Why Utah is the ‘obvious choice’ for the next MLB franchise
Photo by Tim Gouw | Unsplash
“There’s no better place to be than a ballpark.”
Those were the words of Salt Lake Bees President and General Manager Marc Amicone as he watched hundreds of Utah little leaguers take part in Major League Baseball (MLB)’s nationwide Play Ball event at Smith’s Ballpark earlier this summer.
Amicone was beaming as he made the observation from the dugout, not only because he has made a career in the sport he loves, but also thanks to an outstanding turnout. The Play Ball program—which offers clinics and instruction to youngsters provided by current and former professional players and coaches—hit its 500-player cap that day, with another 400 due to participate the following day.
The big turnout was double what the Bees saw at last year’s version of the event and is reflective of the baseball buzz being driven by an official pursuit, led by Bees owner Larry H. Miller Company, to bring an MLB team to Salt Lake City.
The pitch: An ideal market
Larry H. Miller Company CEO Steve Starks was on hand for the Play Ball gathering at the Angels’ Stadium in Anaheim, California when he heard from MLB organizers that the Salt Lake event was a standout success this year. The number of volunteer coaches and instructors in Salt Lake outnumbered total attendance at some of the other major league and minor league ballparks, he learned.
The record crowd of young baseball players, Starks says, is just another benchmark in a growing recognition that Salt Lake City—and Utah—are ready to add “America’s Pastime” to its list of professional sports bonafides.
Starks says the Larry H. Miller Company has seen “a groundswell of enthusiasm” since making an official announcement of the pursuit of an MLB franchise at an April press conference, continuing, “We’re hearing from the business community and political leaders, but most importantly, everyday Utahns who are so excited about the prospect of Major League Baseball coming.”
At that April event, the Larry H. Miller Company announced a coalition of Utah leaders had been convened to position Salt Lake City as an ideal market for Major League Baseball. Big League Utah, a broad-based community coalition, said it had targeted a shovel-ready site for a new MLB ballpark at the 100-acre Rocky Mountain Power District on Salt Lake City’s west side, off of North Temple between downtown and the Salt Lake International Airport.
“We believe in the power of sports to elevate and unify communities,” Gail Miller, co-founder and owner of the Larry H. Miller Company, said in a press statement. “Larry and I risked everything to acquire the Utah Jazz, and it was a tremendous honor to ensure it thrived as a model franchise. We now have an opportunity to welcome Major League Baseball to Utah and invite all Utahns to join us in this effort.”
While MLB officials have said they aren’t ready to discuss league expansion plans until two teams that are currently pursuing new stadium deals in their home cities—the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics—lock down future plans, owners and fans appear to be ready for some new teams. Half of that equation appears to be on the brink of a solution, as the A’s announced relocation plans in late May based on a tentative agreement for a new $1.5 billion ballpark in Sin City.
With the potential site identified, Starks says one of the most important steps in moving forward on a potential MLB stadium build in Salt Lake City has already been accomplished. The grander vision is for a mixed-use development that would incorporate and complement a new stadium, a formula that’s been successful in other cities like Atlanta and St. Louis.
The swing: Driving transformation
The Beehive State is certainly not alone in its interest in hosting an MLB team. Big League Utah has competing efforts in Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Nashville and Montreal, some of which have been established for years.
But through the economist eyes of Natalie Gochnour, associate dean at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, Utah has built standout credentials that are still ascending.
“We’re the fastest-growing state in the country,” Gochnour says. “We’ve been a leading economy but are now an elite economy that’s outperformed other states for the better part of 12 years, and we’ve entered a new, exciting demographic and economic environment as a state.”
That new environment, Gochnour says, includes Utah’s official ascension into the “mid-size” category, having jumped four states in population count since 2010.
“I don’t think most Utahns realize that there are 21 states smaller than Utah,” Gochnour says. “We’ve entered a size dynamic that’s worthy of multiple professional sports. … Those who operate major professional sports leagues are taking an interest in us.”
Gochnour says the prospect of constructing an MLB stadium as one element of a sports and entertainment district could change the face of downtown Salt Lake and the broader area.
“Done correctly, a sports and entertainment cultural district downtown could drive an absolute transformation of our region,” Gochnour says. “The notion that we collectively invest in the future of our urban core and do it in a way that is an investment in the future—that’s what I mean by its transformational potential.”
The key to leveraging the full potential of such a transformation, Gochnour says, is all about the work that happens before a shovel ever hits the ground. And that planning, she notes, starts with a focus at the people level.
