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Declining attendance isn't big worry to Jazz

Published: Monday, Feb. 25 2013 12:45 a.m. MST

The Jazz Bear steals cotton candy from a vendor and throws it out into the crowd during the Utah Jazz scrimmage at the Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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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.’’

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