Book Review: Bulls Markets: Chicago’s Basketball Business and the New Inequality

reviewed by Glenn Houlihan

14 Sep 2022, 2:32 p.m.
Glenn Houlihan

Bulls Markets book cover

Sean Dinces, Bulls Markets: Chicago’s Basketball Business and the New Inequality, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018; 336 pp.: ISBN: 9780226583211, US$48.00 (pbk)


Finished in 2020 at an estimated cost of over $5.5 billion – the most expensive sporting arena ever built – the SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, was the subject of lavish praise in the build-up to Super Bowl LVI. An opulent colosseum, touted advocates, befitting football’s annual showpiece game. However, for residents of Inglewood – one of the poorest communities in LA – the stadium brought a toxic cocktail of traffic congestion and extreme rent inflation (Gonzalez, 2022). In Bulls Markets: Chicago’s Basketball Business and the New Inequality, Sean Dinces focuses on a similar situation in 1990s Chicago, where the construction of the United Center served to enrich wealthy sports franchise owners at the expense of low-income city residents.

Bulls Markets, an urban and economic history of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Chicago Bulls, goes beyond existing scholarship that acknowledges publicly subsidised sports facilities are poor engines of economic growth. Instead, Dinces sees teams such as the Bulls – which have soared in profitability since the 1980s – as enthusiastic participants in broader political and economic transformations that have catalysed a sharp upward redistribution of wealth in the United States during the past four decades.

Dinces’ conceptual framework explicitly refutes the term ‘neoliberal’ (the author compellingly argues it lacks specificity and is confusing) and instead opts for the refreshing label ‘New Gilded Age’. ‘Exclusionary capitalism’, Dinces’ second alternative to neoliberal, is also generative. Dinces succinctly articulates exclusionary capitalism’s particular relevance to urban capitalism – as opposed to capitalism writ large – and outlines how low-income city residents have been simultaneously excluded from physical spaces, economic markets, and the benefits of government intervention throughout the past 40 years. Exclusionary capitalism is not an ahistorical apparition; Dinces notes that it existed before the Second World War and was only interrupted – not dismantled – by a 30year post-war period he terms ‘inclusive capitalism’. Crucially, the Bulls, under the ownership of Jerry Reinsdorf, ‘implicated themselves in the renewal of exclusionary capitalism in many ways, and as a result they influenced the ideological, political, and spatial histories of the city’ (pp. 9–10).

While Dinces’ theorisation of exclusionary capitalism is well developed and appropriately employed, what really stands out in Bulls Markets is the exceptional breadth of the author’s archives. The book’s primary sources include Chicago newspapers, local campaign contribution records, court documents, and census data, while visual aids such as tables and wonderfully detailed maps bring Chicago’s shifting urban landscape to life. Regarding secondary sources, the thought of French economist Thomas Piketty, alongside James Quirk and Rodney D Fort – two sports economists – clearly influence Dinces’ writing. Quick and Fort’s book Hard Ball: The Abuse of Power in Pro Team Sports demanded an end to pro sports monopolies in 1999, and Dinces echoes this call two decades later in the conclusion of Bulls Markets (Quirk and Fort, 1999).

Yet Dinces is keen to stress – and here lies his critical intervention – that billion-dollar sports franchises such as the Bulls do not exist in a vacuum; they are a product of a US socio-political system that aids and abets wealth accumulation on a scale unseen since the first Gilded Age. ‘After all’, observes Dinces, ‘much of the exclusionary capitalist behavior rampant among teams like the Bulls – namely, the development of parasitic relationships with government and the pricing out of ordinary consumers – pervades the entire economy’ (p. 224).

As Dinces notes in the book’s first chapter, ‘Bullish on Image’, global basketball icon Michael Jordan and the wildly successful 1990s Bulls team played a dynamic role in rehabilitating the international image of Chicago; a place viewed by critics as a ‘segregated dystopia with few prospects for growth’ (p. 16). Yet, as Dinces asserts throughout the book, crucial choices made by elected officials often served to widen inequality in the city instead of narrowing it. For example, a major campaign by Chicago Mayor Richard M Daley to develop leisure infrastructure was focused nearly exclusively on the downtown loop and nearby lakefront; raising rents and encouraging gentrification, Dinces argues, to the detriment of low-income and working-class communities.

