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A fever swept through Utah when the Jazz made their runs at the NBA basketball championship in the late 1990s.
Though he was only a teenager at the time, the groundswell of support left an impression on Alex Churchward. As the Jazz embark on another run at the title as the top-ranked team in the NBA nearly a quarter century later, he’s less impressed.
“At that time, you just couldn’t go anywhere without seeing people in Jazz apparel, without people talking about the Jazz, without there being signs — you know, UTA buses would have displays saying ‘Go Jazz!’ [and] buildings downtown would light the lights so it says ‘Go Jazz’ on it,” the 39-year-old Salt Lake City resident said of the fanfare around the Utah teams in 1997 and ’98.
“And I know that they have one of the best teams in the league this year, maybe one of the best teams of all time. But I just don’t feel like people talk about them all that much. Even at work, it sometimes kind of comes up, but it just doesn’t feel quite the same as it did before.”
The Jazz, who still held the NBA’s top overall record and postseason seed late last week, open the 2021 playoffs next weekend against an opponent to be determined — depending on the outcomes of the league’s new, early play-in rounds, which commence this week.
As the state’s first major professional sports franchise, love for the Jazz runs deep in the Beehive State. It has long been the team all Utahns could rally around.
But a lot has changed since Karl Malone and John Stockton ran the court of what was then called the Delta Center. Heck, a lot has changed just in the past year, with the team weathering the pandemic, a TV contract that leaves some fans in the dark and backlash from its social activism.
So, are the Jazz still Utah’s team?
Nine out of 10 of the more than 300 respondents to an informal Salt Lake Tribune poll said yes. In fact, 70% said they have an extremely high interest in the team this year, whereas only 35% said they had that high a level of fandom last year.
The trials of the past year cemented Jon England’s devotion to the Jazz.
“I became more of a fan, became more engaged, especially after the Oklahoma City game where they announced Rudy [Gobert] was positive,” said the 35-year-old from Bountiful, referring to the day last March when the Jazz center tested positive for COVID-19 and made the threat of the virus real to many Americans, let alone Utahns. “I kind of had this emotional connection, like, ‘Oh man, I hope he’s OK. I hope the team’s OK.’”
And when basketball returned in late July, albeit in a bubble at the Walt Disney World complex near Orlando, Fla., with no fans in sight, England said it made him practically giddy.
“I was just so excited to have them back and be able to watch them in the summer,” he said. “I thought that was a lot of fun.”
Not every fan agreed. Yet even of those who have been rankled by the actions of the team or the league, or who feel disconnected from the Jazz because of lack of access to broadcasts or games, most haven’t totally shed their fandom.
“I love the players that we have on the team,” said Griffin Bonacci, 43, of Magna, who has taken issue with the organization’s new minority scholarship program. “And I’ve been such a die-hard Jazz fan for so many years, it’s kind of hard to just let go of all that and be done with it.”
Still, Bonacci believes the organization is treading a dangerous path.
“It’s hard to say what the long-term effects will be,” he said, “but I do think if they continue to push these agendas like this with politics and ... social things like this, I do think, long term, it would eventually start to hurt them.”
Cutting the cord
The pandemic has delivered a blow to professional sports as a whole. Leagues undertook the headaches, expenses and risks of organizing contests during a pandemic only to see viewership plummet.
The NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals took the biggest dive, attracting 61% fewer pairs of eyes in 2020 than in 2019. Viewership of the U.S. Open golf tournament fell 56%. But last year’s NBA Finals, held in October instead of the traditional June, wasn’t far behind. It dropped in viewership by 49%, according to the website sportsmediawatch.com.
Many factors played into the decline. The threat of the deadly coronavirus made sports seem more trivial than ever to many fans in 2020, while the presidential election became more captivating. Disrupted personal and league schedules and more people cutting the cable cord didn’t help.
When the 2020-21 season began in December, the club played before limited-capacity crowds at Vivint Smart Home Arena. But the financial toll on the Jazz and other teams in the league has been steep. The Jazz’s former owner, the Larry H. Miller Group of Cos., laid off a number of club employees last year amid financial losses.
Jazz fans had full access to their team when it was in the bubble, until it was eliminated in the first round of the postseason in a thrilling seven-game series against the Denver Nuggets. When their most recent campaign began, however, all fans except those with a cable service that carries AT&T SportsNet were cut off — just as they have been since 2009.
