If you’re following NBA free agency, you’ve no doubt heard mention of the difficulty the Utah Jazz have in attracting top free agents. It’s sort of a built-in part of the discussion, mentioned now without attribution or substantiation because it is so widely accepted as fact.
Those are the indirect mentions. Then you have Rony Seikaly famously failing to report to Utah after terms were reached on a 1998 Jazz-Magic trade, or Derek Harper telling reporters sarcastically, “You go live in Utah.”
Granted, those harsher examples were pre-Olympics, and Salt Lake City has improved a lot since then, in terms of infrastructure, amenities and, importantly, perception. But there still appears to be a belief that a stigma endures among NBA players about going to Utah.
Salt City Hoops was able to speak exclusively with a longtime NBA veteran about just how real that stigma is. Now retired, this is a guy who was around the NBA long enough to have heard several players’ unfiltered takes on city preferences. He never played for the Jazz, but played in small and big markets, cold and warm climates, and for good and bad teams. I guaranteed this person anonymity so I could allow him to speak freely on the topic.
Right off the bat, when I asked about this stigma, he said, without stopping to think about it, “It’s real.” We spent some time talking about why, and here are some themes, both from that conversation and from other discussions on the topic.
The first thing he told me was comforting in a misery-loves-company sort of way. “It’s not just Utah,” he said. “A lot of guys don’t want to play in smaller cities.”
Salt Lake City is the 33rd largest TV market. The only NBA teams in smaller markets are (from large to small) the Bucks, Spurs, Thunder, Grizz and Pelicans. But the Jazz and those five clubs aren’t alone. Really, you hear “small market” complaints from about half of NBA cities. The top 12 cities account for 14 teams, and Toronto would be on that list if they were in the US. Outside of those 13 cities (15 teams), you frequently hear people in markets like #15 Minneapolis-St. Paul or #19 Denver talk about how their NBA realities are different.
It’s unclear why. The standard explanation is that living in New York or Los Angeles increases your endorsement potential. But year after year, endorsement deals confirm that star power — not zip code — determines a player’s market potential. Forbes’ released a list earlier this year of the top shoe deals for NBA players. The top player (guess who) played for the team with the 17th biggest market, because people far outside the Miami area care about LeBron James and his shoes. Kevin Durant was third on the list despite playing in the third smallest NBA market.
The former player I spoke to said he saw that while playing for a good team that happened to be in one of those 15 non-prime markets. “There were times we couldn’t get guys to come work out for us,” he said, somewhat incredulously.
“It’s not just small cities. Some guys don’t like the cold.”
That was the next cold, hard reality the retired vet shared. Salt Lake’s average high falls to 38 Fahrenheit in January. That is indeed colder than LA’s 64, Houston’s 63 and certainly Miami’s 74.1
But do people complain about New York hitting 36? Or Chicago’s bitter 31? I get why people would rather commute to their practice facility by helicoptering in from Malibu beach than by throwing chains on their tires to traverse the fresh powder, but there does appear to be a double standard where certain cold cities are concerned.
My other rebuttal on weather: NBA players don’t spend that much time in those cities. October through April, plus playoffs but minus road trips and All-star break. I did a quick scan of Utah’s schedule and would estimate that the average Jazz player spent something like 110 nights in Salt Lake City between October 1 and April 17, and only about 50 of those nights were in December, January and February, the three coldest months in an average Salt Lake year.
Are those 50 days of layering up really so bad that somebody would think twice about signing in Utah? Apparently it has come up.
The lifestyle factor came up as I was talking to this retired NBA veteran about why he thinks it’s harder for some teams to attract major free agents.
Post-Olympics, Salt Lake has been rejuvenated a bit. There’s a much better downtown these days, and private club laws have been relaxed just enough to make the after-hours scene feel less… weird. But it’s still not an easy place to find something to do at 1:00 a.m. on a Tuesday.
