The Utah Jazz were supposed to open up their preseason schedule Oct. 10, with the regular season due to start Nov. 1. With the owners and players still miles apart in negotiations during the current lockout, it looks like a strike-shortened season may be the best Jazz fans can hope for, and a completely cancelled 2011-12 season is a potential reality they may have to deal with.
Of course, it’s frustrating to watch millionaires squabbling with billionaires when the rest of us are struggling with unemployment and foreclosure, and the lockout will undoubtedly have a negative impact on many downtown businesses. But there may be something even bigger at stake for many of us along the Wasatch Front. The potential of having to go through the coldest months of the year with no NBA team to cheer for, complain about, be surprised by, get frustrated with or find reason for hope with leaves one wondering what the lockout means to our town in an existential sense. Whither Salt Lake City without all that Jazz?
Travel outside the Beehive State and mention where you’re from, and people generally know two things about this place: 1. It’s got Mormons, and 2. it’s got skiing and outdoor recreation. Most of us who live here ended up here for one of those two reasons. However, go beyond those two obvious choices, and what usually pops up third on the list of what people know about Salt Lake City is the Utah Jazz. Beyond temples and slopes, the music-note “J” is the Utah brand that travels best around the globe.
Better yet, it suggests that all of the stereotypes people may have heard about Utah may not all be true, and we might even have a bit of a cool factor. The Jazz help us a little in avoiding being boxed into the clichés of SLC just being Mormons and mountains. While the LDS faithful often take pride in describing themselves as a “peculiar people,” former church president Gordon B. Hinckley recognized having an NBA team in the church’s capital city conveyed a certain sense of normalcy to the world, which was part of the reason he advised Larry Miller to go ahead and buy the team back in 1985.
There’s also a certain amount of civic pride in being one of just 30 cities on the entire North American continent with a franchise in the NBA. We are, quite literally, “in the same league” as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Miami and other cosmopolitan places. Without the Jazz, is the greater Salt Lake City area nothing more than the 33rd largest TV market area in America? That’s according to the folks at Nielsen, who measure who’s got how many televisions, and potential TV exposure is what matters most when it comes to a professional sports league. The numbers are slightly higher or lower depending on whether you look at things like “designated market areas” or “urban agglomerations,” but the general point here is that the Wasatch Front is pretty middle-of-the-road in terms of size.
The Jazz certainly aren’t the smallest NBA market. Places like Milwaukee (35th), San Antonio (37th), Oklahoma City (45th), Memphis (48th) and New Orleans (53rd) are further down the list. Likewise, there are plenty of bigger markets like St. Louis (21st), Pittsburgh (22nd), Baltimore (26th) and San Diego (28th) that don’t have an NBA squad, although those cities all have NFL and MLB teams. But the Jazz are the one and only franchise in the four major North American sports—sorry Real fans, MLS ain’t there yet—to call Salt Lake City home. Take away our NBA team, and Salt Lake City’s just another mid-market-size area with no pro team—the Hartford, Conn. (30th) of the West. Even Raleigh, N.C. (27th), and Columbus, Ohio (32nd) have NHL teams—so you could argue that without the Jazz, SLC isn’t even up to the standards of Raleigh and Columbus. And notice how the states needed to be added to clearly identify those two cities?
Finally, there’s the issue of the Jazz being the one thing we can all agree on. In a city and state where religious, political and college affiliations are generally split along an often-contentious line of red versus blue, the purple and green binds all of our fractious factions together. There’s an old joke that Jazz fans are the one thing Utah has more of than Mormons, and it’s true. Even if the people you work with vote and worship differently than you, you can still enjoy water-cooler chat with them about the delights and/or frustrations of being a Jazz fan.
Salt Lake City will be OK without the Jazz, but our NBA team is just one more of those touches that make many of us say, “This is the place.” Let’s hope they get back on the court soon.