During Delta Air Lines’ restructuring, bankruptcy and cost-cutting almost two decades ago, the airline made difficult financial decisions.
Ending its naming rights deal on the arena was one of those decisions made by Ed Bastian who is now Delta’s CEO but was the chief financial officer and in charge of the restructuring at the time.
“When you go through that process, you have to decide what do you really need to stay alive because we were down to how are we going to feed our employees and pay the bills and restore the business,” Bastian told USA TODAY Sports. “Anything that was marketing related, branding, the naming of the other facility, we had to make the unfortunate decision to let it go. We never really wanted to let it go, but we had no choice financially. We had to in order to save money. It was a pretty desperate situation.”
The decision to split from the Jazz has gnawed at Bastian. Until now.
On Saturday, the Jazz and Delta announced a multi-year naming rights deal that will restore Delta Center as the official name of the arena beginning in July.
Follow every game: Latest NBA Scores and Schedules
“When this opportunity arose, and for us to make right with the community, the team, and most importantly, by the way, our own people (Delta employees) who live there, we jumped on it,” Bastian said.
The announcement comes as the Jazz and Salt Lake City prepare to host the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 16-20 and amid a surprise season from the 22-23 Jazz, who have 221 consecutive sellouts.
Jazz owner Ryan Smith is a native Utahn with a connection to the team from his childhood.
“This is the most full circle moment, especially just coming in from new ownership,” said Smith, who bought the Jazz in 2020. “You’re trying to establish a winning culture. There’s things that you look at. Well, I mean, I was a kid growing up, going into the Delta Center, trying to get in there with my grandfather. It was an iconic thing. Even with the NBA team here, if you actually think about it, they were playing games in Vegas – as the NBA was growing – half the games just to be able to make payroll. So Delta’s impact on this was massive. For me, I was just, ‘Whoa, this is meant to be.’
“This is truly a dream for us, and we couldn’t be more grateful for Ed and the team. It’s one of those situations that just fit.”
The arena was the Delta Center from its opening in 1991 until 2006. It is rare in the world of naming rights that a company returns. However, Delta is a prominent airport hub in Salt Lake City with more than 5,000 employees living in the state.
Bastian and Smith formed a business relationship when Delta, which operates charter flights for almost every team in the NBA, began working with Qualtrics, the company Smith founded and sold for $8 billion.
“The more we’ve gotten to know each other – and it’s more than just ourselves but our families, and getting more comfortable – I approached Ryan with the idea that if the naming rights ever became available again, I’d be very interested in making right because I made the decision to take the name off the arena,” Bastian said.
In another interesting twist, Vivint, the current naming rights holder to the arena, will remain a significant Jazz partner, reaching a new deal with the team through 2030.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt