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CHICAGO — WHEN THE Chicago Bulls first came to Paris for a pair of exhibition games in the 1997 McDonald’s Championship, they were on top of the basketball world.
Fans lined up outside the team hotel to catch a glimpse of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and the other Bulls, who were coming off a second consecutive NBA championship and about to embark on a season that would come to be known as The Last Dance.
Wherever the Bulls traveled that season, whether it was Paris, Los Angeles or Indianapolis, they were not just basketball royalty, but among the planet’s biggest stars.
During the October preseason trip to Paris, fans showed up in droves when the team arrived and left the practice court, and when they visited the Louvre and other Parisian must-see sights, simply yearning for a glimpse of Jordan.
Nearly 1,000 media members were credentialed for the games. Current Bulls vice president Arturas Karnisovas played for Olympiacos in the championship game — which Chicago won 104-78 — and remembers his teammates in the locker room before the game debating who would be the one to guard Jordan. At the top of their minds: the opportunity to be in a photo matched up with an icon.
“It was everywhere, everyone wanted to see Michael, Scottie and Dennis,” Bill Wennington, a center on the 1997-98 Bulls and current team radio announcer, told ESPN. “The fans were screaming, yelling, everywhere the team went as a whole. There were large crowds following just wanting to see.”
Jordan scored 27 points in the game against Olympiacos, but Pippen and Rodman were both out, as were a slew of other Bulls. Still, the fan response in Paris proved the Bulls had conquered not just Chicago, but the adoration of fans from around the globe.
“It was fantastic. It was so much fun,” said Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played for the Bulls in 1997-98 and scored 10 points in the game against Olympiacos. “I think we were hit pretty hard with injuries. It was Michael and a bunch of scrubs.
“To go to Paris at the height of the Bulls heyday was pretty fun.”
Now, 25 seasons later, the Bulls return to Paris for a regular-season game, facing the rival Detroit Pistons Thursday at 3 p.m. ET (NBA TV). But this version of the Bulls is far from Jordan & Co. against the Bad Boys, and Chicago is not the same dynastic force that swept through Paris in the fall of 1997. At 20-24, the Bulls are clinging to the final spot of the Eastern Conference play-in tournament, and the All-Star trio of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic has yielded mixed results.
And yet, despite the dip in on-court results, the Bulls return to Paris as one of the NBA’s biggest international draws.
Tickets for Thursday’s game at the 20,300-seat Accor Arena are sold out and a single ticket on the resale market is going for a minimum of $200. Despite years of mediocrity and one playoff trip since 2017, Chicago is the third-most popular team in international merchandise sales and among the top five most popular teams on NBA League Pass outside the U.S., according to recent figures provided by the NBA. While Jordan’s shadow looms over everything the Bulls do in Chicago, it’s his long-lasting legacy that has made the franchise one of the most popular American sports teams across the globe.
“Chicago Bulls is one of the biggest brands, franchises in the world,” said LaVine, who has been with the team since 2017, making him the longest tenured player on the roster. “You play on the road, sometimes it’s a home game for us on the road. It’s great seeing that you have that fanbase. Not just here in Chicago, but wherever we go to.”
THE SUCCESS OF the documentary series “The Last Dance” was perhaps the clearest example of the love the world still has for the Jordan dynasty.
The 10-part series about the 1997-98 Bulls season, which resulted in their sixth and final championship, premiered in April 2020 and was ESPN’s most-watched documentary ever, averaging more than 12.8 million viewers per episode. For five straight Sundays, the documentary was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter.
Still, the Jordan legacy is something of a double-edged sword for Chicago. Current Bulls chief operating officer Michael Reinsdorf, the son of team owner Jerry Reinsdorf, said the Bulls have had internal debates for years about whether the franchise should continue to lean on the success of the ’90s team or spend more time marketing the current roster comprised of multiple All-Stars and a young core of potential.
“When you’re around it and you see how much the Bulls in the ’90s have meant to people and how popular they were and how people who never saw Michael Jordan still identify him as the greatest player in the world, I’m happy to embrace it,” Michael Reinsdorf told ESPN.
While the Bulls are constantly trying to find the perfect blend of nostalgia and the future, the impact of “The Last Dance” and seeing things like how many fans line up to come see and take a photo in front of the Michael Jordan statue in the atrium of the United Center — even on non-game days — has made Reinsdorf believe he Bulls should embrace their history.
“You got ‘The Bean,’ you got the Chicago hot dog, you walk along the lake and you get to stop by and take a photo of the Michael Jordan statue,” Reinsdorf said. “Chicago used to be known for Al Capone. Now when you tell people you’re from Chicago, they think of Michael Jordan.”
