Salt Lake City’s Bid for a Major League Expansion Team Is for Real

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

“I can’t imagine this at all.”

That was my knee-jerk reaction to last week’s announcement that a Salt Lake City-based group had launched a bid for a Major League Baseball expansion team. Growing up in SLC from 1973–88, I learned to appreciate the area’s mix of minor and major league sports and accept its limitations. I’d already seen prospects on their way up and journeymen on their way down while attending several games of the Pacific Coast League’s Salt Lake Gulls and the Central Hockey League’s Salt Lake Golden Eagles by the time the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz sputtered into town in 1979, financially beleaguered and thin on talent. Frankly, that operation felt minor league itself.

The Jazz eventually grew into an NBA powerhouse, but even having lived and died with that team, and watched the city’s growth mostly from afar for the past three and a half decades (my parents do still reside there), I was not prepared to accept the notion that the city’s time had come for an MLB franchise. I fully understand why the average fan — who for years has been hearing about Portland, Nashville, Montreal and other potential sites — might not be either. But upon closer investigation, this skeptic is convinced the SLC bid is a real contender — though one major and almost unfathomable obstacle looms.

MLB has no imminent plans to expand, but that didn’t prevent a consortium called Big League Utah from announcing its intent to compete for a franchise once the league does decide it’s ready for a 31st and 32nd team. Last week, Big League Utah launched an eye-catching campaign in connection with the groundbreaking of a redevelopment that could include a new ballpark. In touting the state’s growth, economy, location, local enthusiasm for sports, and quality of life, the group calls Utah “a five-tool player” — and I have to admit, that’s a pretty catchy way of putting it.

The refrain since Rob Manfred became commissioner in 2015 is that expansion won’t be an option until the futures of the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays are ironed out. Given the ongoing difficulties getting new ballparks built locally, both teams have explored relocation, with the A’s in the midst of an extended flirtation with Las Vegas and the Rays having floated a two-city plan with Montreal that was utterly cockamamie. Suffice it to say that eight years after Manfred took office, neither franchise appears to be on the verge of a solution.

But even with those teams in limbo and expansion plans on hold, in July 2018 Manfred mentioned Charlotte, Nashville, Portland, and Vancouver as options, along with Las Vegas and Montreal. Since then, public-facing groups in Nashville (Music City Baseball) and Portland, Oregon (Portland Diamond Project) have emerged as the most visible efforts to secure expansion teams, hoping to generate local buzz, momentum, and most importantly money to make those big league dreams a reality.

“While there will always be debates over which markets provide the sustainability in fanbase, corporate sponsor pool, media market size, and the weather when ballpark designs are open-air, the main factor for MLB will always center on funding,” wrote Forbes‘ Maury Brown last week. Both to Brown’s eyes and my own, that’s what makes Big League Utah’s bid stand out, because at the center of the bid is the Miller family and the Larry H. Miller Company, pillars of the Utah sports scene since the mid-1980s. Miller (1944-2009) was a Salt Lake City native who starred in local fast-pitch softball leagues and became a regional auto magnate; near the end of his life, his 42 dealerships made him the country’s 10th-largest dealer. In 1985, with the Jazz on the brink of switching cities again, Miller stepped up to purchase a 50% share of the franchise, and the following year, he purchased the other 50%.

On Miller’s watch, the Jazz developed into a model organization and blossomed into perennial contenders. Miller — an enthusiastic, high-visibility owner who wore his heart on his sleeve — developed close relationships with stars John Stockton and Karl Malone, keeping the pair together for the entirety of the latter’s 19-year run (1985-2003) with the team. Via the Deseret News: “Under Miller’s ownership, beginning with the 1985-86 season, the Jazz were the second winningest team in the NBA during the next 30 years [extending after his death, with the family still running the team], winning 50 or more games 16 times and nine division titles, as well as advancing to the NBA Finals twice.”

Additionally, Miller privately financed the construction of the 20,000-seat Delta Center (now Vivint Arena), which opened in 1991, as the new home for the Jazz. In 2003, he bought the PCL’s Salt Lake Stingers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Angels, and renamed them the Bees. At times he also owned the WNBA’s Utah Starzz, the NBA G-League’s Salt Lake City Stars, and the Golden Eagles as well. During his lifetime, Miller resisted countless overtures to buy the Jazz and move them, particularly in the early years when he was awash in red ink. After his death, wife Gail Miller and her family created a trust that would ensure the Jazz would stay in Utah. In 2020, the family sold the Jazz, the Bees, the Stars, and the arena to minority owner Ryan Smith, another Utahn, for a reported price of $1.66 billion.

