CHICAGO — When you think of dynasties and the United Center, the Chicago Bulls championships of the 1990s and the Blackhawks Stanley Cup wins in the 2010s likely come to mind. But there are other dynasties that have played a pivotal role in creating the Madhouse on Madison and will once again be front and center when the stadium hosts the Democratic National Convention in August.
“This is a big deal,” said typically understated Bulls president and chief operating officer Michael Reinsdorf as he sat alongside Blackhawks chairman and CEO Danny Wirtz.
“The United Center becomes the epicenter with all the eyes watching around the world,” Wirtz said. “Chicago has a real good opportunity to step-up and show what we’re all about.”
The two come from famous families in the world of Chicago sports. Their fathers – who were close friends – formed the partnership that paid for, built and still operates the United Center.
Reinsdorf remembers attending the last national political convention staged in Chicago in 1996. Democrats came to town and took over the nearly new United Center to nominate Bill Clinton for a second term.
The UC will turn 30 years old when delegates return and the Reinsdorf and Wirtz names won’t be the only familiar ones to event organizers.
“For the United Center, I can honestly say I was the first employee,” Terry Savarise says with a mixture of pride and astonishment. “For way too long I was the only employee!”
White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf tapped Savarise to supervise construction of the United Center in the late 1980s. He still recalls sketching-out on an airline cocktail napkin the mix of luxury suites and regular seats that would make the project financially viable.
“You can honestly say that the first drawings of this building were on United Airlines napkins, and that was before we talked to United about the naming rights. So it’s a happy coincidence,” Savarise said.
Savarise recently gave WGN News a tour of the arena he’s run ever since.
Savarise says the near-weekly dance of converting the United Center’s floor from hardwood to ice in between Bulls and Blackhawks homestands is easy — they’ve got it down to two hours —compared to the pressure of hosting a president and political operatives from across the country for a week. The UC hosts 200 events per year and they continue despite the upcoming convention.
“There’s nothing harder than a political convention,” Savarise said. “It takes every square inch of your property, not just your building. It also takes every second out of your staff.”
Much will be different this time. Post 9/11 security requirements, changes to the national media scene and the realization that any trouble can now live in infamy online all contribute to a much different climate than 1996. Skyboxes will still be torn apart to make way for television studios; but instead of just the three big networks, cable news channels, digital journalists and partisan media outlets will all vie for access and space right alongside party donors and corporate sponsors.
As for the stadium itself, renovations and additions over the years have kept it current and the arena remains the largest in the United States.
“I think it can live in perpetuity,” Wirtz said.
We asked Reinsdorf and Wirtz to identify the “secret sauce” that has kept the UC relevant nearly 30 years after it first opened. Standing not far from the seats where his late father used to watch his beloved Blackhawks, the Wirtz agreed with Reinsdorf when he said, “local ownership is incredibly important. You become part of the community.”
Wirtz laughed before adding: “Especially in this town – the fans want to know where to find us!”