Thanks to the Jordan-era dynasty, which won six championships in eight seasons right as the NBA was exploding in global popularity under former commissioner David Stern, the Bulls have achieved a level of brand recognition only a select few American sports franchises enjoy around the world. The Bulls were the third-most popular team in Europe, in terms of Google searches, being the most searched in eight countries, according to a study collected by OHBets. The teams ahead of them include the Golden State Warriors, the defending NBA champions who have Stephen Curry — a player Kerr recently called the modern-day Jordan because of the crowds he attracts during road games — and the Milwaukee Bucks, the 2021 NBA champions led by Greek superstar and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It’s why the Bulls have never changed their logo or had any serious discussions in the post-Jordan era about doing so, according to Reinsdorf. While their jerseys have been tweaked over the years and they’ve introduced alternate looks, their primary white and red jerseys are nearly identical to the ones introduced when Jerry Reinsdorf purchased the team for $16.2 million in 1985, Jordan’s second year in the league. The Bulls’ current starting lineup is still introduced to the sounds of “Sirius” by The Alan Parsons Project, the same song that became synonymous with Jordan and the Bulls’ success.
Thanks in large part to the enduring strength of the brand built during the Jordan years, the Bulls are among the five most popular NBA teams on social media — the No. 2 following on Facebook, No. 4 on Instagram and No. 4 on Twitter. The other NBA teams that occupy the top five are all franchises that have won championships this millennium.
Sales of Bulls merchandise remain strong as well, though even that is built largely on nostalgia. Last season, when the Bulls were in first place in the Eastern Conference for much of the first half of the season, they ranked among the top 10 teams in sales, according to NBAStore.com data, despite not having a single active player rank in the top 15 in jersey sales. The last time a Bulls player ranked in the top 15 was 2016-17, when both Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade made the cut.
When sports retailer Lids released their list in October of the most popular jerseys sold in the 2022 offseason, three old-school Bulls were on the list: Pippen at No. 2, Jordan at No. 5 and Rodman at No. 10.
“The advantage is their history — you don’t have to explain to people what it is,” Scott Kirkpatrick, a marketing partner and founder at the agency Chicago Sports & Entertainment, told ESPN. “To get people on board if the team is winning, nothing’s easy in this world, but at least it’s manageable because you’re starting with a strong history.
“You always like to build off success. You already have that awareness and credibility, so it’s a little bit easier — but, it’s about winning. Which is really, really hard.”
IN THE 25 seasons since Jordan played his last game with the Bulls, Chicago has undergone many on-court transformations.
There were the “Baby Bulls” of Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, which transitioned to a team led by Ben Gordon and Luol Deng. Then came the Derrick Rose era, which was cut short by Rose’s injuries. A brief flirtation with “the three Alphas” of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo fizzled quickly and Butler was traded for LaVine, who is now part of a Big Three with DeRozan and Vucevic — though Vucevic is a free agent this summer, which could mean the end of that trio.
No matter the configuration, the one constant for Chicago in the post-Jordan era has been a lack of on-court success. The Bulls have not made it back to the Finals since Jordan retired and have only reached the conference finals once (2011), one of 10 teams in the NBA with fewer than two conference finals appearances since 1998-99. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2014-15, and their 5-12 record in playoff series in the past 24 seasons is the fourth-worst series record during that span.
And yet, decades since they were at the top of the NBA, without another transcendent star like Jordan, the Bulls have retained their popularity. They’ve led the NBA in home attendance 11 times since 2010 and ranked as the No. 1 road draw last season.
“We’re really doubling down on the idea that you can build affinity for a team that doesn’t have to win six championships in eight years,” Dan Moriarty, the team’s vice president of marketing, told ESPN. “You can do things that connect with a fanbase and when the team isn’t winning championships, we have to do those things. We can’t just rely on on-court performance to be what’s driving fandom.”
With such a large fanbase, Moriarty sees the team as having a moral responsibility to show up for Bulls fans in whatever way possible.
The team helped one of their most devout French fans secure tickets for the game in Paris. It also launched its first BullsFest during the offseason, blocking off the streets around the United Center and turning the parking lot into a two-day festival with food trucks, a basketball tournament and a stage for live music performances. Already this season, the Bulls say they have hosted more children at youth events than they had the previous season.
And the Bulls have placed inclusion at the forefront of that mission. The team hosted their fifth annual Pride Night earlier this month at the United Center, and the team has been spotlighting several different Black-owned businesses in Chicago at home games for the past three years.
“The strength of our brand is based in the dynasty that the team built in the ’90s, but we talk a lot about how that can’t be the anchor we tie everything to,” Moriarty said. “As a brand, we stand for a lot of things in the ’90s that weren’t necessarily front of mind. One of the things we talk about a lot is the unifying force of our brand. Being inclusive and being innovative whilst honoring our heritage.”
Still, Michael Reinsdorf knows the one thing that will keep the Bulls brand strong for the next 25 years is winning.
“The way I look at it, I believe the Bulls are the first global sports brand, professional sports team in the world,” Reinsdorf says. “And that’s because of Michael Jordan and our success in the ’90s winning championships.
“The NBA does such a great job of promoting the team, especially the teams that do well, so if you win, you’re going to be known throughout the world.”