Gail Miller now heads Big League Utah, a consortium that includes the Larry H. Miller Company; a handful of other local business leaders including former Utah governor John Huntsman Jr. and family; Tagg Romney and Spencer Zwick, co-founders of Solamere Capital; and former major leaguers Jeremy Guthrie and Dale Murphy. Per Forbes, the 79-year-old Miller has a net worth of $4 billion, tying her with Red Sox owner John Henry (and others) for 271st on the Forbes 400 list, with Angels owner Arte Moreno ($4.1 billion) and Cubs owner Joe Ricketts ($3.9 billion) in the same vicinity. Solamere Capital is a private equity group that could be involved in raising additional capital for expansion fees and building a ballpark; Romney is the son of former presidential candidate and current U.S. senator Mitt Romney, who himself served as the president and CEO of Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Olympics effort. Guthrie and Murphy are both Utah residents with ties to Provo’s Brigham Young University; the former began his college career there before transferring to Stanford, while the latter attended school in the offseasons of his career. That Murphy is involved with Big League Utah after previously serving as a consultant for the Portland Diamond Project (he was born and raised in Portland) may reflect a shift in momentum among the aspiring locales.

That’s a high-profile group with much more of a track record in running successful sports franchises than any of the other groups have put forth, and it does suggest they know where the bulk of their money is coming from, where that of the other contenders appears to be murkier. For example, via The Athletic’s profile of the Portland Diamond Project in January, “In 2019, The Oregonian reported PDP had $1.3 billion in financial commitments from private investors. [PDP founder Craig] Cheek indicated that number is higher today but declined to share specifics.” A parallel profile of Music City Baseball, which is headed by former major league star Dave Stewart and features an advisory board that includes Don Mattingly, Tony La Russa, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick, former NFL star Eddie George, and pop star Justin Timberlake (among others), features what Stewart called “soft commitments” from unidentified private investors.

Also worth noting is that Big League Utah appears to have a clear path to a “shovel-ready” site for the ballpark, one whose first-phase groundbreaking last Wednesday served as the impetus for the launch. Rocky Mountain Power, a partner in Big League Utah, owns a 100-acre property between downtown Salt Lake City and Salt Lake International Airport, situated on an existing TRAX (light rail) line and near the intersection of Interstates 80 and 15. “The Power District” — how’s that for a ready-made marketing slogan for a baseball team? — is envisioned as a mixed-use development along the city’s western gateway, one that could accommodate a stadium and feature the nearby Wasatch Mountains as a backdrop, much like the area’s other minor league parks including Smith’s Ballpark, the current home of the Bees and the PAC-12’s University of Utah Utes.

As for public financing, Utah governor Spencer Cox says it hasn’t been discussed with the group yet. Via the Salt Lake Tribune’s Aaron Falk:

“I’m sure there will be down the road,” Cox said. “I’m not a big believer in subsidizing billionaires with taxpayers’ dollars to build stadiums. We haven’t done that historically. I’m not really interested in starting that. But I do believe there are things we can do to help alleviate that burden.”

Cox expects there to be discussions about tax increment financing, which the Millers used to help pay for renovations at Vivint Arena in 2016. The governor also said he supports other means of support, including help with infrastructure.

“Then you’re not just subsidizing one entity, but you’re helping lift an entire area,” he said. “I’m sure there will be lots of conversations about those things in the future, but I kind of recoil at some of the details I’ve seen in other states. Where you’re taking dollars to build ballparks or stadiums, that benefit just accrues to the owner and not the individual taxpayers.”

In the 30-plus years since I left Salt Lake, the city has grown significantly, becoming more cosmopolitan and increasingly diverse. It boasts a thriving economy and demographics that put it on par with several current and aspiring big league cities.

On the one hand, no state with a major league team has a lower population than Utah’s 3.4 million (which ranks 30th); Minnesota, with 5.8 million, is the lowest-ranked at no. 22. Yet via the 2020 United States Census, Utah is the fastest-growing state in the country, with an 18.4% increase in population from 2010 to ’20. That population growth has translated to an ongoing economic boom. In 2021, Forbes ranked the state first in terms of the growth of its GDP. “The Utah economy has been a powerhouse in recent decades, hence the reason why it takes the No. 1 spot,” wrote Andrew DiPietro. “Over the last five years, Utah’s GDP grew by an excellent 19.1%, the second-highest growth rate for that period out of all 50 states.” Going back to 2010, the state’s GDP expanded by 36.6%, and going back to 2000, the growth is 82%.

