For the first time since 1987, when a streak of 567 consecutive sellouts began, the Bulls are facing the possibility of not selling all 21,711 seats for all home games in the 1999-2000 season.
The team is scrambling to replace the ticketholders bailing out after a 13-37 season, spending close to $1 million on direct-mail appeals and radio, TV and print ads touting the availability of Bulls tickets.
The somewhat ironic tag: "The chance you've been waiting for."
The team isn't cutting ticket prices, however, except for some in the far sections of its stadium.
CONVINCING THE FANS
"People know how valuable Bulls tickets have been," said Steve Schanwald, VP-broadcasting and marketing. "We have to convince people they will be valuable again."
But no matter how slick the marketing, industry observers said the Bulls' sold-out streak is in jeopardy.
"Unless there's something significant done between the lines -- through player trades, acquisitions and drafts -- the prospect of selling out 41 games is very, very unlikely," said Dean Bonham, president of Bonham Group, a sports marketing consultancy. "Chicago sports fans are very sophisticated. They'll respond to a well-marketed strategy, but they want to see a well-orchestrated team-building strategy."
High demand for tickets is important in maintaining a solid season-ticket base. If fans believe they can obtain seats easily for a marquee matchup, they're less likely to purchase the whole package.
16,000 REGULAR SEATS
The Bulls' season-ticket base consists primarily of 16,000 regular seats and 3,000 skybox seats, though skyboxes are leased for five to eight years.
For the upcoming season, it's estimated the Bulls need to replace roughly 20% to 25% of the 16,000-seat season-ticket base, or 3,200 to 4,000 season passes. The deadline for season-ticket renewal passed late last month.
The Bulls might have faced the prospect of unsold seats this year, but they benefited from the initial uncertainty surrounding Michael Jordan's career. Fans had to renew their 1998-99 ticket packages long before Mr. Jordan announced his retirement.
Joining Mr. Jordan in the exodus from the United Center were Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley and coach Phil Jackson. Predictably, the Bulls went on to be one of the worst NBA teams this season and missed the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. Also, local TV ratings plummeted.
For this selling season, there are no illusions. The Bulls are rebuilding.
"This is part of the process," Mr. Schanwald said. "It's painful, but you have to go through it."
Direct-mail pitches -- a cardboard box designed to look like the United Center and containing brochures and a videotape touting the arena's amenities -- will go to a 25,000-person waiting list for season tickets.
The mailings will be augmented by broadcast and print ads. The effort is being handled by DiMeo & Co., Chicago.