October is the only month in the year when all five of the major sports leagues are in season. As the MLB and MLS complete their playoffs, the NHL and NBA kick off their seasons — not forgetting, of course, the NFL’s monopoly of Sunday. How does Utah fit into this sports-filled month, and could Utah be considered a sports hub?
History of Professional Sports in Utah
Salt Lake City’s two most well-known sports franchises are the Utah Jazz in the NBA and Real Salt Lake in MLS. There a few minor league teams in the valley as well.
The Jazz are arguably the more popular and mainstream sports team in Salt Lake City over Real Salt Lake. This is because the NBA is generally more popular than the MLS. According to HowMuch.net, the NBA brought in a revenue of $4.8 billion in 2016 compared to the $461 million of the MLS.
The Jazz has a long and storied history in the NBA. First established as an expansion team in 1974, the New Orleans Jazz (as they were known at the time) moved to Salt Lake City in 1979 due to a rough five years in New Orleans. The Jazz eventually came under new ownership when Larry H. Miller bought the team in 1986 for $24 million.
The New Orleans Jazz were named after New Orleans’s very prominent jazz culture, and when the team moved to Salt Lake City, despite lacking a jazz culture, the team decided to keep the name. The Jazz rose to prominence in the late ’90s under the leadership of coach Jerry Sloan and legendary players Karl Malone and John Stockton. When the Jazz first moved to Salt Lake City, they played in the Salt Palace from 1979 to 1991 before moving into their current home, the Vivint Smart Home Arena (then known as the Delta Center), in 1991.
Real Salt Lake is a more recent addition to the Salt Lake Valley than the Jazz. Real started as an expansion team in 2005 along with the now-defunct team, Chivas USA. The name “Real” in soccer terms may sound familiar, probably because of the Spanish (and global) soccer power Real Madrid. This similarity in name is not a coincidence, but instead the product of a very unique partnership between Real Salt Lake and Real Madrid.
According to mlssoccer.com, Real’s owner at the time, Dave Checketts, always loved Real Madrid and asked permission to use the “Real” name from the Spanish club because “real” means “royal” in Spanish. In 2006, Checketts announced in a press conference in 2006 that Real Salt Lake was “pursuing a permanent sister-team relationship with Real Madrid.”
Early in RSL’s tenure in Salt Lake City, the team played at Rice-Eccles Stadium from 2005-2008. In 2013, Checketts sold his team shares to Dell Loy Hansen.
Even though Salt Lake is in RSL’s name, they are not based out of Salt Lake City. RSL plays every home game in Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, and even has team offices in Sandy. RSL won the MLS cup in 2009, beating the LA Galaxy 1-1 in a 5-4 penalty kick shootout. Recently, RSL was just knocked out of the 2019 MLS Cup by the Seattle Sounders, losing 2-0.
The Jazz and Real aren’t the only professional sports teams in Utah. The Utah Royals FC, which Real owner Hansen also owns, are part of the National Women’s Soccer League. The Royals play out of Rio Tinto Stadium as well, and are led by Olympic gold medalists and FIFA Women’s World Cup champions Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara, along with two-time Olympic gold Nicole Barnhart and two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Christen Press.
Professional rugby, a growing sport in the U.S., also has a team in Utah. The Utah Warriors are one of the original teams in Major League Rugby, founded in 2017.
There are quite a few minor league teams in Utah as well, the most prominent probably being the Salt Lake Bees. The Salt Lake Bees are SLC’s AAA minor league baseball team, affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels. The Bees are not the only minor league baseball team in Utah. There are also the Orem Owlz (also affiliated with the Angels) and the Ogden Raptors (affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers).
The Utah Grizzlies are a minor league hockey team based out of West Valley City, currently affiliated with the Colorado Avalanche.
While Utah no longer has a men’s pro football team, the Utah Blitz is Utah’s team within the Women’s Football Alliance.
Unfortunately, Utah also has a history of losing sports teams, like the Salt Lake Stallions and Utah Starzz. The Stallions were Salt Lake’s team in the short-lived Alliance of American Football. The Stallions played out of Rice-Eccles stadium during the AAF’s short season and when the AAF folded mid-way through their first season the Stallions finished with a record of 3-5 and at the bottom of the AAF’s Western Conference standings.
The Utah Starzz did not meet the same fate as the Stallions, whose league folded due to poor financial planning by league leadership, leaving their players stranded. The Starzz were one of the original teams in the WNBA. Also owned by Jazz owner, Larry H. Miller, the Starzz only lasted five seasons (1997-2002) before being sold to the San Antonio Spurs, who turned the Utah Starzz into the San Antonio Silver Stars.
This move from Utah to San Antonio did not surprise University of Utah professor Joshua LaReaux, who teaches Perspectives on Sports and American Society. He said in an email to The Daily Utah Chronicle, “This makes sense considering most collegiate women’s sports in Utah are largely ignored. The only exception is the Utah gymnastics program.”
During their time in Utah, the Starzz made the playoffs twice and their conference finals once, losing to Los Angeles. As the Silver Stars, the Starzz made the playoffs six times from 2007 to 2012, won one conference championship and appeared in one WNBA finals, losing to Detroit 3-0. The Silver Stars moved to Las Vegas in 2018 to become the Las Vegas Aces.
Is Utah a Sports Hub?
