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LONG LIVE THE JAZZ

When Stockton and Malone ride off into the sunset, weep not for the Utah Jazz.

Not for the fiscal health of the franchise, anyway.In the midst of its 13th consecutive year of postseason play, the ball club is a solid long-term investment, according to bankers who arranged in late March a smooth refinance of the mortgage that team owner Larry H. Miller had paid down to about $50 million on the team's arena.

Skeptics long have wondered about the fiscal viability of a club that plays in one of the National Basketball Association's smallest markets and builds its on-court act largely around two aging players - John Stockton, who was 34 in March, and Karl Malone, who turns 33 in July.

Some have said that when the dynamic duo is gone the team's long tradition of winning will go with them. Interest will wane. Attendance will drop. And Larry Miller will be in deep financial distress.

Cracks are already appearing in the dam, goes this school of thought. Eight of 41 regular-season home games failed to sell out in 1995-96. And the first Jazz playoff game this year - vs. Portland - had a few hundred empty seats, the only time that's happened during the team's five postseasons at the Delta Center.

Is this, then, a symptom of something serious?

Probably not, said Randall S. Campbell, a vice president at Morgan Stanley, the Wall Street investment firm that didn't have much trouble this spring finding private underwriters to take on the debt the Jazz have labored under since the Delta Center's opening in 1991.

"Investors were very, very excited to get into that transaction," Campbell said. "The Jazz could've sold two and a half times the amount of debt they actually sold."

And the apparent fact is that the team does turn a profit, particularly as the postseason rolls on, though the playoff windfall is maybe not as gigantic as widely believed.

Mum's the word on money when talking with Miller and his staff, and no one will say very much about what the playoffs mean to the franchise's cash flow.

"But it's like a miner striking gold," allowed Jay Francis, the Jazz vice president of marketing.

This much is known:

- Players - not team owners - reap the benefit of playoff ticket sales. According to Hilary Cassidy, the New York-based manager of marketing communications for the NBA, an elaborate formula is used to divide the ticket take, which is estimated in advance at about $7 million. It says the Jazz' 13-man roster so far will split $339,750 in playoff money and could stand to share an additional $1.4 million, depending on how far the team goes in postseason play (see chart).

- Team owners like Miller rely on two sources to make the post-season pay off for them. One is advertising revenue from the team's AM-radio broadcasts and its televised games on KJZZ. Most of this stream dries up, however, as the playoffs proceed and NBC exercises its exclusive television broadcast rights, squeezing KJZZ out of the picture.

- The other and perhaps much more substantial playoff cash cow is concessions. Miller and the Marriott Corp. share the take - the split is undisclosed - on the scores of beer taps, soda fountains and ice-cream machines scattered throughout the Delta Center. Miller's group controls souvenir sales. Precisely how much concession commerce is done isn't publicly known, but the Team Marketing Report, a professional-sports business newsletter published in Chicago, offers some clues.

The newsletter in its annual survey of the NBA's 29 teams says a family of four would have paid an average of $193.11 this season to attend a game in Salt Lake City. The hypothetical outlay, according to editor Sean Brenner, reflects fan habits and would include four average-price tickets at $31.78 apiece plus two small beers, four small sodas, four hot dogs, parking for one car, two game programs and "two of the least-expensive souvenir caps."

The average family of four on an outing to the Delta Center, then, would be shelling out $65 for snacks and souvenirs, or $16.25 per person. If the capacity of the arena is 19,911 and fans - especially if they're in an upbeat playoff mood - are buying at the rate suggested by the Team Marketing Report, then the Delta Center during the postseason is doing in the neighborhood of $324,000 in concession business each game.

But only the front office knows for sure, and it isn't talking, other than to say that the Larry H. Miller Sports and Entertainment Group - which includes the team, the arena, KJZZ, an advertising agency and a sports-memorabilia enterprise - has plenty of overhead.

