Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Seattle SuperSonics, Phoenix Suns . . . .
A roll call of NBA title contenders? No, just a partial list of teams that have just opened, are building or have announced plans for new arenas.In fact when the Jazz are added to that list, 10 of the 27 teams that will play in the NBA next season are represented.
Why the sudden arena construction spurt in pro basketball? In a word: money. A lot of it.
NBA basketball is big business. Just ask Jazz owner Larry Miller, who paid $22 million for the Jazz - half in 1985 and the rest the following year. Conservative estimates have the franchise easily doubling in value since Miller bought it. Some estimates even put the value at $75 million or higher.
In fact, the arena business in NBA cities is a sizable industry itself. If running an arena weren't potentially profitable, the Pistons wouldn't have built their own 21,000-seat facility, known as the "Palace," in suburban Auburn Hills and moved out of Detroit's 40,000-seat (for basketball) Silverdome this season. The Pistons and the Silverdome are now in direct competition for arena bookings.
The NBA teams planning, building or playing in new arenas fall into two basic categories - teams in new NBA cities and teams that for whatever reason grew disenchanted with their former or current playing venues.
The four (next season) NBA expansion teams and the Sacramento Kings fall into the first category. Charlotte, Miami, Minneapolis and Orlando all built or are building new arenas for their expansion franchises. The new Arco Arena was built to fulfill a promise made to lure the Kings (who frankly didn't need a lot of incentive) from Kansas City in 1986.
In the second category are: Phoenix, Milwaukee, Seattle, Detroit, and now, Utah. In the cases of Detroit and Seattle, we might consider that those teams got tired of playing inside two 40,000-plus-seat barns - the Kingdome and the Silverdome, respectively - where fans in the upper sections peered from outer space through binoculars to watch tiny figures miles away play a game that looked like professional basketball - but who could be sure?
But for the other teams in this category, the reason for new arenas is certainly money.
"The new contract with the players union completely changed the ground rules of operating an NBA franchise, especially in the smaller markets," said Miller. "For us, it made a new arena essential."
The collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players union locks in annual hikes in the minimum payroll placed on the payroll of each NBA team. That means Miller and other owners know without fail that their operating costs will increase each season for the next five years. And increasing costs put the squeeze on franchise profits, which for some teams like the Jazz were never a surety even before the new contract.
And what if the Jazz weren't winning 47 or 50 games per season, but a number closer to 30 - like in the good old days? Would the need and the community support be there for a new arena? Jazz general manager Dave Checketts says yes.
"I don't think there's any correlation (between winning and building a new arena)," Checketts said. "Detroit was in the NBA finals last year. Sacramento was the worst team in the league. Both have new arenas. Teams are building because they need to generate more revenue. And regardless of won-loss records, people will pay to see NBA games."
To support this, Checketts points out that the expansion Charlotte Hornets, one of the NBA's losingest teams, leads the league in attendance, drawing 25,000 fans per home game - although some may question whether Charlotte really shows pro basketball's strength or just the novelty of a new game in town.
Perhaps a better gauge is the Suns, which put together its plans for a new arena while struggling through some losing seasons recently.
Figures also show Jazz attendance was higher in the '86-87 and '87-88 seasons - when the team was playing .500 ball - than in '83-84, when the Jazz won 45 games and the Midwest Division crown.
"Attendance has been going up steadily despite the fact that our ticket prices have been going up too," Checketts said. "We just happened to coordinate our drive for a new arena at the same time we're having an exceptional season."