It is not quite Stockton to Malone, but the Utah Jazz are reviving another feature of the era in which the franchise enjoyed its greatest sustained success, including back-to-back NBA Finals appearances.
The team and Delta Air Lines signed a long-term naming rights agreement to bring back the Delta Center moniker for the NBA team’s home arena, replacing Vivint. Delta, which has a hub in Salt Lake City, was the building’s original naming partner when it opened in 1991, but it did not renew when the 15-year deal expired, which occured while the global airline was in bankruptcy in 2006. The re-brand will take place July 2023.
“You never actually get a chance to bring [a name] back, like ever,” Jazz owner Ryan Smith said in a phone interview. “It’s a monumental moment for Jazz fans getting an iconic brand back with a massive long-term commitment.”
The team would not comment on the length or value of the deal, although Smith said he would bet that it would be the Delta Center as long as the team is playing in Utah—and the team is not leaving Utah. Marketing experts told Sportico they thought the deal would be worth $6 million to $8 million per year.
The genesis for the name restoration came just over a year ago when Smith and Delta CEO Ed Bastian were at a Jazz game together. Bastian was Delta’s CFO when the company dropped its naming partnership, a time when almost all airlines were struggling in a post-9/11 travel world. Bastian said he never had quite gotten over ending that partnership, according to Smith. “It registered with me that if there was ever a way to bring the Delta Center back, let’s do it,” Smith said.
The organic nature of how the new agreement came together led the Jazz to keep the naming rights’ talks in house. The team’s corporate partnership group, led by chief commercial officer Chris Barney, handled every aspect of the contract and partnership negotiation. Octagon represented Delta.
The deal is believed to be the first time in a major sports league that a venue naming rights sponsor has relinquished its rights and then returned. “There is a lot of evidence that these naming deals work well,” Jeff Knapple, chief partnership officer at Elevate Sports Ventures, said in a phone interview. “I think when someone has left and comes back, it’s actually more powerful than just doing it in the first place.”
In a nice wave of synergy, the Delta Center will return for the 50-year anniversary of the Jazz. Delta Air Lines operates roughly 70% of the flights at Salt Lake City International Airport and has nearly 5,000 employees in the state. Delta recently extended its agreement to maintain its hub at the airport for another 20 years. The airport began a $5 billion expansion in 2014 that is slated to finish in 2027.
“The homecoming of the Delta Center represents a continued investment and dedication to Salt Lake City, and together we will provide a leading sports and entertainment experience to the city and Jazz fans worldwide,” Bastian said in a press release announcing the news.
Vivint Arena, which completed a $125 million renovation in 2017, typically hosts 320 events and 1.8 million fans annually. It will be the home for the NBA All-Star Game next month, the first in Salt Lake City in 30 years. Smith, 44, said he didn’t go to that first game, but attended the 1993 NBA All-Star Jam Session, which debuted that year as a fan festival with family-focused activities. Jam Session returns this year for the first time since 2014 as part of the NBA Crossover fan event. Smith says part of the allure of bringing Jam Session back is for the Junior Jazz program, which is the largest youth basketball league in the NBA with more than 60,000 players.
“We want every single resident of Utah and every guest to say ‘Hey, the games are cool, but we want to go shoot with legends,’” Smith said. “We want to go celebrate this basketball state.”
Smith is the executive chairman and co-founder of management software company Qualtrics. He and his wife, Ashley, led a group that bought the Jazz for $1.66 billion in 2020. He wants to make Salt Lake City a hub for sports and entertainment, and his Smith Entertainment Group was part of David Blitzer’s purchase of MLS’ Real Salt Lake franchise.
Smith has made no secret about his desire to bring a third major pro sports team to Utah. The owners of Real Salt Lake have a roughly $2 million option to revive Utah Royals FC as an NWSL expansion team. They are expected to exercise that option in the coming weeks.