I’m definitely going to miss the Utah Flash

Guggenheim by architect Frank Gehry

I love basketball. I love everything about the game: from the smell of the gym, to the sound of sneakers and basketballs on hardwood; from the comforting feel of a grainy leather ball in my hands, to the excitement of a no-look pass as the ball leaves my hands, from the heady strategy of coaches, to the snap decisions of players… I love this game. And to me, the the sound of a “swish” snapping through a basketball net… is almost as sweet as chocolate on my wife’s lips. 😉

Yet as much as I love basketball, I only kind of love the NBA. Truth is, I would love to love the NBA, but it just won’t let me. The NBA’s rich, entitled princesses are just hard for me to stomach, and the management of the NBA itself would embarrass even Enron‘s former CEO, Kenneth Lay.

DumbAnd while I think NCAA Men’s basketball can be exciting, that’s more due to the passion and energy of its young fans than it is the game itself. I mean whoever the dullards are who are responsible for the drowsy, 35-second shot clock in NCAA Men’s basketball make the inventor of the cigarette umbrella look brilliant. If FIBA men’s basketball players the same age as American college students can get a good look in 24 seconds, and NCAA female players can get shots off in 30 seconds, why slow down American collegiate men with a ridiculous 35-second shot clock? That should be the shot clock of high school basketball, not college.

Notwithstanding its shortcomings, I still enjoy watching NBA and NCAA basketball. But then again, what other choices did I have?

None, really, until we moved from Alaska to Orem, Utah, and I learned we were a few minutes from the Utah Flash. Intrigued, I decided to get the whole family season tickets to their inaugural season, figuring if the basketball wasn’t that great, at least it would be a fun family activity.

I had no idea at the time how much I would enjoy d-league basketball.

New York by GehryNBADL basketball is a level of play above college, without the mad money of the NBA which turns grown men into spoiled princesses.

For those who truly love the game of basketball, the d-league is very ideal. In the d-league you get great play and good coaching, and all without officials giving “star treatment” to prima donnas. D-league basketball has all the tasty meat of the game without the fat.

The NBA Development League (a.k.a. the NBADL and the d-league) is the “league of dreams” — not just for players, but for owners, coaches and staff as well. I’ve watched these guys give it all every night, playing with such heart and passion that I’ve found myself really pulling for them — and not just the players but the coaches and staff as well.

So it is a real shame that the Utah Flash are suspending operations for a year as they shop for a new owner.

I was there with my wife and 6 of my 7 children (and 4,584 of our closest friends) when the Utah Flash played their first home game in the (then) David O. McKay Events Center on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah. What a promising start the Flash had. Former Jazz forward Thurl Bailey sang the national anthem. If memory serves, V.I.P. attendees included Danny Ainge, Jerry Sloan, Frank Laden, and Kevin O’Conner.

“It was amazing,” said (then) rookie guard, Kevin Kruger. “That was a homecourt advantage right there with the crowd the way it was. The people coming out and making noise. That was the type of crowd that was fun to play in front of. It helped us get motivated and gave us a little extra momentum.”

DISCLAIMER: If someone feels I’ve stepped on their toes with what I’m about to write, I apologize in advance; that seriously is not my intent. In reality, I’m just trying to give an objective view from an outsider’s perspective of what I, as a 4-year season ticket holder of 8 seats on row 2, center court, have observed about the Utah Flash.

From what I’ve seen, I’d say that the Utah Flash is not shutting down due to lack of support from Utah County fans and sponsors, but because of a surplus of expensive, grandstanding decisions which caused the Utah Flash to hemorrhage red ink, and which alienated would-be fans and supporters.

The businessman in me can’t help but wonder: How does the Utah Flash, a team “ranked second in NBADL attendance last season, drawing more than 100,000 fans and averaging 4,237 per game” (according to the Salt Lake Tribune) fold? And as someone who hardly missed a home game the entire time the Flash have been in existence, it appeared to us that attendance was down a bit from previous seasons. It seems like, attendance wise, the Utah Flash were doing about as well as can be expected for a minor league basketball team. And with d-league having its strongest ever attendance these last 2 years, with over 1 million fans each of the past two seasons, you can’t help but ask: What happened?

How do you fail when you are #2 in a league that is strong and growing stronger?

On page 18 of his book, Indispensable by Monday, author Larry Myler writes, “A basic principle of business is that every company must earn more money than it spends.”

A “basic principle of business” indeed: it’s not just about how much you earn, the ticket sales, sponsorships, etc., but how much you spend as well.

