Utah Jazz are trying to sell new season tickets despite coronavirus uncertainties

An empty Vivint Smart Home Arena is seen as the building was being evacuated because of a suspicious package following the Utah Jazz's NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Most fans had already left the building when players, coaches and reporters were instructed to leave the arena following Utah's 113-109 victory over the Warriors. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

We’re still about six weeks away from the NBA’s target date of returning to complete the 2019-20 season that was shelved back on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Which doesn’t mean that the Utah Jazz aren’t already preparing for the 2020-21 campaign.

While the renewal program for existing season ticket-holders got going all the way back in January, the organization has just started reaching out to potential new customers over the past few days about the possibility of buying ticket packages for games at Vivint Smart Home Arena for next season.

The problem, of course, is that such fans may be buying tickets to games they won’t be allowed to attend.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that NBA commissioner Adam Silver told players in early May that the possibility exists that fans will not be allowed back into NBA games unless or until a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available. Meanwhile, sources told Shams Charania of The Athletic that the National Basketball Players Association leadership told those on the now-infamous June 12 conference call that “it is believed no fans will be permitted into games for the entire 2020-21 season.”

But then, as far as the Jazz — and myriad other NBA teams — are concerned, they have to prepare as though the ’20-21 season will begin this December as discussed in Silver’s return plan, and they have to at least consider the possibility that fans may be there.

“Actually, the vast majority of NBA teams are on sale with tickets for next season,” said Chris Barney, the Jazz’s executive vice president of ticketing. “We certainly want to be sensitive to the scenario we’re in. We’ve been very, very happy about the results we’ve seen over the first few days.”

A fan base filled with uncertainty

That sensitivity is a natural byproduct these days of all sorts of uncertainty.

Who knows how American society will look six months from now, how much we’ll have flattened the curve or how equipped we are to combat further spread of the virus? Similarly, what kind of comfort level will the general public have with the idea of attending an event with thousands of other people even if there is no official prohibition against it? How will shifting the start of the schedule from mid-October to sometime in December impact ticket-buying?

These are all questions Barney knows he and his team will be facing, questions that some Jazz fans expressed once the news went out that season tickets were now on sale to the general public.

Doug Johnson, of Saratoga Springs, has frequently considered becoming a Jazz season ticket-holder, but has never been in the financial position to do so until just recently. That said, he acknowledged being taken aback at hearing the news that the Jazz are trying to get new season ticket-holders for ’20-21, given how improbable he believes it to be that any fans will ultimately wind up at games.

“At this point, it looks more likely than not that you won’t be getting to use these tickets, so I guess it kind of bugs me that they’re like, ‘Yeah, sign up for these tickets’ that no one thinks it’s likely that you’ll actually be able to use,” Johnson said.

Also, considering that modern sporting events have inherently included getting packed into close quarters with thousands of strangers, cheering and yelling and screaming (all of which increase the likelihood of airborne droplets that can spread the coronavirus), and the resistance to mask-wearing that he sees from so many people out in public, Johnson said he simply can’t envision subjecting himself to those conditions anytime soon, even if it was allowed.

“As much as I really want to go to a live sporting event more than anything right now, I just don’t think I could do it and feel safe there,” he added.

Salt Lake City’s Vince Sum, on the other hand, could not feel more differently about things.

A Jazz season ticket-holder for four years now, he’s already had the experience of being made whole for tickets he could not use, as he had the remaining 10 home games on the ’19-20 schedule rolled over to next season. He said “knowing how ethical the Miller family is” prompted him to pay off his ’20-21 ticket plan in full already, secure in the belief that “if a season doesn’t pan out or if spectators aren’t allowed, I trust the Utah Jazz to refund me every single penny or roll it over” again.

That said, he’s trying to maintain a positive attitude that he and other fans will be at Vivint Arena for those games he’s paid for. In fact, he’d go to games right now if he had the chance.

“I feel 100% ready to walk into an arena, whatever policy’s put in place. With social distancing or not, if there is a vaccine or not, I’ll still be more than happy to go,” Sum said. “I will wear a mask 100% no matter what the outcome is, until this virus is officially over, but I don’t have any hesitation to attend any of the games.”

Other fans, naturally, fall somewhere in between total reluctance and total acceptance.

Luke Adams, who last year split a half-season package with a friend, said they loved the experience so much that when offered incentives early this year to re-up, they didn’t hesitate. Now, though, he said that with the uncertainty that COVID-19 has wreaked not only upon basketball but upon businesses and the economy in general, he’s wondering if he would have been better off waiting.

“I don’t want to say we regret it, but it stinks not knowing what is going to happen next season — especially since we have paid in full for our tickets,” he wrote in an email. “… Now the team has our money while we wait and see what shakes out. With the current economic climate, I would like to have that money in hand … but what do you do?”

Derek Louder, one of those newfound ticket-holders the team was seeking for ’20-21, acknowledges that the uncertainty of being able to attend made him hesitant, but not wanting to miss out on the chance at snagging some lower-bowl seats (the team has put a cap on season tickets two years running) ultimately won out. While he doesn’t regret his purchase, he does acknowledge nebulous feelings about having had to pay already for a product he’s not assured of receiving.

“My one beef with the whole process is that I am helping them with their cash flow at the cost of mine. I was planning on spending that money for tickets, but would rather have been told that I don’t have to pay anything until a decision comes out about the status of next season,” Louder wrote. “I could be making some interest, or paying down interest, rather than fund their cash flow. Crossing my fingers that fans will be allowed.”

Jim Fertitta acknowledged that point as well, but chalked it up to an unavoidable cost of transacting with an ownership group that runs a multifarious business empire.

“The Larry H. Miller corporation is in all these businesses that are hurting right now, with movies, cars, sports, so [I’m] not sure if this is a way to get some cash in?” he said. “I don’t have a real problem with it, to be honest.”

Finding the right balance

Barney, the man in charge of the Jazz’s ticket sales, has heard all of those points and myriad others as well.

He said the timing of the new season ticket program is when it is because of the sheer volume of inquiries he’d received from Jazz fans about it: “And so, to meet the needs of those fans, we evaluated the landscape and just made the determination that we wanted to help those people.”

He added, meanwhile, that his group of ticket-sellers are being up-front with the purchasing public about all the possibilities — the later start, the potentially condensed schedule, possibly allowing only a few thousand fans into the arena per game, and, indeed, perhaps not being able to attend these games they’re paying for at all.

“The last thing we ever want to do is put pressure on somebody and make them feel like we’re trying to sell them something that won’t obviously happen,” Barney said. “… And as the Jazz season gets closer, I think every single option will be on the table. We’re certainly not going to be in a situation or would never support a scenario where we’re forcing people to do something with their tickets if they don’t feel safe.”

In the meantime, Barney said, they’ve got the luxury of time to see how things unfold. While he and his group are “scenario-planning” behind the scenes, and “got everything kind of whiteboarded, and, you know, ‘If this happens, it will cause a reaction here,’ and we’ll need to pivot and deal with that,” he acknowledged that, with this season yet to be concluded, and fall sports still potentially in the mix, they’ll have plenty of opportunities in the interim to discover what is possible and what isn’t, and to adjust accordingly on their end.

“That the great news — being so far out in front of this, in my estimation, we have ultimate flexibility,” Barney said. “And we’ll work very, very closely with the Utah Health Department. We’ll be able to watch what Weber State, Utah State, Utah, and BYU do with football. We’ll be able to see what NFL teams around the country do, as well. And I feel like that by the time the NBA season starts, we’re going to be able to make a very educated, sound decision.”