channels, so I drank my Half Acre with macro-brew chugging speed, and decided to check out another bar down the street. Same issue at this establishment, except I was told "no" by the bartender when asked if they could change to the Bulls because "everyone is here for the Blackhawks." I wanted to tell the barkeep that he should serve two minutes in the penalty box for attitude checking, but alas I said OK and left.
Fair is fair, we all have Blackhawks fever, myself included. I figured I'd just take the Diversey bus a little earlier than intended to Logan Square where I was going to meet my girlfriend at 10pm. There's a great dive bar in Logan off Fullerton that played Bulls games from what I remember. I had a good chance to catch the game there. Wrong again. All three TVs were tuned to the Blackhawks. The bartender was draped in a Blackhawks sweater and held a hockey stick with three shot glasses adorned to it. The whole bar was watching a TV with the game on it, so I deferred to the greater good, and enjoyed the rest of the hockey game while keeping an eye on my iPhone for Bulls updates.
I've had conversations with other Chicagoans about why it's seemingly harder to catch the Bulls at a bar than it is with other Chicago sports franchises. The excuse that the season is too long doesn't play because there is literally a neighborhood in this city devoted to a baseball team and the surrounding bars will always have the games on, all 162 of them. No one in the history of Chicago has ever had to ask a beer filling station to put the Bears game on, either. I've even had this conversation lead to a socioeconomic notion that fans' median income comes into play.
The NHL has a fan base with the highest median income of the four major professional sports, as evident in this article by Boston.com's Kevin Paul DuPont . Here's an expert from William S. Kerns The Economics of Sports that supports the same. A summation can be made here that bars perhaps decided to show favor to hockey games over pro basketball games because of the clientele may be more financially well-off. This also may explain why college team specific bars are a plenty in this city; people with college degrees tend to have more disposable income than those without.
What about a racial element? Are the crowds hockey games draw as diverse as the ones basketball games do? Recently USA Today posted an interesting article about the Indiana Pacers poor attendance may be due to racism. OK, I'm going to pump the brakes on the racial talk, Chicago bar owners aren't evil-minded bigots, they're trend chasers and good time purveyors. The fact of the matter is the Blackhawks are hot, and the slumping Bulls played a team struggling even more than themselves, the Philadelphia 76ers, that Thursday.
This isn't an overreaction to the state of Bulls basketball or Chicago bar scene by any stretch, the team still leads the NBA in attendance, and you can catch the game almost anywhere most nights if you ask. I view the majority of Bulls games with Twitter and my lonesome in the comfort of my Roscoe Village dwelling, but like most of you, I like watching games with other Bulls fans and striking up conversations of is Luol Deng closer to being overrated or underrated (I think he's appropriately rated personally). My issue is one of Chicago sports integrity and semantics. When your bar is advertised as a Chicago sports bar, no one should have to ask for a TV on the Bulls. I wouldn't expect hip joints like Owen & Engine, The Aviary or Clutch to have my teams' game on, because they aren't presenting themselves as a sports bar.
As the Blackhawks keep racking up points, the NCAA men's basketball tournament demands all of our attention, and the NFL keeps televising workouts, combines and pro-days to record ratings, Bulls fans will have to be patient and take a back seat. This is of course until Derrick Rose returns, in which that case, every TV will be tuned to the return. There is an ebb and flow to this cities focus in the sports landscape.
The remaining Bulls and Blackhawks regular seasons' games overlap each other three more times in March and six times in April including a Sunday-funday matinee where the Bulls get the Heat and the Hawks play the Blues. Let the Hossa Mimosas and Bloody Rose Mary's with Boozer beer backs pour!
If you have a bar that you love to catch Bulls games and that is devoted to playing them, let and other Bulls fans and me know in the comment section. It'll save us from awkwardly asking if we can watch the team that has brought the most championships to Chicago.