Many of the NBA players who have publicly embraced Salt Lake or similarly quiet NBA markets are the ones who are past the party-every-night stage of their lives. People frequently talk about how great a place it is for NBA players with families — which is probably very true, although it’s hard as a Utah native2 not to take that as a bit of a backhanded compliment at times. Yes, SLC is relatively quiet, extremely safe, and family-friendly. But in a city with over a million people, you can often find whatever it is you’re after.
And again, if you’re only in town 110 or so nights a year, does it matter that much how many different clubs there are? You have games on 45-50 of those 110 nights, too3, so exactly how many nights are we talking about?
Here are some other topics that frequently come up when market comparisons come up in the context of NBA free agency.
Tax hit. According to even some very recent reports, players and their reps are very aware of what living in a particular state means to their net earnings. The reality is that a $5 million contract in Texas is worth more than a $5 million contract in California. How does Utah stack up? With a flat 5% income tax4, at least Utah multimillionaires aren’t paying a premium. Fifteen states have a lower income tax rate in the highest bracket, including seven states with NBA teams5. But FL and TX have multiple teams, so there are 10 places a free agent can go and get a better net salary, all things being equal.
Race. This deserves its own analysis at some point, because it’s probably no small factor that Utah’s population is 86.1% white as of the last census, basically the demographic inverse of the NBA. And sure, the fact that Utah doesn’t have the same complex racial history as parts of the country might make it a less charged place in terms of race relations, but there’s still certainly some racial ignorance that exists in a place that just barely crossed the threshold of 1% African-American. ONE PERCENT! To me, Salt Lake has always felt like a very accepting place, but I have heard stories from friends who experienced awkward moments (or worse) from living in a part of the country where they stood out from the homogeneity. In fairness, the retiree I spoke to didn’t really comment on this aspect, even though I brought it up.
Here are some arguments on the flip side.
Cost of living: Real estate, gas, food… it’s all cheaper in Salt Lake. And if you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to join me next time I go grocery shopping in my Brooklyn neighborhood. If income tax is taken into account when figuring out how far a player’s buck goes in one city versus another, it should also be factored in that you can get a pretty swanky house in the Salt Lake Valley and pay less than, say, a prime Bay Area apartment.
Surroundings: No, NBA players aren’t skiing the Greatest Snow on Earth. Even if they had the time to do so, high-risk activities are often expressly prohibited in player contracts. But players quite enjoy the scenery and views6, and some even find excuses to get out to the gorgeous Wasatch Front wilderness. In John Stockton’s book, the retired Jazz legend speaks fondly of his drives around Utah’s canyons.
Finite number of jobs: The retired vet agreed with my assessment that this pickiness is more relevant to top free agents than to guys fighting for a rotation spot or clinging to their NBA life. “I guess beggars can’t be choosers,” he said. There are 30 roster spots available in the New York metro, another 30 in LA. Add 15 for Miami, 45 for no-tax Texas. The point is, there are only so many places to get a paycheck, so unless you’re LeBron, at some point it helps you to consider all your options.
Safe and quiet: Again, I always feel a bit patronized when the nicest thing somebody can think to say about my hometown are euphemisms like “it’s quiet” or “it’s a great place to raise kids.” But it is both of those things. There are, I’m sure, a lot of NBA players who aren’t looking for “quiet,” but some might be. For me, SLC is a perfect-sized city. Large enough to still have a lot of events and offerings, but small enough that it’s not run down and it’s easy to get around.
Nice, passionate, knowledgeable fans. Salt Lake is known around the country for its hospitable and kind people. Even a longtime Utah foil like Phil Jackson thinks so. But they’re not just nice people: they’re passionate supporters of what was, for a long time, the only pro game in town.7 Do well here and the people will revere you, name streets after you, declare holidays in your honor, and just generally adore you. The vet I spoke to acknowledged that Utah fans are known around the league as some of the most rabid, although I’m sure that has tailed off some now that the Jazz aren’t contending.
Whatever the arguments are on either side, the stigma is real: NBA players don’t line up to play in the Beehive State. It’s a gorgeous place, and home to a really good organization, but according to a guy who’s been in and around NBA circles for a long time now, there’s still some trepidation out there.