Jazz home games are selling out, as are Donovan Mitchell jerseys. The team’s fortunes are on the rise, having made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs for two straight seasons, and profiles for players and the franchise itself are exploding on social media.
As you would expect, Jazz TV ratings are up as well. The Jazz were ranked fifth in the NBA in local TV ratings last year, which represented a sizable jump from last year, as well as the highest total of the last five seasons.
As the Jazz’s fortunes turned, so did their TV ratings. Over the entirety of the 2017-18 NBA season, the Jazz averaged a 4.9 share on AT&T SportsNet — a share being the percentage of a market’s televisions that are tuned into that broadcast. But in the second half of the season, from February to April, they earned a 6.6 share. And finally, the playoff games on AT&T SportsNet averaged a 9.2 share, a figure that doesn’t include the percentage of people who chose to watch the first round on TNT or ESPN.
Ranking fifth over the whole season left the Jazz trailing only the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs in the local TV ratings for the 2017-18 season, according to Sports Business Daily. All four of those teams have significant track records of long-term, on-court success.
"Our ratings are a tangible reflection of the passion people have towards the team and we’re thrilled so many people are watching our games with friends and family,” Jazz president Steve Starks told The Salt Lake Tribune.
But while the ratings are good, the Jazz don’t make money directly from more eyeballs. Instead, they get a consistent average annual rate from AT&T Sportsnet: about $20 million annually. That’s part of the agreement signed in 2009 that runs through 2021.
That number puts the Jazz at a disadvantage when compared with some of the deals signed more recently. The Sacramento Kings signed a deal in 2014 that gives them an average $35 million per season through 2034, and just this summer, the Milwaukee Bucks signed a seven-year deal worth about $30 million per season. Sacramento’s TV market is ranked 21st in the NBA, the Jazz are ranked 26th, and Milwaukee’s TV market is ranked 27th. But the Jazz have the highest TV ratings of the three: Sacramento earned just a 1.3 share of its market this season, and Milwaukee got a 2.3 share.
But even those bigger small-market deals don’t compare to the fortunes earned by big-market franchises. Back in 2011, the Los Angeles Lakers signed a deal with Time Warner Cable to create Spectrum SportsNet that was worth a reported $4 billion over the course of 20 years — good for an average $200 million per season.
Many big-market franchises own their own television outlets, which allows them to hide the true amount they make on their sports TV rights. The parent company of the New York Knicks, for example, also owns the MSG network. For accounting purposes, they say that the rights to Knicks games are worth $75 million per year, but a confidential report ESPN acquired puts the true value at over $100 million annually.
NBA TV REVENUE SAMPLER
Teams, and the approximate average annual value of their local TV contracts (in millions):
Los Angeles Lakers • $150-200M
New York Knicks • $75-150M
Los Angeles Clippers • $50-$55M
Dallas Mavericks • $50M
Houston Rockets • $40-45M
Boston Celtics • $35-40M
Cleveland Cavaliers • $35-38M
Sacramento Kings • $35M
Washington Wizards • $35M
Miami Heat • $35M
Atlanta Hawks • $30M
Golden State Warriors • $30M
Milwaukee Bucks • $26M
Detroit Pistons • $25M
Charlotte Hornets • $20-29M
Utah Jazz • $20M
Philadelphia 76ers • $12M
New Orleans Pelicans • $10M
Sources: Forbes, Sports Business Daily, ESPN, L.A. Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Detroit Free Press, Crain's Cleveland Business, New York Post, Nets Daily, Sacramento Bee, Charlotte Business Journal, Mercury News
Some teams are locked into deals that are worth fractions of their true value. For example, the Philadelphia 76ers earn just $12 million annually from their deal with NBC Sports Philly, which lasts until 2029. The deal is a holdover from their Comcast ownership, but the team was sold in 2011 to billionaire Josh Harris.
With NBA payrolls next season projected to be in the range of $90 million to $150 million, the difference between a good local TV deal and a bad one can make all of the difference in team budgets.
For small markets, though, good news comes in the form of the NBA’s revenue sharing agreement, where big market teams send a significant portion of their profits to the smaller markets that need it. Last year, the Lakers wrote a $49 million revenue sharing check thanks to their gargantuan TV deal.
And according to ESPN, the Jazz have received $15 million per season in revenue sharing payments for at least the last four years, even though they’ve been profitable without the league’s money. That’s because the Jazz’s small market puts them in a separate revenue-sharing bracket that essentially gives them a guaranteed share of the pool from the big-market teams.
In other words, the Jazz are in very good financial shape, even after the $125 million Vivint Arena renovation. Team ownership has essentially given carte blanche to Dennis Lindsey and the rest of Jazz basketball operations to spend up to the luxury tax level of $123.7 million. The Jazz’s salary expenditures in the 2018-19 season currently project to be about $117 million.
There may come a point where the Jazz need to spend above the luxury tax level for competitive reasons, however, as the team grows to the point where it believes it’s ready to fight for an NBA championship. In particular: the 2021-22 season is when Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert could earn new contracts that pay them up to 30 percent of the salary cap each. With a full team of players around them, the Jazz could be forced to go into the luxury tax to keep their stars.
Maybe it’s coincidence, or maybe it’s not, but that’s also the season in which the Jazz could start a new local TV deal, which could earn them the money to keep their team together.