That’s what drove away Churchward.
He doesn’t remember a time before he was a Jazz fan. He even wanted to play for them until he realized that would require talent. Back then, his family could tune in the games on KJZZ-TV by adjusting the rabbit-ear antenna. When the games were put on cable, he couldn’t afford and didn’t want the rest of the package options. He considered attending live games with his teenage sons, but that, too, would break the bank, he said.
Eventually, he just lost track of the team.
“That’s what got me out of it in the first place,” Churchward said, “is just not even being able to watch a game.”
Churchward said he still wants the Jazz to do well, but he’s since found another team on which to focus his fandom: Utah’s only other major league sports team, Real Salt Lake. The Major League Soccer club, which was founded in 2004, is more accessible and more affordable, Churchward said, and just as much fun to follow.
Politics on the court
At least a few other Utahns turned off their TVs and turned away from the team last year because of the NBA and the Jazz’s high-profile role in supporting Black Lives Matter and raising awareness about social injustice.
Bonacci, who has been a Jazz fan since he got Stockton’s autograph at a car show at the Salt Palace when he was 8, was among them. He said he didn’t disagree with the need for more social awareness; he just didn’t want it mixed in with his entertainment.
“Let’s be honest, it was a depressing year last year with the things going on,” he said. “And so dealing with that on top of it, it just was enough to turn me off of basketball for a while.”
He wasn’t alone. A Utah construction company canceled its suite lease because Jazz players kneeled for the national anthem and wore social justice slogans on the backs of their jerseys in Orlando.
Earlier in the year, numerous fans threatened to dump the Jazz when the team Instagram account posted June 10 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
More jumped off the Jazz bandwagon when All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell posted “free•ish since 1865” on his social media channels while commemorating Juneteenth — which marks the end of slavery in the United States, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the recent Tribune poll, disagreeing with the team’s social activism was cited as the top reason for fans losing interest in the Jazz.
If being vocal about racial inequities has cost the team fans, though, new owner Ryan Smith is emphatic.
“I stand with our players,” he told The Tribune’s Gordon Monson in December. “… Systemic racism might be the worst experience there is. … We want to get rid of these bad experiences. No one should have to grow up or deal with that. And I will do everything I can with this platform to help use it to get rid of that bad experience.”
More recently, Smith’s announcement of a university scholarship program open only to children of color again had some Jazz fans looking for the exits.
This time Bonacci wasn’t among them. Even though he believes the scholarships do more harm than good by fostering division and racism among children, he said he won’t let moves made by team management deter his support for the players. He has vowed not to buy any official gear or tickets until the scholarships are opened to all students.
But when it comes to the players and what’s happening on the court, he’s all-in. He doesn’t miss a game and often spends the entire two-plus hours on the phone with his nearly 90-year-old grandmother, a super fan who lives 250 miles away.
“This has been a season for the ages,” he said. “If you think about it, this is probably one of my favorite seasons we’ve ever had. "
Fans for life
If the Jazz’s vocal support of social and racial equality has cost them some fans, it has endeared them to others.
“Oh, I’d be happy if they were louder,” said Vanessa Campbell Hafen, 52, of St. George.
Campbel Hafen was indoctrinated into the Jazz fan club in her 20s while living with a family of super fans in Salt Lake City. She sang the “Basketball John” song to prove her fandom when wooing her wife.
She said by openly condemning racism, the Jazz are breaking down a stereotype that has stained Utahns for years and was reinforced when a fan hurled racial slurs at Russell Westbrook at Vivint Arena in 2019.
“One idiot made a bad name for all of us,” she said. “And so I’m thrilled that they come out as an organization themselves and each of the individual players actually come out and say, ‘You know, that’s not what we’re about, that’s not who we are.’
“I think activism is wonderful.”
England has been a Jazz fan since the fifth grade and whenever one of his friends marries, they find a way to reenact Stockton’s 1997 Western Conference Finals-winning shot. In fact, he said a shared adoration for the Jazz is what has kept him connected to those friends through the years.
England acknowledges that the Jazz’s activism may have put off some fans, but he believes their absence will be short-lived.
“The community is still behind them for the most part,” he said. “I do think some people have dropped off, you know, for whatever reason. But, yeah, I don’t think it’s permanent. I think people will come back, especially, I mean, it’s hard to imagine people boycotting the Jazz if they were to win a championship.”
In other words, everyone loves a winner.