“One of the principles I think of is that this is not about a stadium as much as it is about a neighborhood,” Gochnour says. “It’s not about a ballpark; it is about a district and the people who live, work and recreate there. That’s how you make it an investment: investing in the well-being of an important part of our state. And that means that it’s planned.”
Part of that planning will require finding the right formula for the requisite public-private partnership that the MLB project, should it come to fruition, will require.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a self-avowed baseball superfan, has weighed in on his excitement for the Big League Utah MLB effort but also registered his qualms about involving taxpayer money. That dual sentiment has also been reflected in statewide polling conducted by the Deseret News in partnership with the Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Poll results published in May found a whopping 81 percent of Utahns in support of the effort to bring Major League Baseball to their home state, with some age demographics clocking support rates closer to 90 percent. But when asked in a May survey whether or not they’d support using taxpayer money to fund a baseball stadium, Utahns were essentially split on the issue, with 47 percent supporting the idea and 50 percent opposed.
While there are a variety of approaches to public-private finance structures that avoid direct taxpayer contributions, Gochnour says the key is ensuring public money inputs are multiplied rather than simply consumed.
"We’re the fastest-growing state in the country. We’ve been a leading economy but are now an elite economy that’s outperformed other states for the better part of 12 years, and we’ve entered a new, exciting demographic and economic environment as a state. I don’t think most Utahns realize that there are 21 states smaller than Utah. We’ve entered a size dynamic that’s worthy of multiple professional sports. … Those who operate major professional sports leagues are taking an interest in us."
“This is a partnership that has to be done in a fiscally responsible way,” Gochnour says. “It’s one that needs to ensure that taxpayer funds are an investment, not a subsidy, and taxpayers get a return. Those returns can be tangible, [like] getting actual tax dollars back, attracting skilled labor, etc.—but can also be intangible in the form of the creation of new public assets, like parks and gathering spaces.”
Utah’s tangible and intangible assets will also play a role in Big League Utah’s race to win a future MLB franchise award. Starks points out that list is full of wins and still growing.
The sparkling, multi-billion dollar Salt Lake International Airport renovation has already expanded and remade the face of the region’s busy air travel hub. Salt Lake’s legacy as a Winter Olympics host, one of the most successful and profitable ever, is already in the books—and the city’s current bid for a hosting redux in 2030 or 2034 appears to be on track for success. The historic world headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints already draws over 3 million visitors every year and is set to see even more traffic when a current renovation project concludes in a couple of years. The Larry H. Miller Company is slated to begin construction later this year on a mini version of a potential MLB stadium project as it lays the groundwork for a new ballpark for the AAA Bees, one that will be part of a multi-use project on a nearly 200-acre site in South Jordan, Utah.
A home run: The economic impact
Utah’s demographic and economic evolution, as noted by Gochnour, is also evidenced by downtown Salt Lake City’s booming sports and entertainment sector.
Downtown Alliance Executive Director Dee Brewer notes that even as the daily commuter traffic is well short of pre-pandemic levels, the emerging drivers of downtown business activity are to be found elsewhere.
Brewer notes that of 16.6 million customer days in Salt Lake’s central business district last year, 61 percent were accounted for by visitors. And when you drill into the top 25 visitation days of 2022, 76 percent were driven by Utah Jazz games and other events at the newly re-christened Delta Center. Another 72 percent came from convention and business gathering traffic, and 48 percent of visitors were in town for arts and entertainment happenings.
“I think we’re seeing the new reality,” Brewer says. “We’re seeing a rising tide of the sports, entertainment and social economy downtown with specific spikes around events. The potential to add the activity that comes with an MLB stadium downtown and 80 or so home games … would be an enormous driver of economic growth.”
While MLB executives will be weighing what’s happening in Utah alongside evaluations of other potential new MLB cities, Starks points out that Utah—even as the latest entrant on the list of potential suitors—may already be ahead of the pack.
“The MLB is very savvy, reading local headlines, seeing the market reaction,” Starks says. “When they do formally launch the process, they’ll be up to speed on the work we’ve done. … In the meantime, we’re doing everything we can to be prepared. We’re not only the obvious choice; we’re the choice that can move very quickly on this, a ballpark and mixed-use development with a market that is already cultivated and prepared for it. We believe the Utah story tells itself, and that’s the most compelling case we can make.”
Photo by Joshua Peacock | Unsplash