It had been a bad year for the National Basketball League’s eighteenth franchise. The New Orleans Jazz could not play in their home arena, the Superdome, when conventions were in town. Attendance was dropping and the team wasn’t winning games.
The team became a logical target for relocation after the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce’s board of governors started looking to become a “major league sports city” during a board and staff retreat. Fred Ball flew to New Orleans and sat “lonesome” at a home game. He met with owners Sam Battistone and Larry G. Hatfield.
In the fall of 1978, Sam D. Battistone, principal owner and president of the New Orleans Jazz franchise, confided in Wendell Ashton, publisher of the Deseret News and Chamber president, that he wanted to bring the Jazz franchise to Utah.
“The franchise is not doing well in New Orleans,” Battistone eventually told Ashton. According to Ashton, the conversation arose after the Deseret News’ LDS Church News supplement published a two-page feature story about Battistone. He had converted to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and married a Mormon. He wanted out of New Orleans.
The black-haired and well-dressed Battistone, age 38 at the time, had inherited the Sambo’s restaurant empire. His father, Sam Sr., and his partner retired from the business in 1968. The younger Battistone, at 28, was named president and CEO. During Sam’s first ten years as president, about a thousand new Sambo’s restaurants opened.
In 1974 a nine-man group, including Battistone and Hatfield, spent $6.15 million to form the expansion New Orleans Jazz ($22.5 million in 2002 dollars). By 1978, when they proposed the move to Salt Lake City, NBA franchise owners and leaders were reluctant to allow the franchise to move. Such moves contributed to league instability.
On April 10, 1979, Battistone and Hatfield, managing partner of the franchise, flew to Salt Lake City with franchise attorney Tim S. Grandi. They toured the Salt Palace arena and visited civic, business, and LDS Church leaders, expressing their desire to move the Jazz franchise.
An Alta Club breakfast meeting between members of the Chamber’s board of Governors and the Jazz representatives proved encouraging. Chamber members voiced support “assuming that the Chamber was not financially involved.”
Following the meeting, Hatfield went to New York to discuss the possible move with NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien. They spoke of a move in the fall of 1979.
Within days, Ashton and Ball began pushing a season ticket drive. Residents could purchase season tickets by depositing $25 a ticket with the Chamber, which would give the purchaser a priority right for seat selection. The money was to be held in escrow in case the Jazz didn’t come.
The Chamber sponsored ads in The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News. The ads said, “Bring the NBA to S.L.C.” The advertisement, which included a coupon form for readers to use in ordering Jazz season tickets, had this message:
“Within a few weeks, the National Basketball Association will decide whether to allow the New Orleans Jazz pro basketball team to move to Salt Lake City. Utah is ‘basketball country’ and to demonstrate that to the league, the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce is reserving season tickets on a ‘first come, first served’ basis as a show of community support. All ticket requests will be numbered in the order received. Best of all, there is NO RISK. Your $25 per ticket deposit will be held in escrow until the team’s move to Salt Lake City is official. Please read the agreement below in full, and reserve your NBA PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL TICKETS today!”
The advertisement also carried a space for the respondent to suggest a nickname for the NBA team should it come to Salt Lake City. By April 26, the Chamber had received 1,000 $25 pledges to NBA season tickets.
In early May, Ashton and Salt Lake Mayor Ted Wilson flew to an NBA owners’ meeting in Chicago. The league had twenty-two teams at the time. Ashton recalls memorizing the full name of NBA franchise owners, their teams, and some trivia about each. When called into the meeting, he greeted each owner by name and said something about his team.
Wilson and Ashton explained why Utah was a good basketball market. Wilson pointed out the state’s high growth rate, while Ashton recounted the attendance history of the American Basketball Association’s Stars franchise. They told of the interest in college basketball and participation in organized basketball leagues. Ashton reported that already 2,335 season ticket commitments had been sold by the Chamber. Representatives from New Orleans followed the Utah presentation. They reported virtually no season tickets sold for the upcoming season.
NBA owners announced they would wait three weeks to make a decision. Ashton reported back to the Chamber’s board of governors on May 8 about the trip. He told the board that an NBA franchise would be good for business and tourism, generating millions of dollars of free publicity.
