The Jazz were pulling away with a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of their first-round playoff series vs. Oklahoma City. The volume of Vivint Smart Home Arena suddenly intensified as the Thunder’s Raymond Felton missed a free throw and fans sensed what might come next.
Chick-fil-A’s sponsorship of the Jazz and other NBA teams, including the Houston Rockets, plays into some traditional themes of sporting events: support of the home team, fan involvement in the game and the concept of getting something for free. Never mind that lower-bowl playoff tickets cost hundreds of dollars.
As Jazz fan Jeff Morris, of Farmington, said, “Anything free is good. Capitalizing on opponents’ misfortune is better.”
If an opposing player misses both free throws on a trip to the foul line during the fourth quarter, every Jazz fan’s ticket is redeemable for a chicken sandwich within five days. Like a classic psychological experiment, the prize is awarded just often enough to keep fans engaged.
Jazz fans were rewarded for their efforts Jan. 20 when New York’s Tim Hardaway Jr. missed two free throws with 32.3 seconds left and the Knicks leading by three points. That gave the Jazz a chance to tie the game, but three players missed 3-point shots on the next possession.
Cheering loudly in an effort to distract free-throw shooters is “a long-established ritual in the NBA,” said Mark Rubinfield, a Westminster College sociologist, and the promotion can become a case where “everyone wins, even if the home team loses.”
That didn’t happen in Friday’s Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals. Houston’s only fourth-quarter free throws came after Eric Gordon was fouled on a 3-point attempt; he made all three foul shots.
Felton missed two free throws early in the fourth quarter after his team had gone 21 of 23 in Game 4 of the Jazz-Thunder series. Fans earned a sandwich in Game 1 in Houston when the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert missed a pair of shots. But Gobert (twice) and Donovan Mitchell each made their second try after missing the first shot with the Jazz maintaining a fourth-quarter lead in Game 2.
The NBA free-throw shooting norm is 76.7 percent. The probability of an average player missing two shots in a row is 5.4 percent, absent of variables such as pressure or concentration levels. Those factors can influence the outcome, explaining why the fourth quarter is the ideal time for the promotion. Free throws become more important in a close game; the potential prize keeps fans interested even if the Jazz are way ahead or behind.
“The best is when there’s 2:14 left in a 20-point game and the place sounds like Folsom Prison when Johnny Cash performed,” said Jeff Hansen, of Bountiful.
That’s a reference to a show from 50 years ago. The concept of getting something for free dates to ancient Rome, according to Dave Lunt, a Southern Utah University historian. Politicians such as Julius Caesar staged horse races, gladiator events and Greek-style athletic contests in an effort to get voters on their side, often providing feasts in conjunction with the production.
About the series
Fandemonium is an occasional series about the sports fan experience in Utah. This installment: The incentive to distract opposing free-throw shooters at Jazz games.