Chapter 2, ‘Normally Heroes Cost You Money’, continues to trace the wide-reaching effects of exclusionary capitalism in urban Chicago by focusing on the price of Bulls tickets, which grew increasingly unaffordable for lower-income city residents as the 1990s progressed. The construction of the United Center, a replacement for the Chicago Stadium, exemplified the exclusionary consequences of the Bulls adopting ‘a business model that depended on catering to an expanding base of wealthy fans’ (p. 48). As Sun-Times reporter Brian Hewitt accurately observed shortly before the United Stadium opened in 1994, it was ‘a pleasure dome designed for wheeler-dealers first and basketball fans second’ (p. 62). Instead of seeing their heroes in the flesh on the court, working-and-middle-class fans were relegated to stratified forms of ‘second-class spectatorship’ (p. 80) such as championship rallies in public parks.

The role of modern sports stadiums in enforcing exclusionary capitalism expands far beyond the banishment of poorer fans from live games. As Dinces examines in Chapters 3 and 4, low-income public-housing tenants at the Henry Horner Homes organised resistance against plans to build a stadium in their neighbourhood, rightly suspicious of the gentrification the new arena would engender. Residents – organised under the banner of the Interfaith Organizing Project (IOP) – successfully opposed initial plans for a new Chicago Bears stadium, which ultimately collapsed due to a disagreement between Bears owner Mike McCaskey and Blackhawks and Chicago Stadium owner Bill Wirtz. However, Wirtz instead turned to Reinsdorf for a joint Blackhawks/Bulls stadium on the same patch of land, and residents were again compelled to collectively oppose the project.

Following a surprising show of support from Mayor Richard M Daley, the IOP secured an agreement which contained crucial wins, such as replacement housing, moving expenses, and the construction of a new public library. Although each concession demonstrated the power of David vs. Goliath community organising, the settlement’s limitations soon became clear. ‘Despite early optimism around the deal cut with Reinsdorf and Wirtz,’ Dinces summarises, ‘what emerged in West Haven was the opposite of the IOP’s original vision… Significant numbers of poor residents who were supposed to benefit from arena-linked redevelopment found themselves swept aside’ (pp. 150–151).

Chapter 5, ‘Peanut Envy’, is the book’s most compelling. Drawing on insightful interviews with street vendors, Dinces details how Reinsdorf and Wirtz attempted to monopolise food sales at the United Center by establishing a ban on independent peanut sellers outside the stadium. Here, we see two prongs of exclusionary capitalism – exclusion from physical spaces and economic markets – working in tandem to disrupt and oppress low-income workers. As Dinces implies, while conservative economists and commentators might claim to encourage self-made entrepreneurs, this performative support sharply rescinds when the profits of established elites are threatened.

In contrast to ‘Peanut Envy’, the final chapter, ‘Nothing But Net Profits’, is a less lively read; perhaps because the topic – property-tax systems and formulas – is inherently drier than the counter-hegemonic alternative economies of street vendors. Nonetheless, Dinces confidently synthesises state and city legislation, alongside his own Freedom of Information Act requests, to illustrate how Reinsdorf and Wirtz were able to pressure lawmakers ‘to authorize significant public subsidies for the United Center through several tax abatement schemes’ (p. 187). These schemes – often hidden from the public – saved the owners roughly $10 million in property taxes each year; hoarding money that municipal services, such as the chronically underfunded Chicago Public Schools, desperately needed.

As Dinces concludes, without fundamental changes to the United States’ exploitative economic apparatus, franchise owners such as Reinsdorf and Wirtz will continue to amass vast sums of wealth as millions of working Americans languish in poverty. What makes the Bulls’ story even more disheartening is how the franchise was often portrayed as a socially conscious example of flourishing corporate-community partnerships. In reality, as Dinces painstakingly illustrates, Reinsdorf ruthlessly profiteered from the team and stadium without any care for Chicago’s low-income residents – those who live and attempt to work under the shadow of the United Stadium, and others who rely on the critical city services that Reinsdorf’s tax breaks should be funding.

Back in Inglewood, Mayor James T Butts Jr has proposed a $1.4-billion automated train line to mitigate the chaotic levels of game day congestion. Instead of undergoing the standard Californian environmental review, the stadium’s construction was fast-tracked and approved just six weeks after it was announced. ‘So we ignored the potential impacts, then we make mitigating the impacts an excuse to spend more public revenue’, James Moore, director of the transportation engineering program at the University of Southern California, told the L.A. Times (Uranga, 2022). Different city, different decade, same old story.



Gonzalez J (2022) SoFi stadium went up—And then everything changed. Sports Illustrated, 9 February. Available at: (accessed 5 August 2022).


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Gentrification and Community Fabric in Chicago by John Betancur

Betancur attempts to specify impacts on low-income racial/ethnic groups (Latinos in particular) in five Chicago neighbourhoods, with a particular focus on neighbourhood-based fabrics of support and advancement.

The Impact of the London Olympics Announcement on Property Prices by Georgios Kavetsos

Kavetsos estimates the impact of the London 2012 Olympics announcement on property prices in this study.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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