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'Thank you for bringing the memories back': How the Delta Center came back to Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY — Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian couldn't escape the regret.

It was Bastian who ultimately made the decision not to renew the naming rights agreement with the Utah Jazz in 2006. It wasn't necessarily a bad business decision at the time. The early 2000s were a difficult time for the company and the industry as a whole. U.S. airlines lost $8 billion in 2001 alone, and losses topped $60 billion over the next five-year period.

Delta even filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005, so a name on a building wasn't too high on the list of priorities.

"We had to make some tough decisions to save costs fast," Bastian said on Saturday. "I was the one in the chair and made the decision to take the name off the arena, and 16 years later it still haunts me."

Except, the name never truly went away — something Bastian knows as good as anyone. For the last 12 years, the Delta CEO has had a home in Park City, and that's come with near constant reminders of that painful decision so many years ago.

"Every time somebody called it the Delta Center, it would bother me," he said. "I felt guilty."

But he could finally use past tense on Saturday. On July 1, the Delta Center will be back on the building; and this time, Bastian plans for it to stay for good. Terms of the deal weren't released on Saturday, but both Jazz owner Ryan Smith and Bastian were convinced the deal would last decades.

"We're never leaving," said Bastian, sporting a Delta sneaker on his right foot and a Jazz one on his left. "The fact that we're coming back here and putting a real great brand with 5,000 employees behind it — we're never gonna leave."

How it happened

A few years ago, Smith invited Bastian to a game when the Jazz were in Atlanta to play the Hawks. It was there when Bastian first told Smith how much he regretted not being able to renew the naming rights back in 2006. He told the Jazz owner that "if there was ever an opportunity to do something that made that right, I would be very interested in considering that."

That gave Smith something to think about.

Yes, he had a great relationship with Vivint, who he had partnered with as part of Silicon Slopes for years — long before his Jazz days. But this was a chance to restore the original name back to the arena.

The Delta Center was the arena Smith grew up attending, going to Jazz games, concerts, even the Olympics. The name meant something, and Smith knew he wasn't alone. Nostalgia, after all, is a heck of a drug.

Vivint understood that, too. It's a Utah company that is full of Jazz fans, and it understood the significance of the name.

"This is probably the only naming rights deal that could ever come along where Vivint would work with us to do this," Smith said.

Vivint's naming-rights deal was set to expire in 2025, but to allow Delta to regain the rights, Vivint agreed to a new sponsorship that goes through the 2030 season. Vivint will retain the rights to a courtside suite and will remain a strong presence with in-game promotions, advertising packages and digital ads.

It took a couple years of talking to iron out the details, but eventually all sides came to an agreement that resulted in the arena going back to its original name.

"This is deeper than just a name on a building or a sponsorship deal," Bastian said. "There's real roots here."

It's a move that hearkens to the past but also plays to the future. Delta is in the midst of investing heavily in the Salt Lake City market and recently signed a new contract that will keep Utah's capital city a Delta hub until at least 2044.

"It's our fourth largest airport in the world. Delta Air Lines flies 250 flights a day and growing," Bastian said. "There's billions of dollars that we trust with the city and the community, but there was always something missing."

It's not missing anymore.

What it means to the community

The roll call for Saturday afternoon's press conference was a prestigious one. On the government side, there was Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

The Jazz were represented by head coach Will Hardy, CEO Danny Ainge, former players Deron Williams, Mehmet Okur, and Leonard "Truck" Robinson, and former majority owner Gail Miller, whose late husband was responsible for building the arena that has since become a centerpiece of Salt Lake City.

Yes, they were all there for a corporate sponsorship announcement.

William Shakespeare once wrote, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet." No offense to the Bard, but he didn't know how much a simple moniker could mean to a community.

On Saturday morning, after the news was announced, Smith said he was greeted at a gas station by a grown man with tears in his eyes because the memories he associated with that name came rushing back. That sounds a bit hyperbolic (as was Bastian calling it a "moral obligation" to get the deal done — it's a name on a building, after all), but it's true a lot of people were very happy about the announcement.

The outpouring of joy from fans on the internet has been overwhelming. It might be silly, it might not make much sense, but the name held a special significance to people in the state.

"Words probably can't express to some people what this means," Smith said.

On the surface, it's simply a change in corporate sponsorship. On a deeper level, it's a fan base getting to return home.

"It's probably one of the coolest moments of my business career that I've been a part of," Smith said, turning to Bastian. "... Thank you for bringing the memories back."


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