The intertwined relationship of sports and the economy comes down to young athletes.

Investing in Utah’s young athletes could encourage a future of economic growth

The intertwined relationship of sports and the economy comes down to young athletes.

Photo courtesy of the Utah Soccer Alliance

Somewhere in the broad expanse of the sports spectrum, athletics morph from child’s play into a professional livelihood: from teaching young athletes and building valuable life lessons and skills to bolstering communities and economies. 

Utah Soccer Alliance’s 2008 E64 boys team finds itself in the middle of that swath. The organization was awarded a $100,000 grant from Daniels Fund to help finance a week-long training trip for the team to Spain’s TOVO Academy. Utah Soccer Alliance plans to use the remaining funds from the grant to lower the costs of various fees and expenses paid by players and their parents throughout the year. 

Jeromy Walk, who coaches the grant’s greatest beneficiaries, recognizes the rare opportunity given to these 15-year-old boys.

“This Spain trip will be taking 17 players into Barcelona for an experience there to get training that not every player of that age or in their youth soccer career gets,” he says. 

“We are extremely grateful for the partnership we have formed with Daniels Fund. My goal as a coach is not just to teach soccer but also to help mold already incredible young men into the best versions of themselves. This partnership will allow us to give our players an invaluable experience and provide them with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Daniels Fund is a charitable organization founded by former Utah Stars owner and cable TV visionary Bill Daniels. The organization serves much of the Intermountain West in various areas, such as education, aging, addiction, homelessness and youth sports, to name a few. 

Daniels Fund President and CEO Hanna Skandera feels that sports offer a unique opportunity to help build young people and, consequently, their communities.

“At the end of the day, when communities come together and support sports in their community, they’re creating more opportunities for their young people to grow up, have new experiences and actually give back,” she says. “I would encourage businesses across our country to invest in their local community sports … so that the young [athletes] in their community can have opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have and ultimately give back in the same community they grew up in.”

Professional athletes as professional economic drivers 

A pair of brothers that grew up playing sports in Utah have seen firsthand how athletics can positively affect individuals and communities. Ed Kehl and his younger brother Bryan experienced the breadth of the sports spectrum, playing football as kids before competing on the gridiron locally in college and ultimately making the sport their profession for a few years in the NFL. 

Since retiring from football, both athletes have returned to Utah, where they have contributed to their communities in various ways, including business ownership. Bryan has gotten a closer look at the state’s excellent economy as a business owner.

“The economy in Utah is just gangbusters,” he says. “It’s been like that for a long time. … One of the biggest reasons is the government here is business friendly.” 

Being business-friendly has given the state a healthy economy and made it an attractive potential partner for professional sports. 

Ed has a unique perspective about how a professional sports team can benefit a community and vice versa, having played three years with the Green Bay Packers—the only publicly owned team in the NFL.

“In Green Bay, everybody is a Green Bay fan,” he says. “Every restaurant is Green Bay. Every place you go is Green Bay. If there was a [business] there that … had a Chicago Bears flag up, [it] would go under.”

Bryan, who was drafted by the New York Giants in 2008 after completing an undergraduate degree in economics, also saw the important role professional sports can play in their communities. 

“Whether it’s New York or Green Bay, Wisconsin, sports [are] a huge facet of the society and of the community,” he says. “It’s a great way for people to come together both economically and … just for community togetherness.”

"There definitely are positive economic benefits of having the young athletes live here in the state, train here in the state. And then, as they increase their capabilities and gain notoriety, it's good for Utah in terms of branding and just storytelling. So we have a lot of great local talent here; definitely an important part of the economy."

The pair of brothers see sports as a benefit to society even if the young athletes playing them don’t turn into professionals on the field.

“I think building up the young athletes, … whether they go pro or not, [builds] up the community, the sports program,” Ed says. “Anything you can do to get them outside, get them in a team atmosphere, working, that goes a lot further than whether or not they can go pro.”

Bryan echoes a similar sentiment: “Sports is perhaps the greatest, if not certainly one of the greatest, developers of culture and resilience and discipline and work ethic and camaraderie and teamwork. … There are so many essential life characteristics that sports cultivate.” 

The elder Kehl believes sports at every level can enhance communities. After seeing firsthand the benefits a professional sports franchise can have on its locale, he believes adding more such teams to his home state would be a boon to its economy. 

“The more pro teams we can get, … it’s only going to help the economy,” Ed says. “I think it would be a huge plus to the economy [and] to the fans. I think we have a lot of really good fans … so the more [professional teams] we can get, the better.”

This is the place

Ryan Starks, Utah’s executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, would agree. According to Starks, the recent NBA All-Star Weekend held in Salt Lake City brought more than 100,000 visitors to the state’s capital and is estimated to have produced 33,000 booked-room nights and a $288 million economic impact. 

However, those numbers just show one side of a partnership that Starks feels is symbiotic. He believes more professional sports franchises would thrive in the Beehive State

U.S. News and World Report recently listed Utah as having the best economy,” Starks says. “So with new businesses coming to the state and current businesses growing, there’s a wonderful opportunity to support sporting events and sporting teams. … It really is a two-way partnership. The business support means so much to a franchise, and what the franchise can do to a business is just very significant.”

When asked what his pitch would be to entice a professional sports team to make Utah its home or convince the Olympics to come back to the state, Starks says, “It would be quality of life, ease of access, a passionate fan base, a young fan base and a very supportive state government. And really a great business community that’s always looking to support great causes.”

Additionally, Starks points to the fact that being the youngest state in the nation puts Utah in a prime position to provide lifelong fans to teams before listing several other factors that make Utah an attractive prospect for professional athletics.

“Our natural assets put us in a really good position and make us very competitive against other markets,” he says. “Part of that is because of the population growth, because of the strong business community, because of the high quality of life. So as sporting franchises look at other markets, I don’t think they’re going to find the market as well-rounded and as complete as Utah has. We check all the boxes. We’re a family-friendly destination. We have five national parks, access to outdoor recreation, a brand new international airport.”

Those factors put Utah in an excellent position to be a good partner for a professional sports team with wandering eyes. The Beehive State and its leaders recognize that athletics are a great way to boost its already bustling economy. 

Starks has taken note of the economic boost that up-and-coming athletes have on the state. “Utah has housed so many … young athletes,” he says. “There definitely are positive economic benefits of having the young athletes live here in the state, train here in the state. And then, as they increase their capabilities and gain notoriety, it’s good for Utah in terms of branding and just storytelling. So we have a lot of great local talent here; definitely an important part of the economy.”

Whether through homegrown athletes or the addition of more professional sports franchises, Utah will continue to seek opportunities that bolster its communities and economies. 

While paying homage to the state’s earliest beginnings, Starks verbalizes what many sports fans in the state feel. “To me, it’s a no-brainer for any franchise considering relocation to Utah. This is the place.”