Salt Lake City has just 200,478 residents according to July 1, 2021 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, making it just the 122nd-largest city in the country. That said, the metropolitan area stretching from Ogden in the north to Provo in the south fares better in the Metropolitan Statistical Area population rankings, though it’s still on the small side compared even to the smallest current markets as well as other aspirants:

Metropolitan Statistical Area Ranks of Current & Potential MLB Cities
Rank Metropolitan Statistical Area Status 2020 Population Growth Since 2010 (%)
23 Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC Expansion? 2,660,329 +18.6%
25 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA Expansion? 2,512,859 +12.9%
27 Pittsburgh, PA MLB 2,370,930 +0.6%
29 Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV Relocation? 2,265,461 +16.1%
30 Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN MLB 2,256,884 +5.6%
31 Kansas City, MO-KS MLB 2,192,035 +9.1%
34 Cleveland-Elyria, OH MLB 2,088,251 +0.5%
36 Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, TN Expansion? 1,989,519 +20.9%
40 Milwaukee-Waukesha, WI MLB 1,574,731 +1.2%
47 Salt Lake City, UT Expansion? 1,257,936 +15.6%
SOURCE: 2020 United States census

Where Salt Lake City stands out more is in the Combined Statistical Area population rankings, which consider adjacent metropolitan and micropolitan areas with economic ties measured by commuting patterns:

Combined Statistical Area Ranks of Current & Potential MLB Cities
Rank Combined statistical area Status 2020 Census Growth (%)
19 Portland-Vancouver-Salem, OR-WA Expansion? 3,280,736 +12.3%
20 St. Louis-St. Charles-Farmington, MO-IL MLB 2,924,904 +1.1%
21 Charlotte-Concord, NC-SC Expansion? 2,822,352 +17.5%
22 Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, UT Expansion? 2,701,129 +18.9%
24 Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV MLB 2,657,149 -+0.1%
27 Kansas City-Overland Park-Kansas City, MO-KS MLB 2,528,644 +7.9%
29 Las Vegas-Henderson, NV Relocation? 2,317,052 +16.1%
30 Cincinnati-Wilmington-Maysville, OH-KY-IN MLB 2,316,022 +5.4%
31 Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro, TN Expansion? 2,118,233 +20.1%
33 Milwaukee-Racine-Waukesha, WI MLB 2,053,232 +1.3%

Likewise, the area has a leg up on some of the other aspiring locations as well as a handful of current ones is in terms of its television market size according to The Nielsen Company:

Nielsen Designated Market Area Rankings
Rank Market Status TV Homes
21 Charlotte, NC Expansion? 1,323,400
22 Portland, OR Expansion? 1,293,400
26 Pittsburgh, PA MLB 1,174,940
27 Nashville, TN MLB 1,168,540
28 Baltimore, MD MLB 1,149,480
29 Salt Lake City, UT Expansion? 1,148,120
30 San Diego, CA MLB 1,107,010
33 Kansas City, MO MLB 1,019,550
36 Cincinnati, OH MLB 953,940
38 Milwaukee, WI MLB 900,200
40 Las Vegas, NV Relocation? 870,240
SOURCE: https://ustvdb.com/seasons/2022-23/markets/

All of which is to say that it’s at least competitive with other prospective cities in such regards. Baseball-wise, the city has a minor league history that goes back over a century, to when the Sacramento Solons, a charter member of the PCL, moved in time for the league’s second season. Franchises have come and gone since then; in my high school years, the independent Salt Lake Trappers of the rookie-level Pioneer League had to pinch-hit when one Triple-A franchise left town. Things are on healthier footing now; last year, the Bees drew 434,616 fans, ranking fourth in the PCL and 18th in the minors.

Thinking ahead to a potential franchise, we don’t know what form a 32-team MLB would take in terms of division and league breakdowns. The addition of a Salt Lake City team would at least create natural rivalries with the Rockies and Diamondbacks, both of which are currently blacked out in MLB’s ridiculous arrangement. Speaking of the Rockies, Salt Lake City’s official elevation of 4,226 feet above sea level would probably make it another hitter’s haven, something anyone who follows the PCL can tell you.

