Monroe: NBA Lockout Hitting United Center Workers in the Wallet

Monroe El Stop LogoBy Matthew Schwerha
The Red Line Project
Posted: Monday, Oct. 24, 2011

The NBA lockout has more than just owners, players and fans wondering when, or if, the season will start.

Vendors who work at the United Center during Bulls home games have a vested interest, too.

“If we were to find out it was going to go the entire season, then I would have to find another job,” said Abe Ratuch, a beer vendor who serves at major sporting events throughout Chicago.

More than 20,000 people pour into the United Center on cold, winter nights and days to cheer on the Chicago Bulls. Between the regular season and playoffs, it can mean that as many as 57 times a year, the West side of Chicago can be booming because of Derrick Rose and his teammates.

Hundreds of people in Chicago, including Ratuch, rely on professional sports arenas to make a living throughout the calendar year. In Oklahoma City, the 700 people who work at Cox Convention Center can expect cuts in their hours because of the NBA lockout. People who work at arenas in small markets only have the NBA to rely on, unlike in Chicago, where the Blackhawks are still a huge draw.

Nonetheless, Ratuch is preparing for the worst.

“In the winter it is going to be half of my income,” he said.  “[Losing the Bulls season] is like going from a full-time job to a part-time job.”

The Bulls share the United Center with the Blackhawks, so Ratuch and other employees can rely on hockey and other arena events to ensure job security.

Less than a week ago, NBA commissioner David Stern announced that the first two weeks of the NBA regular season have been canceled. Stern mentioned those such as Ratuch, who rely on the season for income, when he made the announcement to the media.

Now, Stern said that the league will be forced to cancel games up to Christmas, and possibly the entire regular season, if a deal is not reached within the next couple of weeks.

Stern has expressed remorse to the fans and arena employees, but his sincerity can be questioned when a deal cannot be struck between millionaires (the players) and billionaires (the owners).

 “Most people think the lockout is affecting the owners and players the most,” Ratuch said, “But what they forget about is the ordinary people.”

Kristen Woolely, a suite attendant at The United Center, is dependent on her job at the arena to help pay for her studies at DePaul University, where she is working toward a Masters in Public Health.

Woolely said: “They are looking to not starting, from what we understand, until January. It is going to be a significant cut in our income.”

Vendors at the United Center, Soldier Field, Wrigley Field, and US Cellular Field all work on commission. With the White Sox and Cubs faltering down the stretch of the 2011 season, sales were already down.

Different positions at an arena yield a varying amount of tips. Woolely estimates she makes between $200 and $300 a night while working in the suites at the United Center. Vendors are not quite as lucky.

Eli Kaberon, a Wrigley Field beer vendor, said the ballpark figure, for an average game at Wrigley Field for a vendor, is about $150.

"Guys selling Bud on a perfect Friday afternoon vs. the Cardinals can make three times that, and people selling cotton candy on a cold Wednesday vs. the Padres are lucky to make $25,” said Kaberon, who used the money he earned as a vendor to put himself through Columbia College Chicago.

United Center Photo by Matthew Schwerha

The United Center is home to the Bulls and the Blackhawks, but arena workers are seeing
their time -- and income -- cut nearly in half with the Bulls out of action. (Photo by Matthew Schwerha)

Kaberon said sales [at Wrigley] were a little lower than in the years past. The team didn't perform as well and attendance dropped when the team was out of the division race.

"At the end of the year, many of the [fans] had lost interest,” he said.

Despite the Cubs reaching the three million mark in ticket sales again this season, many fans chose to eat their tickets rather than show up at the stadium and spend more money on an inferior product.

Unlike other vendors, who work year round selling beer, hot dogs, or other merchandise, Kaberon only relies on selling beer at Wrigley Field as a complementary summer job. Other workers, of all ages, move from the ballparks in the summer, to Soldier Field in the fall, and to the United Center in the winter.

United Center vendors had no such difficulty last season. In 2010, the Blackhawks won The Stanley Cup and made the playoffs a year later. The Bulls are coming off of a season in which they finished with 62 wins and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Although they lost to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, fan interest is at the highest point since the Michael Jordan years because of the reigning MVP of the league, Derrick Rose.

The lockout also is primed to hit more than the vendors. Merchandise sales could take a hit, too.

Felipe Flores, manager of Clark Street Sports, which sells merchandise near Wrigley Field as well as other locations, said, “We sell mostly Blackhawks and Bulls merchandise in the store. Because of the Bulls hype from last season, the lockout hasn’t hit us yet.”

Clark Street Sports has four locations throughout the city, with three of them located near Wrigley. The fourth, sits on the northeast side of Madison Street and Damen Avenue, opposite the United Center. The real effects of the lockout will be seen on nights in which the Bulls were supposed to play.

“On game nights there are people lining up on [Damen Avenue] waiting to come into the store,” Flores said. ”During the daytime, we mostly just get tourists just stopping by.”

The United Center remains one of the few attractions in a part of the city that gets a huge boost economically because of its existence. Restaurants, bars, and stores will be missing out on the opportunity of thousands of customers because of the absence of the NBA and the Bulls.

Beer vendors are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people affected by the lockout inside NBA arenas. Fans rooting for the Blackhawks or Bulls have been treated to a quality product which is usually good for arena employees relying on commission for their livelihood.

Blackhawks business is generally better than Bulls, Woolely said, but the fact remains that at least 41 nights of work are potentially going to be lost if the players and owners are not able to work out a deal soon.

Many arena employees have been in the fan services industry for decades. Ratuch, for example, has been serving beer in Chicago stadiums for 37 years, an occupation he doesn’t see himself leaving anytime soon.

“Despite the lockout I won’t stop selling,” he said. “I really enjoy it.”

Woolely has a more concerning outlook of what impact the lockout could have on her and her co-workers’ lives.

“It is devastating to think about [our income] being cut in half,” she said. “Hopefully the losses from the cancellations only last two to three months.”

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