"I think there's a perception that Larry and the owners make tons and tons of money . . . and they don't," said Dave Allred, the Jazz vice president of public relations. "I mean, they're doing all right, but it's a business, like any other."

Which in this case means the payroll is enormous. The basketball team alone, in addition to 13 fantastically paid players, has five coaches and employs 70 other full-time workers. The Delta Center has a full-time staff of 70, plus about 750 part-time employees who range from ushers and fountain workers to janitors and security guards.

All this is on top of the considerable debt service Miller doles out on the arena. Though he has 22 automobile dealerships in six states, Miller keeps those separate, so his sports venture stands to rise and fall on its own.

Its fate ultimately will be decided by forces that play out over the long term, said Campbell, the Morgan Stanley executive who said he is bullish on the ball club for two reason:

- First, the NBA is both stable and sagely set up. It protects the viability of each franchise - sponsorship money, television revenues and souvenir sales outside local arenas are shared equally among league members (this helps level a playing field that favors bigger markets nonetheless). Also, the game has never been hobbled by the kind of labor disputes that have been known to kill cash flow in big-league baseball and hockey.

- Two, the Jazz enjoy a reputation of being "certainly in the upper quartile of best-managed franchises in the NBA."

"They're not like some who will mortgage the whole team to get one guy for a one-year contract," said Clark Burbridge, vice president of First Security Bank of Utah, which was a co-agent with Morgan Stanley on refinancing the Delta Center.

The club is known, too, for shrewdly nurturing its limited fan base, with an eye toward the future.

The franchise's "Junior Jazz," an outreach program for youngsters, has 64,000 members in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Nevada. Participants play in local leagues visited by Jazz players, and most get to attend a Jazz game during the regular season.

"You want to create a bond early in life," said Dave Wilson, the club's director of youth sports programs. "If you actually see a Jazz player in Jackson Hole, you identify a little more with them."

Always looking for a new marketing gimmick, the franchise's latest push is a magazine called Home-Court that delves into the lives of players, coaches and other Jazz personalities. Launched last year, Allred said the monthly publication has exceeded expectations, with 8,839 subscribers to date. Most are in Utah, but the magazine also has patrons in 47 other states and four distant countries.

Another indication of a healthy fan base, said Francis, is the sale of season tickets, which this year was around 14,500, up 300 from 1994-95. Francis said the team a year ago reorganized the way it sells season passes, devoting a phone number exclusively to that market and assigning five full-time employees to look after the franchise's 4,000 season-ticket accounts.

Campbell said such management was a big reason Standard & Poor Corporate Rating Service graded the March refinancing of the Delta Center as a "low-A" investment, the highest rating the firm has ever given a sports or entertainment deal.

Miller got a 16-year arrangement at a fixed-interest rate with private investors under terms Campbell said are the lowest he's ever heard of for a franchise or arena underwriting. It replaces a variable-rate mortgage held by the Japanese-owned Sumitomo Trust & Banking Co. of Los Angeles.

The Jazz structured the deal as a "corporate borrowing instead of a real-estate deal," said Burbridge, in essence enticing investors with a glamorous piece of the NBA, rather than a pedestrian stake in a Salt Lake building.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Playoffs - Financial facts

Most ticket revenue nationally goes into $7 million pool divided among players. What Jazz players share:

$117,500 for finishing with third-best season conference record

$101,500 for playing in 1st playoff round

$120,750 for playing in 2nd round

$199,500 if team advances to conference finals

$996,000 if they advance to championship series but lose, OR

$1.2 million if they win league championship

- Estimated gross sales in concessions per playoff game, shared by Jazz owner Larry Miller and concessionaire Marriott Corp. - $340,000

- Average Utah Jazz ticket price this year - $31.78 (14th in the 29-team NBA)

- Average cost for family of four to attend Jazz game, buy arean food and souvenirs - $193.11 (12th in the NBA)

Sources: NBA, Team Marketing Report newsletter