The decision was approved and Jazz managers were hosted at an official “Utah Welcomes NBA” event on June 12, 1979, at the Western Airlines concourse.
Ball recalls Polynesian dancers on the concourse to welcome the team, Native Americans presented headdresses to Battistone and Hatfield, and the Lagoon Marching Band played. Ball, Ashton, Battistone, and Hatfield rode downtown on fire trucks with sirens blazing and bells ringing. An official press conference was held in front of the Salt Palace.
The announcement raised eyebrows around the league and jokes about taking a team named Jazz to Salt Lake City with its straight-laced image. Hot Rod Hundley, Jazz play-by-play announcer since the franchise was born in New Orleans in 1974, quipped:
“The Jazz are now moving from Bourbon Street in New Orleans to Temple Square in Salt Lake City.”
Despite the Chamber’s enthusiasm, many locals felt that the Jazz were short-timers. That was reinforced by the name. Despite a contest for a new Utah team nickname, the old name and Mardi Gras team colors remained. Battistone wanted the Jazz’s Louisiana critics to be reminded that it was the same franchise they shunned when it earned respect in Utah.
But the first season didn’t go well. A quick move and transplanted front-office staff who didn’t understand the Utah territory left the Jazz unprepared for a host of tasks, including ticket sales, advertising, marketing, and broadcasting rights.
During its 1979-80 Utah debut season, the team included Adrian Dantley and Bernard King as forwards, James Hardy at center, and “Pistol” Pete Maravich and Don Williams as guards. The team’s first match-up was a pre-season game with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Salt Palace on Monday, October 8, 1979. The Jazz won, 104 to 100. The team presented Ashton the game ball.
With Tom Nissalke as the new coach, the premiere Utah Jazz team didn’t give fans much to cheer. The team finished at 24-58 during its first season. In fact, the team didn’t give fans much to cheer about until its 1983-84 Cinderella season. By then, a portly Coach Frank Layden, originally hired as general manager, helped turn the club around on the floor. However, financial problems still plagued the front office.
Battistone could have sold the franchise to eager bidders from other cities for millions more than he paid for the team, but he fought to keep the franchise in Salt Lake City, according to Ashton. Chamber members bought large blocks of tickets to shore up the Jazz financially. The Chamber also promoted an offer to sell two free upper bowl tickets with the purchase of a lower bowl tickets. It still didn’t bring in enough fans.
At one point, Battistone decided to play thirteen of the forty-two season home games in Las Vegas.
“This was not good news. It would dilute local interest and send the message to the league that we could not generate enough support to be an NBA city,” Ball said.
The Las Vegas experiment failed–there were fewer fans in Las Vegas’ Thomas Mack arena than attended at the Salt Palace. Battistone soon gave up on Las Vegas and tried to generate more interest in Utah.
In 1985, Larry H. Miller helped rescue the Jazz from its financial quagmire. The savvy automobile dealer bought 50 percent of the Jazz in the spring of 1985 from Battistone. A little more than a year later Miller purchased the remaining 50 percent of the franchise, promising a bright future. Eventually, Miller also announced and built a new home for the Jazz–the Delta Center. Since that time, the Jazz history has been relatively stellar when compared to those first years of struggle.
The impact of the team has been nearly immeasurable. There have been some attempts to place a price on the economic impact. In 1979-80, the direct economic benefit the Jazz brought to the community was estimated at
$1 million. Today, the benefits are estimated to exceed $10 million. Intangible benefits to the state, including national publicity the Jazz bring to Utah, has been gauged to be in excess of $90 million each year.
Sources: “Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce Plays a Key Role in Bringing Jazz NBA Franchise to Utah in 1979,” typescript dated 1 March 1991 by Wendell J. Ashton, former publisher of the Deseret News and president of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, 1978-79. Fred Ball typescript at Salt Lake Chamber offices. Dave Blackwell, “Utah Jazz,” Utah History Encyclopedia, Allan Kent Powell, ed. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994), 591-92. Historical information at www.nba.com/jazz/