SALT LAKE CITY — For the past 30 years, the Utah Jazz have produced one of the best basketball teams in the National Basketball Association, winning 60.1 percent of their games. Only twice since 1983-84, have the Jazz experienced a losing record and they’ve been to the playoffs 25 times in that span.
During the past quarter century, the Jazz have also had one of the best attendance records in the NBA, ranking among the top 10 every year and sometimes in the top five attendance records in the league. The final six years in the old Salt Palace the Jazz played to capacity crowds most nights and ever since the Delta Center — now EnergySolutions Arena — was built in 1991, it has often played to capacity crowds of 19,911.
But it isn’t easy keeping the arena full every night and the Jazz are finding that out this year despite a winning record and a current playoff position in the Western Conference standings.
Anyone who has been to a Jazz game this year has undoubtedly noticed the large patches of green seats both in the lower bowl and upper bowl.
Last week for an important game against Golden State, a team a game ahead of them in the Western Conference standings, the Jazz drew 18,231. A week earlier, playing one of the best teams in the NBA — Oklahoma City — the Jazz weren’t even close to a sellout with a crowd of 18,552.
Tonight when the most storied franchise in NBA history, the Boston Celtics, visits ESA, it’s unlikely the familiar 19,911 number will be reached. The Jazz have sold out just three of 26 home games this year.
For the season, the Jazz are averaging 18,790 fans, which is more than 500 fans below last year’s average and nearly 1,200 under capacity. While it certainly isn’t at a crisis stage, the Jazz are well aware of the attendance decline and expressing some concern.
“It is significant, but not to any real degree that it raises any red flags,’’ says Jazz president and CEO Randy Rigby.
He proudly points to the fact that the Jazz still rank 9th in the NBA in attendance and stand at 94 percent of capacity.
“We never like to be down, but we also recognize there are a number of elements that come into it,’’ he said. “It’s down a little bit because in the early part of the season you’re up against all football and those things. It ebbs and flows to a certain degree, but we feel like we always have a very loyal fan base. We’re not really overly concerned about where the numbers are right now.’’
There are a number of factors why the attendance is sliding. An obvious one is cost. The prices have gradually risen over the years as the salaries of NBA players and coaches have skyrocketed and the economy has been sluggish at best.
As one frustrated scalper said before a recent game, “It’s been horrible for the past three years. You can’t expect a family of four to spend $700 for a game.’’
There’s also competition for the fan dollar with four major universities in close proximity as well as high schools, although that competition was there in the good years. Another complaint is that the team is lacking superstars, with a lot of very good players, but no real standouts.
“Our team is middle of the road,’’ says John Sudbury, who has probably seen more Jazz games in person than anyone alive. Sudbury has had season tickets since 1979 when the Jazz first came to Salt Lake and has only missed 26 games during that time. That means he has attended close to 1,500 Jazz games, including playoffs and exhibitions over the past 34 years.
“We’re not in the top four or five like we used to be,’’ he continued. “We don’t have one player that everybody would rush out to buy their jersey.’’
As for the cost, Sundury isn’t complaining. Even though he is an “hourly worker” and his wife is a schoolteacher, he hasn’t been dissuaded from keeping his tickets despite the cost.
“I love watching the NBA,’’ he said. “Basketball is a game I was never able to play, but I enjoying watching it.’’
When Sudbury first started going to games over at the old Salt Palace, he paid $9 per ticket. Today his prime 8th-row midcourt ticket costs $175. For a pair of tickets, it costs him upwards of $12,000 a year.
Sudbury says he has noticed that a lot of the old regulars around him no longer attend games.
“There isn’t a game goes by that I don’t see a new person sitting by us,’’ he said. “There’s probably 10 different answers why people don’t come anymore.’’
One of those who stopped coming is Todd Noall, a 36-year-old from Draper who seems like just the kind of person the Jazz want to cultivate as a fan for the future. He runs his own advertising agency and held several thousand dollars worth of season tickets for eight years before giving them up a couple of years ago.
“To me, it feels like a mediocre product,’’ he says. “We need a marquee player. I used to enjoy watching D-Will (Deron Williams) when he was here, but there isn’t anyone real exciting to watch.’’
Noall also says he “got tired of the hip-hop culture’’ of the NBA and that he “couldn’t connect with the players’’ and longs for players like Karl Malone and John Stockton. He said he recently went with a friend to a Jazz game against a non-marquee team and left before halftime.
“I don’t miss it,’’ he said. “I don’t know if I’d ever be a season-ticket holder again.’’
Winning still seems to be the main factor in filling the arena and no one knows that better than Rigby. Teams such as Sacramento and Detroit, which were among the best in the NBA in the past decade, have seen their attendance plummet as their records have gone south.
“No question, all of our market research shows you can track attendance and your win-loss record and it flows right with it,’’ Rigby said. “As the team goes, has a big element to attendance. A lot of your core base is there through thick and thin. But you have a certain fan base that has a limited amount of expendable income. They follow you a little more if you’re on that winning road.’’
Rigby says the Jazz also try to keep their prices down as much as possible.
“We are extremely sensitive to pricing and we know that people work very hard for their incomes,’’ he said. “We constantly look at market research as to how we are compared to other NBA teams and feel very good about how we base our pricing for our fan base so that it’s affordable and works for this market place.’’
Rigby says roughly 40 percent of the seats in the arena are under corporate accounts with the other 60 percent under individuals. He said the Jazz management is constantly looking at ways to improve the product and to provide a “clean, safe environment” for “fun family-friendly entertainment.’’
Sudbury complains about the outrageous concessions prices, but something that keeps him coming back year after year is his respect for the Jazz management.
“They’ve always treated us like gold,’’ he said. “I don’t have one bad thing to say about them. The management couldn’t be better.’’
While Sudbury is frustrated that the Jazz have never won a championship, he says the lack of a title will not keep him from retaining his seats.
“It boils down to this,’’ he says. “Are they competitive and is the game fun?’’
Rigby feels confident the Jazz will continue to remain competitive and entertaining and that fans will again fill the EnergySolutions Arena to capacity.
“They love the Utah Jazz. They’re very supportive and they will come back as we continue to play hard and put on a very good entertainment package,’’ Rigby said. “We’re going to do everything we can to earn that trust and continue to make it a great experience for everyone."