Still, two areas of concern linger in my mind. First, in January the Larry H. Miller Company unveiled a plan to move the Bees from downtown Smith’s Ballpark, a 15,400-seat park built in 1994, to a new, privately-financed stadium in suburban South Jordan (18 miles south), with a planned opening for 2025. What becomes of that effort? “LHM officials believe a new 8,000-seat stadium in Daybreak won’t cannibalize Utah’s baseball fanbase and will help clear the Salt Lake City market for a major league team,” wrote Falk, adding, “MLB teams in Boston, Seattle, Minnesota, Atlanta and Houston are in similar situations. The Houston Astros’ affiliate in Sugar Land, for example, is about 20 miles away.”

So maybe that isn’t such a big deal. What could be is the future of the body of water that gives the city its name. After decades of drying that have accelerated in recent years due to climate change and population growth, the Great Salt Lake reached a record low water level in November, dipping to 4,188.6 feet above sea level, having lost 70% of its water since 1850. A June 2022 report in the New York Times sounded a dire warning regarding the air quality if the lake continues to dry up: “Most alarming, the air surrounding Salt Lake City would occasionally turn poisonous. The lake bed contains high levels of arsenic and as more of it becomes exposed, wind storms carry that arsenic into the lungs of nearby residents, who make up three-quarters of Utah’s population.”

A January 2023 story in the Washington Post highlighted a report by researchers at BYU that showed that without dramatic cuts to water consumption — consumption driven by the same population growth that makes the area appealing as an expansion site — the lake was on track to disappear in five years. Since then, thankfully, the city has experienced its seventh-snowiest winter on record, with eight local ski resorts reporting record snowfalls. Already, the lake has risen three feet in five months, though it’s still six feet below “the minimum acceptable elevation for the lake’s ecological and economic health,” according to BYU ecologist Ben Abbott, the lead author of the January report.

The current snowpack and its runoff could raise levels another three or four feet, but the long-term sustainability of the lake remains in question, all of which would make for a thorny issue for MLB to consider in the context of a Salt Lake City bid. The likelihood that it will be a few years before the league makes up its mind about expansion — what’s the rush, right? — at least leaves time to see which way the wind is blowing, so to speak.

That rather large and bleak topic aside, I’m genuinely impressed by the case Big League Utah can make for Salt Lake City as an expansion option. This isn’t to say that it will wind up being one of the two best cases when it’s time to give the green light; I’d expect the major financial players to start coming forward after Oakland and Tampa Bay are resolved. But at last, I can at least imagine a major league team in the city where I grew up.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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sadtrombonemember
10 months ago

I’m all for it. Salt Lake is a pretty wealthy place, so even though it would be in the same scenario as Milwaukee and Cincinnati there’s a lot more money flowing. The Rockies form a natural rival, something they don’t currently have.

It would definitely still be a small-market team, though looking at these charts it sure seems like it’s a good a fit as Nashville. Neither one looks as good as Charlotte or Portland, though. I say they put a team in all four, plus New Jersey and Austin. This would lead MLB to its destiny as a 36-team league (and a 16 team playoff that isn’t ludicrous), and it would allow MLB to keep threatening to move a team to Las Vegas (which, looking at these charts…it doesn’t look like it makes any sense to me).

PC1970
10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I tend to agree. I personally think there are 4 logical choices:

Nashville
Charlotte
Austin
Portland

Nasvhille & Austin may be a little smaller (though San Antonio is within 90 minutes of Austin), but, both are burgeoning & both are also fun cities that would attract opposing fans that would come to spend a weekend while catching a game or 2.

After them, I’d put:

Montreal- another “fun” city, but, been there/done that & weather issues causing need for a dome?

SLC

Then:

Vancouver- I don’t get this one, impinges on Seattle, not that big, travel issues for most teams, def out if Portland gets a team, right?

Las Vegas- I don’t get this one. Weather is awful in summer requiring a dome & while it’s a fun city there may be too many distractions, it seems like it’s made up of transplants, is lower income, has the same long-term water issues,not sure the ties to gambling won’t cause issues, etc.

Last edited 10 months ago by PC1970
slamcactus
10 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

Vancouver’s a split media market that shows Mariners and Blue Jays games, and at least anecdotally from spending a lot of time there folks tend to consider the Jays the home team. The impact on Seattle wouldn’t be nearly as large as if a team came to Portland, currently undisputed Ms territory.

As for “not that big,” it’s bigger than every US city you listed but Charlotte, and its broadcast rights would likely extend to Calgary and Edmonton. That’s another 3 million people who live about the same distance from Vancouver as the population centers in Montana (where the Ms are the “local” team) from Seattle.