A sports hub is a city with a strong sports culture, one with multiple, top-tier professional sports teams. New York, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis and Denver are all examples of sports hubs, all cities with a team in each of the five major professional sports leagues. With only two of the five major sports leagues, SLC doesn’t currently fit the criteria to be a sports hub. But with an estimated metropolitan population of 1.14 million and an estimated SLC-Provo-Orem population of 2.4 million, could Utah become a sports hub?
The Future of Utah Sports
In an email to The Chronicle, LaReaux detailed what it would take for a new pro sports franchise to move to Salt Lake City. “Professional sports are a business. The owners will go where they can make the most money with the smallest investment possible.”
One of the big determining factors leagues look for in determining where a new team should go to is the city’s media market, which is determined by the number of households with televisions. The Nielsen DMA Ranking ranks the top 210 cities with the largest media markets in the country, and Salt Lake City’s DMA rank is 30.
“You have to understand that major sports have cartel-like organization,” LaReaux said. “The teams are cooperating more than they are competing. The competition stuff is what they sell to the fans, but the owners collectively bargain as a whole and share the revenue. They are all working together to generate a product that networks want to buy.”
Looking back at the sports hubs mentioned previously (New York, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis and Denver) all have DMA rankings in the top 20 in the country — but LaReaux is hopeful that SLC will reach sports hub status. “Things are changing, and the population is booming along the Wasatch Front. I wouldn’t be shocked to see another major sports franchise in the Salt Lake area in the next five to 10 years.”
The Jazz ranked No. 14 in the NBA in home game attendance, averaging 18,306 fans at each of their 41 home games. Real Salt Lake has very similar numbers, ranking No. 14 in the MLS in home game attendance and averaging 18,121 fans at each of their 17 home games. The question remains: is this enough for the NHL, MLB and NFL to invest in Salt Lake City?
National Hockey League
A new hockey team would seem like the most promising of the three options. With the NHL currently in expansion, adding the Las Vegas Knights in 2017 and the upcoming addition of a new NHL team in Seattle in 2020, the NHL could be Salt Lake City’s best bet. Yet, there are already a few cities ahead of Salt Lake City that have planned for future expansion, such as Houston and Quebec City.
With the addition of Seattle, the NHL will reach the magical number of 32 teams, a number that no other major league has surpassed. If an NHL team came to Salt Lake City, it seems like they would already have a ready-made home for them in the Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“Teams don’t like sharing arenas or stadiums. It happens, but the owners like to have full control,” LaReaux said. As for SLC’s weather, “I don’t think the weather is a major factor. Las Vegas was the most recent NHL expansion. Do you think San Jose or Las Vegas have hockey cultures? These cities were simply willing to give the owners what they want.”
The NHL does seem to see some potential in Salt Lake City for the future, as seen by the NHL scheduling preseason games between the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks in 2018 and 2019 in what was dubbed the “Salt Lake Shootout.” Until Salt Lake City is willing to give an owner what they want, however, the Colorado Avalanche and Las Vegas Golden Knights will have to serve as Salt Lake’s NHL teams because of the NHL’s blackout restrictions.
Major League Baseball
“I think Salt Lake has a really good baseball culture,” said Kraig Williams, the communication manager for the Salt Lake Bees. “I think we have a better baseball culture than people realize. [The fans] really support us and I think fans would love a major league team here.”
While Williams says that fans in Salt Lake City would support a team, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred disagrees. In an interview with First Things First, Manfred listed out cities the MLB is looking into for future expansion, and Salt Lake did not make that list. “Portland, Las Vegas, Nashville in the United States, certainly Montreal, maybe Vancouver, in Canada,” Manfred said in his interview. Out of those three U.S. cities listed, only Portland and Nashville have higher DMA rankings than Salt Lake City. The MLB is the only league out of the NHL, NFL and MLB to have all of their United States teams within the top 40 media markets.
“If Salt Lake City got a major league team, the Bees would be forced to move to another market. … [Salt Lake City] would lose the Triple-A team and we would be replaced with the major league team,” Williams said. For now, Salt Lake baseball fans will only have the Bees to cheer for in terms of a local baseball team.
National Football League
The NFL brought in $13 billion in revenue in 2016 — more than the MLB, Premier League, NBA and NHL. Within the top 17 media markets in the Nielsen DMA rankings, the NFL has 20 teams.
The NFL does not seem to be interested in expansion at the moment, and with the magical number of 32 teams already, they seem to be more interested in playing games in Europe and Mexico than pushing past their 32 nationwide teams. The NFL has not expanded in 17 years, and it would be safe to say, like with the MLB and the NHL, Salt Lake City is not very high up on the NFL’s list of potential cities for a team, but that doesn’t mean Salt Lake City is not on the NFL’s radar.
In the most recent Madden football game, Madden described Salt Lake City as a “small market” with “loyal fans,” giving a glimpse of how the NFL views SLC.
In order for the NFL to move to Salt Lake, they might need to take into account the culture that comes with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and how members of the LDS church reserve Sunday for religious matters.
“I think that may have been true 10 or 15 years ago but not today. The Wasatch Front is vastly different from the rest of the state. I’m not sure what the exact numbers are, but I think Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members are now in the minority in Salt Lake City. In addition to that shift, I would anticipate most people who are technically members of the church are not active,” LaReaux said.
It seems that the NFL is the least likely league to add a team to Salt Lake’s sports culture — for now.