Frank Gehry's Disney Concert HallAny outsider could see that the Utah Flash had to be spending more money than they were earning, and many of us were wondering what their business game plan was. For the first two years, it appeared as if their only plan was increase revenue (ticket sales, sponsorships, etc.), because there was very little evidence that the Flash were concerned about costs at all.

When the Flash organized they were very top heavy in management personnel. For example, what exactly was Dave Fredman‘s role with the Flash? As a fan the only thing I ever saw Dave Fredman do was curse at referees. I never saw Fredman make an effort to meet the fans, or provide opportunities for the Utah Flash to convert casual attendees into Flash fans such as arranging for players to meet them.

Speaking of Dave Fredman, insights to the spending mentality of Utah Flash ownership are found in this Daily Herald article:

Fredman said, “Brandt convinced me that we might be a D-League team, a minor league team, or whatever you want to call it, but we were going to operate like a Major League team.”

Fredman said Andersen told him that the league had a salary cap, but there wasn’t a salary cap for coaches and management and called his contract “an NBA contract.” (Emphasis added).

I wonder if Brandt Andersen had any idea how ironic his statement to Fredman was, given that, according to Forbes, 17 of the 30 teams in the NBA are losing money. Maybe Andersen should not have tried so hard to “operate like a major league team” and give out “NBA contracts.”

Then there was the halftime entertainment — fun and impressive to be sure — but probably over the top for a d-league game. I don’t mean to sound unappreciative, again the acts were fun, but were they smart business? After all, it’s not likely that the Flash was going to sell more tickets because the neat halftime shows.

Then there was the “Flash Factory,” an 80,000 square foot sports facility in Lehi, Utah that the Flash’s flashy owner, Brandt Andersen purchased in June of 2008 to, among other things, “become the new headquarters for the Utah Flash.” Two short years later, in July of 2010, Andersen sold the building sans all the remodeling and improvements he boasted about just 2 years earlier, leaving new owner XSI with the remodel project. Oh, and the Flash never moved their headquarters from their Provo offices. Where Flash logos once hung now hangs a space available sign.

And speaking of Lehi, the announcement of an incredibly (and I chose that word on purpose) ambitious real estate development project in Lehi, centering around the Utah Flash, was met by the community with a degree of wonder, if not skepticism. Utah Flash owner, Brandt Andersen involved all people, “starchetect” Frank Gehry, the architect of many famous structures around the world including the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA, and the Googenheim in Bilbao, Spain.

Whoa. I bet Brandt would like to have that money back — at least I hope so. (Article continues below).

 

So, with seemingly little regard for the importance of containing costs in a business, and focused on increasing revenue, the Flash tried nobly to reach beyond Utah County without much success, and then undid all goodwill earned with their now infamous Michael Jordan hoax. As I wrote at the time, I was stunned at the bad judgment of that promotion, which involved d-league president Dan Reed, and wrote in my blog,

I feel like D-League principals obsess over the question, “How do we fill seats?” rather than asking themselves, “How can we cost-effectively make our customers happy?”

Consequently, [with the Jordan debacle] they’ve found a way to fill every seat in the house, and not make many of those attending happy enough to pay to come again.

Happy fans come back. Happy fans tell friends. Happy fans bring friends. It’s not about filling seats, it is about making the customer happy, and what makes fans happy is good basketball. It’s what we paid to see.

As people have visited with me about the folding of the Flash, some have told me that, in their opinion, the Jordan hoax was the beginning of the end for the Utah Flash. Certainly, the Jordan hoax is the thing the Utah Flash are most famous for, but from what I could see, Jordan hoax was just merely the part of the iceberg that popped up out of the water and was visible to everyone.

It seemed to me that the underlying problem with the Utah Flash was the chronic recurrence of poor decision making. The Jordan hoax only proved that some decisions are just more visible than others.

Take a look at the decisions made immediately after the Jordan hoax: the Utah Flash tried to buy back fan loyalty by giving away flat screen televisions during breaks in the game.

Groan.

Is there no one around Brandt telling him that these are bad decisions? Or was Brandt just not listening?

Seriously, for all present who were not given a television, the extravagant giveaways just made the whole thing worse.

The Daily Herald reported that the Flash lost nearly $3 million since they began operations, however the Utah Flash was also on track to break even this last season!

That is important enough to restate: remembering that profit isn’t just how much you make but how money you have after expenses, this last season was the Utah Flash’s most profitable. What was different this last season?

Again, I’m just an outside observer so I probably have a lot of things wrong in this article, but just prior to the 2010-2011 season, it appeared that the Utah Flash finally got serious about cost cutting.

