Naming sports arenas like the nostalgic Delta Center can be complicated. Ryan Smith says this decision was “crystal clear.”

The Delta Center’s return is about community—and it could only happen in Utah

Naming sports arenas like the nostalgic Delta Center can be complicated. Ryan Smith says this decision was “crystal clear.”
The Delta Center, home of the Utah Jazz

If social media indicates the general mood of Utah Jazz fans, the news was met with a tidal wave of public support.

“NOW OFFICIAL,” read a Jan. 14 post by the Utah Jazz fan page Jazz Nation that announced the Vivint Arena would return to its original name, the Delta Center, effective July 1, 2023. 

It was a “full circle” moment, declared USA TODAY. “This is really special,” read an official NBA press release. But underneath this set of footnotes celebrating the change, fans had their own jokes.

“For long-term fans, it’s never changed,” wrote one fan.

“Yeah…I’ve never called it anything else,” wrote another.

One put an even finer point on it: “Good thing I never stopped calling at the Delta center. Now I’m right again.”

Naming sports arenas like the nostalgic Delta Center can be complicated. Ryan Smith says this decision was “crystal clear.”
Larry Miller stand in front of early construction of the Delta Center. Personal photo/Don Grayston

Bringing the magic back

What makes a name so special to sports fans in Utah goes beyond a small piece of nostalgia, according to community members. It’s multilayered—sports fans are excited about every aspect of their team, says Chris Barney, the chief commercial officer of the Utah Jazz. “They’re passionate about the uniform, the colors, the food that’s served there.”

Beyond that, the stadium itself has an aura of cultural importance. Its construction and early years under the Delta name coincided with a major winning period for the NBA team.

Three of the top five Jazz teams ranked by the Salt Lake Tribune in 2021 were from that era, with the top spot going to the 1996-1997 team. That was the season the Jazz achieved a franchise high of 64 wins and finally reached the NBA Finals, only to face the Chicago Bulls at that team’s historic best.

The year before, the Jazz had nearly reached the NBA Finals as well. And the year afterward, they tied the Bulls’ number of wins, making them the two best-performing teams in the league.

For some fans, returning to the old name brings back this magic to the team. And it’s good timing—the Jazz have had major gains in recent years, with the 2020-2021 season being among their best, leading the league in wins.

The Delta Center is also where the NBA decided to host the 1993 All-Star Game shortly after its construction in 1990. To further close the “full circle,” the All-Star Game returned to Salt Lake City this year.

Barney, who negotiated the deal with Vivint and Delta on behalf of the Jazz, says the team had incredible memories of the era when the arena was built. He also feels it is significant for the community because it is the first time he is aware of a brand returning to a sports arena.

“When a brand leaves, it kind of feels like a funeral,” he says. “And this is the exact opposite of that.”

Naming sports arenas like the nostalgic Delta Center can be complicated. Ryan Smith says this decision was “crystal clear.”
06.03.98 - Thousands of people watch the Jazz-Bulls game 1 on a big screen outside the Delta Center . PHOTO BY GARY MCKELLAR.

Sports arena naming rights

Naming sports arenas can be tricky, with mergers and corporate failures complicating whether a brand can follow through on its commitment to a team—and it’s precisely for this reason that Barney says he’s very happy with the Delta outcome. After the 2005 bankruptcy of Delta, this was more a revival than anything else.

“It was a dream come true, to be honest. You don’t get to negotiate deals like this often,” Barney says. “We really strive to create every partnership like it truly is a relationship rather than a transaction…it really is one of those scenarios where you look around, and all parties are winning in this deal.”

Not only is Delta subverting history by returning to the stadium that once bore its name, but the current name-holder, Vivint, isn’t fully leaving.

“The new agreement between Vivint and the Jazz, which will go into effect on July 1, 2023, contains a number of significant provisions, including Vivint retaining the rights to its acclaimed courtside suite as well as its current ticket packages throughout the arena,” Vivint said in a press release. “Vivint will also continue to have a meaningful presence inside the arena with in-game promotions and advertising packages, on-court digital signage, as well as social media activations and other various public promotional activities.”

The public relations teams of both Vivint and Jazz said Vivint’s recent acquisition by Texas-based NRG was not the reason that Vivint decided to give up the naming rights to the stadium before their deal ends in 2025.

“The acquisition announcement by NRG had no bearing on our naming rights deal,” Bates wrote in an email.

In a statement attached to the email, Vivint’s chief revenue officer, Todd Santiago, said, “No company is a bigger fan of the Jazz organization than Vivint,” and that they were excited to continue their connection to the arena.

Other NBA teams have battled the opposite scenario in recent months. Late last year, the Miami Heat had to change their name from FTX Arena to Miami-Dade Arena after the crypto company had an infamous, multi-day fallout ending in bankruptcy and the founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, facing federal criminal charges. The Heat had only used the FTX name for about a year.

Naming sports arenas like the nostalgic Delta Center can be complicated. Ryan Smith says this decision was “crystal clear.”
Balloons drop and fireworks shoot upward at begining of Game one of Jazz vs. Chicago Bulls at the Delta Center. photo by ravell call june 3, 1998

This is only the latest in the weird history surrounding failing companies and sports arena naming rights. The famous failure of energy company Enron, for example, became a problem for the Houston Astros in 2002 because they had sold the naming rights to the company only a year before. After news broke about a culture of fraud and financial abuse at Enron, the Astros had to go to court and pay $2.1 million to the company’s creditors to ensure their field could be renamed to something else. It’s now known as Minute Maid Park.

