When the Utah Jazz tip-off their 2013-14 regular season against the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday night at Energy Solutions Arena, there’s a very good chance they will do so in front of a less-than capacity crowd as according to @5kl there are at least 1,000 tickets still unsold. If there are empty seats, it certainly won’t be from a lack of effort as Trey Burke has further endeared himself to Jazz fans with this incredible offer and with the team plugging greatly reduced 4-ticket/4-pizza packages all preseason.
Last season fans grew weary of another unappealing brand of .500-basketball which became evident in some of the franchise’s poorest attendance figures since they began playing basketball in the 19,911-seat Delta Center/Energy Solutions Arena. As you can review here, attendance figures started slow but unlike most years never picked up steam and actually declined down the stretch of the season.
While excitement and anticipation among the diehards remains high for the 2013-14 Jazz season (with the team finally embracing a substantive rebuild), it’s also understandable why ticket sales could be lacking. For casual fans, this is primarily a team that in the past 3 seasons has finished 11th, 8th, and 9th in their conference, is conducted by a coach who has yet to win over anyone outside the organization, and is being projected by many to have meager playoff hopes this season.
While the Jazz have always enjoyed incredible fan support (averaging 97.6% capacity since the Delta Center opened in 1991), the one lethal combination that has consistently repelled fans is disappointment from the previous season mixed with uncertainty surrounding the current team.
Here’s a look back at the most recent cases of “Previous season disappointment + Present uncertainty” and how that is often reflected in early-season attendance.
The Setting: Following the departures of John Stockton and Karl Malone as well as a disappointing summer in which the Jazz possessed a large amount of cap space yet failed to land even 1 of their top-8 free agent targets, some experts predicted the team to win fewer than 10 games.
The Early Reviews: While the Jazz opened the season with a surprising 12-9 record, fans were slow to catch on to a Stockon&Malone-less team. Only 17,306 attended Utah’s season-opening victory over Portland and the franchise averaged just 17,999 in their first dozen home games.
The Final Product: The Jazz showed they were no early-season fluke, and thanks to the greatest coaching performance in NBA history shocked the league by winning 42 games and finished just 1-game shy of the postseason.
Final Attendance: Slowly but surely Salt Lake City came around to appreciate the Jazz’s resilient and scrappy play. Although their first sellout didn’t come until December 29th, the team would go on to record 19 sellouts (more than double the previous season) and average 19,730 over their final 26 home games.
The Setting: Coming off the woefully disappointing 26-56 2004-05 season, expectations remained low with Carlos Boozer out indefinitely due to a hamstring injury, the admission to their own drafting failures (trading three recent #1-picks to re-aquire Greg Ostertag) and the uncertainty of their current 1st-round selection – #3-overall pick Deron Williams who struggled in summer league while #4-overall pick Chris Paul dazzled.
The Early Reviews: Despite a 4-2 start, the Jazz again began the season with spotty attendance. Only 18,249 were there to see Deron score 18 points in Utah’s season-opening upset over the Dallas Mavericks and an 8-11 record by mid-December lowered those figures to 17,330 over their first 10 home games.
The Final Product: Carlos Boozer would miss the first 49 games and Deron Williams was unable to impress Jerry Sloan enough to secure the starting PG spot prior to the all-star break (Deron averaged just 9.3pts/3.9ast/26.4min while shooting just 38% in the first 50 games). After the all-star break, DWill was given the PG reigns and improved his numbers to 13.2pts/5.5ast/32.8mpg on 47% shooting over the final 30 games. Boozer returned (averaging 21.3/9.8 in 19 games as a starter) and the Jazz went on a late-season 8-2 run that came up just short of the #8-seed but netted them a respectable 41-41 record.
Final Attendance: As a result of their up&down and at times ugly play (Utah had 7 games where they scored fewer than 80-points) Jazz fans never came around to the team. Although numbers would slightly, they still finished the season averaging just 18,322 with only 5 sellouts.
The Setting: The Jazz entered 2006-07 with more uncertainty and the previous season’s disappointment still looming over them. There were rumors that Carlos Boozer didn’t like Utah and quietly wanted out. Deron Williams was expected to improve as a 2nd-year player, but unlikely as much as Chris Paul who had taken the league by storm with a 16.1/7.8/5.1/2.2 rookie season.
The Early Reviews: The Jazz came out of the gates smoking, posting a franchise record and NBA best 12-1 start. The exciting brand of basketball (Utah averaged 108pts/gm in their first 13-games) boosted the usual tepid attendance figures. An opening night crowd of just 18,133 shrank to a 18,052 average through 4 games before their 5th home game drew a sellout crowd to watch the Jazz debut their powder blue uniforms while rallying from a 16-point 4th-qtr deficit to beat Phoenix in overtime. From there fan support grew as the new-era Jazz finally gave fans reason to get excited prior to the holiday season. All-Star PF Carlos Boozer would have his finest season as a pro, playing like one of the 8-best players in the NBA, Deron Williams would blossom and reach (and at times surpass) CP3’s level and Mehmet Okur would make his lone All-Star appearance while becoming one of the league’s best clutch-shooters.
The Final Product: The jazz finished 53-29 to claim their first Northwest Division title and the #5-seed. In the postseason they upset the favored Rockets in 7-games and dispatched the 8th-seeded Golden State Warriors in 5. They eventually bowed out to the Spurs but throughout May re-captured the imagination of much of the state of Utah with a remarkable playoff run that brought them to the doorstep of the NBA Finals.
Final Attendance: Attendance flourished in the latter half of the year. The Jazz finished with a 19,566 regular season average with 30 sellouts that included capacity crowds of 20 in their last 21 regular season home games. The postseason also resulted in 8 more sellouts who created some of the loudest Jazz crowds since the glory years of the late-90’s.
For all intents and purposes 2006-07 was the final season in which Utah ticket sales faced the perfect storm. From 2007-08 through the 2010-11 the Jazz season ticket-base would grow and sellout crowds became the norm.
In 2011 the Jazz were coming off a depressing 39-43 2010-11 season in which Jerry Sloan was forced out due to friction with all-star PG Deron Williams – who was also traded midseason. However, the NBA lockout abbreviated the beginning of the 2011-12 season which began right about the time fans would normally either jump on or off the bandwagon and the demand and longing for Utah Jazz basketball overcame what surely would’ve been a steep attendance drop.
Personally am more excited for the prospect and growth (if not necessarily win total) of this year’s team than I have been over any Jazz squad since 2010. Hopefully there will be a big walk-up showing to push Wednesday’s crowd to near-capacity. If not, it’s not an early indictment on the 2013-14 Utah Jazz. It primarily is a reflection of last season’s discouragement and this season’s ambivalence.
If the product is worth it, history shows the fans will come around over time. Until then, expect some empty seats to be quite noticeable on the new jumbo-tron. 92-95% capacity is nothing to be ashamed of, but in the “House that Larry built” – it’s not easy being green.