The Flash trimmed down staff and management to a bare bones, a young but impressive crew, and relied on a likewise impressive group of college interns to help with business operations. As a season ticket holder, I thought Flash President Drew Sellers, VP Micah Howard and Director of Marketing Eric Allen were wonderful — not just at getting the Flash to live within its means, but in engaging us fans.

Utah Flash logoThis last season we had access to players during Flash sponsored activities like never before, and everyone thought it was so cool. I wondered why the Flash weren’t doing these kinds of things all along, rather than wasting time and money on things that brought attention to their owner, but brought no real value to the business.

The cost cutting wasn’t limited to the front office however.

Veteran Coach Brad Jones was let go, and it seemed to all Flash fans that the only reason to do so was to cut costs. Brad was a solid coach and wonderful with the fans.

When rookie head coach Kevin Young was promoted from being Brad’s assistant to head coach of the Utah Flash, the Flash stumbled out of the gates with its first few games. But to their credit, Coach Kevin Young and assistant coaches Gene Cross and Norm de Silva righted the ship, and the Flash finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the d-league, and gave the eventual NBADL Champion Iowa Energy arguably their biggest challenge of the post season. I’m convinced that the young coaching staff (pun intended) is legit and will only get better.

In fact, if I were part of an investor group looking at buying the Utah Flash, I’d be keenly interested in keeping both the coaching staff, and the Flash’s lean, young and capable front office staff, because by all appearances, Brandt is quitting just when he is getting it right!

Flash FoxOh! And keep Flash Fox: the best mascot in Utah!

Not long after the Jordan incident, Flash owner Brandt Andersen shut off his blog to the public, allowing only a select group he approved to view it. I can see why he did that, but I also see it as a real mistake.

Whether the feedback from your customers is positive or negative, you need to listen — definitely need to listen — and not just cut it off because you don’t like what you are hearing. Staying close to your customers is how reliable decisions get made. In fact, had Andersen asked his Flash fans, they would have advised him against the Jordan stunt and probably steered him clear of many of the other decisions which ended up costing the Flash so much.

As the Flash went on their record breaking winning streak late in the season, it was amazing to not see Brandt sitting there with his team. It signaled to the fans present that either Brandt had some sort of time consuming family crisis he was dealing with, or that he had completely lost interest in his team. I guess moving to California, when you own a minor league team in Utah, is likewise a strong signal that you’ve lost interest.

I’m sad Brandt gave up on the Flash like this. Again, I think Brandt is quitting just when he was starting to get good at this, and the dollars bear that out.

I personally would like to see Brandt Andersen stick with the Utah Flash.

Okay, so maybe Brandt might not ever get to build a Frank Gehry building with the Utah Flash, but this is no way for a mogul to exit a highly visible business. Just because you can’t win by a knock out doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep fighting for the TKO. Why not show off those business chops and finish turning around the Flash, and make it profitable before moving on?

Speaking of decision making, I cannot think of a dumber season for the Utah Flash to suspend operations than this upcoming season.

Yin Yang basketballFirst, with Utah County ticket selling sensation Jimmer Fredette leaving BYU for the NBA, the Utah Flash are in a position this upcoming season to capture new basketball fans created by the Jimmer-mania this area has been under this past year.

Second, while it looks likely that the NBA won’t be playing a season this season, the NBA d-league will be unaffected by the labor dispute.

Given that the Utah Flash has just demonstrated that they can be a winning team without overspending, and the extremely favorable series of fortunate events at play for this season, where is the logic of quitting now when you could take advantage of the opportunity and use it to architect a full turn around of this very visible business?

In closing, I will confess that before last season even finished, I paid in full for season tickets for the upcoming 2011-2012 season.

And I hope I don’t get refunded.

I hope instead that I get another great season of Utah Flash basketball.

Because if you truly love the game of basketball, the Utah Flash is the best game in town, and a bargain at that!

Thanks, Brandt, for bringing the Utah Flash to Orem. I hope you will reconsider your decision to scrap the upcoming Utah Flash season, but if not, best wishes in your new ventures.

But mostly: special thanks to the players who have come to Utah and given their heart and soul, and blood sweat and tears to their dream. Your courageous willingness to pursue your goals, even if it means you might suffer a humiliating and public failure in the process in front of cameras, family, friends and fans — has won my respect and admiration for life.

We’re definitely going to miss you.

Goodbye Utah Flash

  1. Brandon YoungBrandon Young10-24-2012

    Interesting article. As a loyal Flash fan from the begning, it was good to get some closure. Even after this long. 😉

    Maybe, one day, I’ll see you at a Flash game?

    • Tom7Tom710-24-2012

      That would be great, Brandon. I’d love to see the Flash come back to Utah County.

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