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The Move to Utah

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New Orleans Jazz
        The Move to Utah

Everything you ever wanted to know about the move to Utah….

Why did the Jazz leave New Orleans for Utah? The answer to that question is many-faceted, and will be fully addressed, but one point needs to be made clear first: The Jazz did not leave New Orleans for lack of fan support. There is a common and widespread misconception around the country to the effect of: “Hey, the Jazz left New Orleans for Utah; that means they didn’t support the team and didn’t deserve to keep the team”. Nothing could be further from the truth. As can be seen in the history section above, the Jazz drew tremendously well in the Crescent City and in fact held the single-game record for NBA attendance for many years. Similar to the city’s other major-league franchise, the NFL Saints, their attendance numbers were more than generous considering the way the team was run and the product that was put on display.

The decision behind the team’s move rested squarely with their owner at the time, Sam Battistone. Battistone’s ownership of the team was not a civic enterprise, the way it often is for local owners. It was a business venture, and he was a businessman. In short, keeping the team in New Orleans was not good for his bottom line.

Most of the argument (business-wise) for moving the team has been attributed to the Superdome. It was claimed that it was simply too large of a facility. With the knowledge that seats would always be available, season ticket sales were scarce (the most the Jazz ever sold was 2,600). Season ticket sales not only guarantee that a seat is sold for each and every game, it also gives the owners all that money in advance. This in turn helps them to finance their operations, and the lack of such sales surely hurt the team financially. Yet it never seemed that the team made an effort to effectively market season tickets, much less game-day tickets. Another option, that of increasing demand by decreasing supply (by limiting the amount of seats sold, eliminating the general admission ticket, closing off upper levels, etc.) was never tried out.

Another problem with the Superdome was its use as a multi-purpose facility. Battistone has claimed that the Jazz felt like a second-class citizen in the Dome-- behind the Saints, behind the major league baseball team the city was trying to obtain, and even behind the other events such as trade shows, concerts and Mardi Gras balls held in the Dome. According to the Times-Picayune, Battistone was “rankled” by the contractual relationship between the Jazz and the Dome. The deal made money for the city, the state and the Superdome, but making a profit was difficult for the team—for example, the team was charged $5000 for lighting at each of their home games. The Jazz also never shared in concession revenues or parking revenues at the Superdome. On the other hand, the team’s former executive vice-president, Barry Mendelson, said the contractual arrangement with the Dome was fair and was never the problem. Finally, Battistone further criticized the Dome’s attitude, giving as an example that there was never any contingency plan in case the Jazz did make the playoffs. However, that is disputed by Superdome manager Bill Curl, who said a list of playoff dates were submitted regularly to the Jazz and were never acknowledged.

There were other financial problems that were not related to the Superdome. Foremost among these was the amusement tax, which was a national high of 11 percent. Mendelson has stated that the tax was the worst of all the financial factors which led to their departure, that it “just killed us, we were crippled by that tax” (It should be noted that the tax has been repealed in city venues of more than 1800 seats). Another problem was the lack of corporate support. Although the city was in the midst of an oil boom, there were few big companies (oil or otherwise) headquartered here. Less big companies translates to less corporate season ticket sales.

Finally, in terms of business, it can be pointed out that Battistone and the ownership group made some terrible business decisions on their own. For one thing, the team-building philosophy left much to be desired. Certainly, the decision to trade away draft picks for older veterans was a mistake (the Gail Goodrich/ Magic Johnson deal being an example). The decision to dismiss Butch van Breda Kolff, who was 14-12 at the time, remains a puzzling and dumb-headed move. Dave Fredman, who has been with the Jazz since its days in New Orleans, has labeled the managerial decisions “catastrophic”, and stated, “We tried to get good too quickly. We traded away first-round draft choices and lied to the public about future compensation.”

Additionally, the team never seemed to be properly financed-- there always seemed to be cash-flow problems. In November of their first year of existence, the team fired team president Fred Rosenfeld for unaccountable spending and then began a financial “belt-tightening” operation. This “operation” involved unloading players for draft picks and cash (examples include the trades involving Stu Lantz, Neal Walk, Jim Barnett and Henry Bibby). Off the court, Battistone himself was losing money first through his involvement with the World Football League, then later, when his Sambo’s restaurant chain began to founder. Perhaps the lowest point in the whole business cycle was in the team’s last year in New Orleans, when the team unloaded its only remaining, active star --Truck Robinson -- for lesser players and cash.

But business was not the only reason that Battistone moved the team. There are former Jazz staff, coaches, players and fans who believe that Battistone simply wanted to move the team closer to home, so he did—regardless of what was going on in New Orleans. There is a ‘spectrum’ of beliefs here— some hold the ”conspiracy” view that Battistone, a Mormon whose wife was from Salt Lake City, planned to move the team to Utah as soon as it was apparent that the Utah Stars of the ABA were not going to survive. Others, like Barry Mendelson, see the decision as coming later: he believes that there was an unspoken agreement among the owners in the last year that they would move ‘somewhere more friendly to us—more friendly being geographically’. Both views have some merit. Battistone not only passed on moving the team to much more lucrative markets than New Orleans (Dallas, Minnesota, Miami, Cincinnati and St. Louis); he moved to a market that was smaller than New Orleans. That seems like a personal decision, not a good ‘business’ decision. And it should be noted that the ABA's Utah Stars had shown there was a fan base—they had drawn crowds of 12,000 plus and had averaged 8,501 per game in the year before they went under.

Battistone must also be pointed out as the single reason that the team kept the wholly incongruous name “Jazz” upon moving to Utah. Most people assumed it was because of the quick move, or that Battistone must have been too strapped for cash to change the uniforms and such. The organization did sponsor a contest to pick a new nickname and team colors, but Battistone vetoed the idea. He has claimed that he made up his mind that the trappings would not change, explaining that he wanted those who criticized the Jazz in New Orleans to be reminded it was the same franchise that had later earned success in Utah.

Finally, New Orleans is not without fault regarding the team’s move to Utah. First of all, there was a clear lack of corporate and political support. Corporate support was lacking not just from a dearth of corporate entities (as indicated above), but also, there was little interest in the team from local business leaders. A prime example was the initial lack of local investors, and subsequent selling off of local investment in the team. With the type of booming economy present in New Orleans between 1974-1979, there clearly could have been a consortium of local investors assembled with enough capital to locally own the team, but no one stepped forward to do so. There was little political effort to retain the team, either. Ernest “Dutch” Morial was in his first year as mayor during the move, and had more pressing problems on his mind at the time (such as a police strike during Mardi Gras of 1979). Governor Edwin Edwards was in his lame-duck last year of office, and other local and state officials remained noticeably silent. Fans were probably the most outspoken about the move, but their response was more a cry of lamentation than a battle cry to save the team.

Most of this response of the businessmen, politicians and fans has to be placed in the context of the times, however. This was 1979, when the NBA was at the nadir of its popularity, running a distant third behind football and baseball. The NBA Finals were shown on network television on tape delay after the late news. This was the season before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league (saving the league, as some have said) and several years before the arrival of Michael Jordan and media-savvy commissioner David Stern. In short, this was many years before the NBA was “Fan-tastic”, and many years before fans could say, “ I Love This Game”. It was also before the Raiders situation and the whole idea of franchise moves in sports became major news. In fact, NBA moves were not unusual during this time, as the Rockets had moved from San Diego to Houston in 1971, the Cincinnati Royals became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in 1972, the Buffalo Braves became the San Diego Clippers in 1978, the Clippers moved to L.A. in 1984, and the Kansas City Kings moved to Sacramento in 1985.

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