Last edited 10 months ago by slamcactus
PC1970
10 months ago
Reply to  slamcactus

OK, you talked me into:

Portland/Vancouver as 1st tier. Pick one, whichever one is a better fit, has better infrastructure/ownership, etc..but, you can’t pick both.

sadtrombonemember
10 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

IIRC Vancouver is as big as Seattle and very wealthy. The Mariners would probably throw a fit if there was both a team in Portland and Vancouver, which is the only reason not to put a team in both spots.

I actually think Austin is probably the best spot after Vancouver. I also think Calgary would do very well too.

chamacomember
10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Austin will not build a publicly funded stadium within the city limits, so any team would be playing outside of town.

sadtrombonemember
10 months ago
Reply to  chamaco

Sam Antonio would also be good.

sadtrombonemember
10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Sam Antonio is definitely also a AAAA catcher who mentors the kids before they reach the majors, Crash Davis style.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

He’s the love child of Sam Neill and Antonio Banderas, and plays Crash in the rebooted Bull Durham streaming series that I’m immediately surprised doesn’t exist now that I have typed the words “rebooted Bull Durham streaming series” ((c) 2023 me, all rights reserved, pitch and ten-episode treatment available upon request)

Cool Lester Smoothmember
10 months ago
Reply to  chamaco

The Braves don’t play in Atlanta.

JoeyVottoIsGodmember
10 months ago
Reply to  chamaco

Austin City Limits will continue to be musicians-only.

Matt Greene
10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Well but as an Ms fan who sees them guzzling revenue and not spending it on contracts anyway–it sure would be fun to have a natural Cascadia rivalry with 3 PacNW teams. In terms of population in North America + wealth, Vancouver would be the top choice. But it is Canada after all…

M’s would do so much better (in terms of competitiveness) with the reduced travel burden of three PacNW teams, and it would put a greater burden on everyone else in terms of travelling to all 3 cities

Lanidrac
10 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

In that case, you might as well put the 3rd Texas team in the larger area of San Antonio rather than Austin.

channelclemente
10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Does baseball need another Denver. SLC is at over 4000 feet.

tung_twista
10 months ago

https://red.msudenver.edu/2018/advantage-altitude-exploring-the-largest-home-advantage-in-sports/
Among four major sports league in North America, NHL is the only league where Colorado-based team is not the 1st in home advantage.
Utah Jazz, based in Salt Lake City, has the 2nd highest home court advantage in NBA after Denver Broncos.

Michaelmember
10 months ago

one of my first thoughts

Youppi!member
10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

i’m excited to see all the talented teams in the 36 team Manifest Destiny league. i hope it’s like having 6 more Oakland As.

MLB should go down to 28 and then have 8 for D League Relegation Fun, and then make AAA the new AA.

Lanidrac
10 months ago
Reply to  Youppi!

Relegation is absolutely stupid, especially when you have the absolute divide of MLB versus AAA as part of Minor League Baseball.

You can’t just stick a star player back in the media equivalent of AAA just because he happens to play for a bad team! Nobody wants to watch someone like Bryan Reynolds have his career stalled like that.

Last edited 10 months ago by Lanidrac
Dan B
10 months ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Bryan Reynolds already plays for a AAA team.

Johnnie T
10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

While expansion is fun, frankly we do not need another franchise in a market as small as Pittsburgh or Kansas City. Frankly, the case for contracting Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, is stronger — those cities are good baseball towns but just do not have the demographic size and are not growing.

I would not consider a city for expansion until it has a metro of nearly 3 million. That’s what the successful relocation/expansion cities (Washington, Seattle, Denver, Phoenix) had. Which means MAYBE like Charlotte or Vegas or Orlando a decade from now?

Cris E
10 months ago
Reply to  Johnnie T

And I’d press for a Brooklyn team as well. The NYC metro can support another team more easily than some of these little guys, especially if an alternative to cable TV revenues can be found.

Lanidrac
10 months ago
Reply to  Johnnie T

I basically agree, but not Orlando. It’s already been proven that MLB does not draw well in Florida regardless of market size. The Rays should be doing everything they can to get OUT of Florida.

Otherwise, yes, the top contenders among U.S. cities should otherwise be the largest MSAs in the country without a team, namely Charlotte, San Antonio, Portland, and Sacramento.

Then you can also throw in the international possibilities of Montreal, Vancouver, and maybe Mexico City. (All other Canadian metro areas are likewise too small.)

I also agree that the New York area could support a 3rd team, preferably in New Jersey, but that’s not high on the priority list.

Last edited 10 months ago by Lanidrac