Alumni / June 12, 2024

Making Marketing Magic with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls

Steve Schanwald ’77

Steve SchanwaldWhen it comes to the ’90s Chicago Bulls dynasty, a few names come to mind—Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson. And there was also a name you never heard of who was working behind the scenes to generate the revenue needed to put that kind of a team on the court: proud University of Maryland ’77 graduate Steve Schanwald. Steve, who, you ask?

Schanwald served for nearly 30 years as the Executive Vice President of Business Operations for the Chicago Bulls, overseeing organizational initiatives that included ticket sales, sponsorship sales, in-game entertainment, advertising and broadcasting, community relations, media relations and digital marketing en route to six NBA championship rings.

Schanwald, who had a lifelong love of sports and the sense of community sports evokes among people of all ages, sexes, races, ethnicities, religions, etc., took his first steps in the industry as a general studies major at the University of Maryland. “Attending Maryland turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, but it came about because my dad lost his job on Long Island and took a new job in Maryland. So instead of attending a state university in New York, the state university I ended up attending was the University of Maryland in College Park.

“Something that I thought was bad for me, leaving everything that was familiar to me and all my friends and moving to Maryland, turned out to be the luckiest break I ever got!” Schanwald says.

During his time as a student, Schanwald says it was his great fortune that Russ Potts, the first sports marketing director in the history of collegiate athletics, happened to work on campus. As a sophomore, he walked into Potts’ office seeking two things—career guidance and a job. Potts said he couldn’t pay him, but Schanwald offered to work for free. In the end, he got everything he wanted and more. He spent the next three years working under Potts and absorbing any lessons he could about the sports marketing industry which, in the mid 70’s, was in its infancy. “Russ was blazing a trail for others to follow, and I happened to be there at the right time taking notes about the business and receiving life lessons along the way.”

“Russ worked really hard at growing the Maryland athletic brand near and far, to generate revenue to support our athletic programs, and sought to make our games entertainment extravaganzas, to make them more than just football or basketball games, to make it a real entertainment experience. Because in sports, you never know what kind of game you are going to get on any given night.” Schanwald believes that “one of our main jobs as sports marketers is to give people as much entertainment and value for their hard-earned money as you can.”

Upon graduating from UMD, he became the first-ever director of sports promotions at the United States Air Force Academy on the recommendation of Potts. From there, Schanwald moved to Major League Baseball, where he worked as a promotions director for the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he was fortunate to earn his first world championship ring.

In 1981, Schanwald joined the Chicago White Sox and owner Jerry Reinsdorf as assistant vice president of marketing. Then, at age 31, Schanwald was sent to the Bulls after Reinsdorf acquired the team to transform all aspects of the team’s business operations.

Schanwald says it took “no great genius to fill the stadium or sell advertising or build a brand” when Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were among the great players on the Bulls roster. Still, he says the real job was to ensure that “we would continue to be profitable as an organization and sell out the arena beyond the Jordan era.” He was successful in achieving that goal.

In the immediate aftermath of Jordan’s departure, the team compiled the worst six-year win/loss record in NBA history for a non-expansion team while leading the NBA in cumulative attendance during that period. Schanwald took pride that “in spite of the general belief that once Jordan retired, and the team stopped winning our attendance and revenues would plummet, that we were able to keep the building full and lead the league in total attendance over that six-year stretch.”

Schanwald not only built a successful brand but generated enough revenue through the sale of suites, naming rights, signage and other sources to fund the creation of The United Center. “The United Center enabled us to substantially upgrade the game experience for our attendees,” Schanwald says. Since the Bulls now owned 50% of the building they played in for the first time ever, they could also generate income from concerts, concessions and collegiate athletics, which meant that “our income streams were more diversified and we were less reliant on revenues from Bulls basketball than we had been previously.”

He is also credited with establishing the NBA’s first ever Community Relations Department, which was dedicated to outreach initiatives and philanthropic activities in the Chicago community, as well as the Bulls first ever TV and radio networks, and he created its digital marketing department to showcase the team across web, mobile and social media landscapes.

Among all of the championships Schanwald has been part of, it’s the people he has helped climb the sports marketing ladder along that way that he finds his most rewarding accomplishment, paying forward the support he received from his mentors, like Potts, throughout his career. He’s doing that in part by bringing his expertise to his alma mater to help students interested in sports industry careers. He was recently appointed to the Sports Management Program Advisory Board and says he looks forward to “making a contribution to the future success of this university, which gave me my start, and to its students.”

“Now today, I can look on top of the mountain and see some people standing there that I had a small role in helping get there,” Schanwald says. “I can’t think of anything at this stage of my life that’s more rewarding than that.”

Media Contact

Greg Muraski
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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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