At the same time, the idea of corporate naming for sports stadiums has been long met with cynicism. The sports site Deadspin, for example, ran a tongue-in-cheek article in 2021 suggesting the “branded nonsense” of company names be replaced with more interesting, relevant names.

Many of the suggestions had to do with famous names from history or the region in which the stadiums are located. For example, the suggestion for Utah was Salt Lake Ice Center due to its role during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

SBNation reacted even less seriously to the change of L.A.’s Staples Center to Arena. Writer James Dator said we should embrace the absurdity of corporate names, suggesting “Elon Muskdome” and “Fortnite Superdome” for future sports complexes.

In Utah’s case, support for Delta’s name appears very high within the community. Those involved in the deal insist that Utah is different. Fans have a particular attachment to this arena’s history, and they argue that business deals that prioritize community are unique to Utah.

“Everyone knows what this means,” said Ryan Smith, who owns the Jazz with his wife Ashley, during a press conference about the event. “This was probably the only naming rights deal that would ever come along where Vivint would work with us to do this, and they leaned in, and we made it all possible in a way that probably could only happen in Utah.”

Reiterating the community theme, Barney points to programs that the Jazz hosts outside of basketball and major events like Disney On Ice. A huge aspect of the success of his deal, he says, had to do with the importance of community within Utah, Jazz fans and more.

“Deals like this do not happen in other markets. People kinda come together, and it truly is a reflection of relationships,” Barney explains.

The reaction described by the stadium’s leadership team backs up this account.

“Words probably can’t express to some people what this means,” Smith said during the January press conference. “I was coming out of the gas station this morning and a grown man came up to me in tears because the memories came back.”

“Deals like this do not happen in other markets. People kinda come together, and it truly is a reflection of relationships."

Naming sports arenas like the nostalgic Delta Center can be complicated. Ryan Smith says this decision was “crystal clear.”
Japan’s Shizuka Arakawa warms up before the Ladies Long Program of the Four Continents Championships at the Delta Center Saturday, Feb. 10, 2001. Suguri took the gold medal. PHOTO BY CHUCK WING/DESERET NEWS

Only getting started

Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta, explained during the news conference that the name change was a chance for Delta to “make things right.”

“There are billions of dollars that we trust with the city,” Bastian said, explaining the company’s investment in the Salt Lake International Airport. “But there was always something missing. And I personally have lived out here. I’ve had a home up in Park City for the last 12 years, so I understand how everyone calls it the Delta Center. And every time someone called it the Delta Center, it would bother me. I felt guilty.”

He explained that having 5,000 workers in this community gave him a sense of obligation to “get this thing done right for so many reasons.”

The history of the arena itself even has roots in the community. A 20-minute documentary by Utah producer and journalist Dean Paynter showed former owner Larry H. Miller in tears as he described the arena’s potential to the city council, pleading for project approval. Throughout the documentary, Salt Lake City locals describe the project as something that “felt impossible,” referring to the short timeline of the project, which needed to be completed in time for the following basketball and hockey seasons in 1991.

The project only had 16 months to be completed.

“That’s plenty of time to build a fast food restaurant,” said narrator Doug Miller, a former anchor at KSL. “But for a 20,000-seat sports complex, it was simply unheard of.”

Naming sports arenas like the nostalgic Delta Center can be complicated. Ryan Smith says this decision was “crystal clear.”
A black tarp covers a new sign on the outside of the Delta Center Friday January 30, 2004 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Submission date: 01/30/2004)

The documentary highlighted that Miller’s community-focused approach also meant the team he hired to build the stadium was all from within Utah.

In the end, the documentary points out, the team poured 90,000 cubic yards of concrete into the building—“enough to pour a sidewalk from Salt Lake to Las Vegas,” Miller said in his narration. The 200 workers hired in order to meet their deadline of 500 days often had to work at night. They completed the project and named it the Delta Center, securing the building’s place in Utah’s history.

Vivint’s name change in 2015 coincided with the arena’s 25th anniversary. In a celebratory video, the arena’s management team highlighted the number of different community events, from concerts to one-off sporting events like BMX tournaments and more. In the video, legendary Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan walks through the arena stoically, reflecting on the community and historic moments that have happened there. He led the Jazz during their best years in the ‘90s, helping them reach the NBA Finals twice.

“Today, it’s hard to imagine Utah without this arena,” he said in the video. “And we’re only getting started because the people are still coming by the thousands and thousands.”

In the press conference, Smith explained how it can be tricky for an organizational leader to know what moves to make when you have a legacy to manage. But he didn’t struggle with the decision to rename the stadium after Delta.

“There’s a lot of history here; there’s a lot of DNA,” Smith said. “And it’s also hard to be in this spot and know what part of the DNA to leave behind to take the organization to new heights and what parts to embrace. Because oftentimes, the decisions aren’t simple and sometimes are both bad options…This was crystal clear.”

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel from 2018-2022. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree from Elon University in rhetoric.