Fans of the Chicago Bulls beware: ownership believes simply being competitive is enough of a carrot to keep you engaged.
“Sports is a business of failure but the fact that you finish second or third or fourth it doesn’t mean you had a bad year,” said Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf during a panel discussion at the Milken Institute’s 2023 Global Conference titled ‘Game Changers: The New Business of Sports‘ on May 1. “I think the important thing to fans is, while they want you to win championships, they want to know that when they get down to the last month of the season you still have a shot. You’re still playing meaningful games. If you can do that consistently you’ll make your fans happy.”
The Bulls have made the postseason twice in the last eight seasons, and they were bounced in the first round both times. They have finished the regular season with a winning record twice in that span. They’ve had a bottom-three record in the Eastern Conference more times (twice) than they have been in the top six (once) and have finished no higher than sixth in that same window.
They went 40-42 this past season and lost in the second round of the Play-In Tournament.
The franchise was estimated to be worth $4.1 billion in October by Forbes. It also notes that Reinsdorf purchased the franchise for 16.5 million in 1985 and that the organization generates over $350 million in revenue each year.
While Reinsdorf does admit fans want championships, he might be underselling their desire. The overwhelming sentiment around the Bulls has long been that they are, ultimately, held back by ownership which has tended to skew toward frugality rather than the frivolity that can often come with large-market teams trying to field star-laden rosters.
“They can’t add salary, they can’t go over the tax,” a rival NBA executive told Heavy Sports NBA Insider Sean Deveney in January. “Ownership will not let them do that. That leaves them two choices – play it out with what you have this year or tear it all down completely.”
These latest remarks certainly won’t help allay concerns that Reinsdorf is a hindrance.
Reinsdorf was also speaking about his Major League Baseball operation, the Chicago White Sox, at the panel. But the sentiments that he expressed can undoubtedly be attributed to how the Bulls are run. Perhaps no better illustration of that came this past offseason when Zach LaVine became the first player in either of Reinsdorf’s organizations to sign a contract worth at least $100 million.
These are also not necessarily new thoughts from the Bulls’ chairman.
However, the difference is remarks come from Reinsdorf himself this time which carries more weight than a second-hand account.
“Sports is neither a sport nor a business,” Reinsdorf said. “For example, your competitors are your partners. You earn probably half of your income in conjunction with your competitors. At the same time, you are at the mercy of your dumbest competitors.
“The first week I was in sports somebody said to me ‘If you listen to the fans, you’ll soon be sitting with the fans’. You can’t allow your decisions to be guided by emotions of what you think people want. At the same time, you have to consider what your fans are thinking or they’re not going to buy your tickets.”
According to Eric Pincus of Sports Business Classroom in December, non-taxpaying teams were set to receive a payout of approximately $15.1 million before the Brooklyn Nets got themselves under the tax at the trade deadline which will shrink the portion Reindorf collects.
It’s money that does not have to go back into the franchise, either.
Michael Reinsdorf Running The Bulls
“It is a tough position they are in because they need to do something,” the exec said.
If there is any hope for Bulls fans, it will have to be in the fact that Reinsdorf’s son and Bulls COO Michael Reinsdorf – who assumed control of day-to-day operations in 2011 – has said that he would sign off on spending into the luxury tax for a “title contender”.
“Absolutely,” Michael Reinsdorf told NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson on the ‘Bulls Talk Podcast’ in February of 2022. “All you have to do is go back and look at the last number of championship teams. How many of them were in the luxury tax? With the nature of the NBA and having a soft cap, if you want to compete for championships, you have to be willing to spend into the tax. I think most people will tell you, ‘I don’t want to spend into the tax if we’re not competing for championships – if we’re not good enough’. I don’t want to be the 8th seed or out of the playoffs and go into the luxury tax.
“If we can take the necessary steps…that allow us to compete for a championship, then for sure we’ll go into the tax. It’s part of the nature of the NBA.”
The Bulls are set to be $39.7 million below the luxury tax line next season. But most if not all of that could be used to lock up unrestricted free agent Nikola Vucevic and/or restricted free agent guard Coby White who has his sights set on an opportunity to start.
How Ownership’s Comments Impact Arturas Karnisovas’ Plan
Considering Michael Reinsdorf has been in control for more than a decade, it figures that there remains some doubt about any real differences in how the Bulls operate coming about.
Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas has said that he has creative methods to improve the roster. But his reference point is what he did to put this current group together, a course of actions that has left them with a roster that failed to make the playoffs despite its top three players logging more minutes together than any other trio in the Association during the regular season.