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Bringing a second major league sports team into Utah always seemed like an impossible dream—even after the Utah Jazz evolved into a successful NBA franchise. Conventional wisdom struck down the idea of another big-time team because, supposedly, there would not be enough fan support or corporate sponsorships to spread around.
This line of thinking has been reshaped over the past decade since Real Salt Lake put down roots along the Wasatch Front.
Skeptics greeted Dave Checketts when he announced his intention to purchase a Major League Soccer franchise and bring it to Utah. And the skepticism continued during the team’s early struggles after beginning play in 2005.
That skepticism has given way to enthusiasm.
In less than a decade, RSL has turned into one of the most successful and consistent MLS teams. Salt Lake won the MLS Cup in 2009 and finished second in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2011. It has made five consecutive playoff appearances and will play for the 2013 U.S. Open Cup title this month.
“We play good soccer and that’s what people come to watch,” says RSL General Manager Garth Lagerway. “That is again hugely essential to what we are and who we want to be. The team is the star. If the team plays good soccer, people want to watch that and people are willing to pay for it.”
The Game Plan
Finding a permanent home was the first priority for the newly formed RSL. The team shared Rice-Eccles Stadium with the University of Utah during its first few seasons. But Checketts pushed for a new soccer stadium to be built right away, because he did not believe Real could survive in Utah for long without one.
A political dogfight erupted over the proposed stadium. Opponents of subsidizing a stadium—led by former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon—thought that it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money, especially if the team chose to move to another city a few years down the road.
Checketts was able to build support for his stadium. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman embraced the idea, believing a second major league sports team alongside the Jazz would offer a major boost to the state’s economy. And Checketts soon found a suitable location in Sandy, where city leaders were eager to give RSL a new home.
“I got intrigued because what he discussed was not just a soccer stadium, but also developing around that soccer stadium, a gathering place for people,” says Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan. “They had a plan and laid out hotels, offices and those kinds of things. I was intrigued by all of that because it was more than just a soccer stadium.”
Dolan saw the potential for economic development an MLS stadium would bring to his city. He offered 20 acres that had easy access to I-15 and great visibility from the freeway. With support from Huntsman and the Utah State Legislature, RSL and Sandy struck a deal to build a new $110 million stadium. Sandy pledged $10 million to finance the stadium. The state legislature kicked in $35 million. Private investors took care of the rest of the bill.
Rio Tinto Stadium finally opened near the end of the 2008 season, and it quickly became a game changer for both RSL and the local sports scene. In its first five years of existence, Rio Tinto Stadium has hosted multiple big-time events. Each event has attracted legions of people and poured tens of thousands of dollars into the local economy.
Rio Tinto Stadium hosted the 2009 MLS all-star game, the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League Final, a 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying match between the United States and Honduras and a pair of 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup matches. It also has hosted regular season MLS matches, U.S. Open Cup matches and MLS Cup playoff matches.
The Utah High School Activities Association moved all of its boys and girls soccer championship games to the stadium shortly after it opened. Many local high school football and soccer teams play regular season games annually in the stadium. Rio Tinto Stadium hosts the Top of the Mountains NJCAA bowl game each December. It has also hosted high school and collegiate rugby championships on many occasions.
Uses of Rio Tinto Stadium have not been limited to sports alone. The stadium has hosted several summer concerts since it opened—highlighted by a sold-out performance from Paul McCartney in June 2010.
A Win for Utah
Bill Manning has seen major changes since being named as the RSL team president in April 2008. Two of the most notable areas have been corporate sponsorships and season ticket sales.
Corporate sponsorships of the team have tripled since it moved from Rice-Eccles Stadium to Rio Tinto Stadium in late 2008, going from $2.8 million to $8.5 million this season. Season ticket sales have risen on an equally dramatic scale. About 3,600 RSL fans were counted as season ticket holders during Manning’s first year at the helm. By the start of the 2013 season, that number had risen to 9,724 season ticket holders.