By: Maury Brown | April 13, 2023
While there had been whispers, when the announcement that a group of civic and business leaders in Utah were putting together an effort to lure Major League Baseball to Salt Lake City, it may have been easy to write it off as just another market making noise without anything significant to back it up. But digging deeper, should the effort be able to retain its center while awaiting when expansion may occur, they appear positioned to be a serious player.
The group, Big League Utah, quietly built their coalition, a site location, and most importantly, people with resources to help fund not just a ballpark, but the expansion fees. While there will always be debates over which markets provide the sustainability in fan base, 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.
The reason to take the Salt Lake effort as serious centers on the Miller family and the Larry H. Miller Company as the driver. Larry Miller owned the Utah Jazz, and since his death, Gail Miller has been the matriarch of the enterprise. Based on the Forbes valuations, she has a net worth of $4 billion, some of which was gained through the Jazz sale that came in just shy of $2 billion.
“We believe in the power of sports to elevate and unify communities,” said Miller, as part of a statement from Big League Utah. “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.”
Unlike Portland and Nashville, who have been the highest profile markets to have boosters looking to lure Major League Baseball, the Utah effort lists out financial partners engaged in the effort. While it is unclear whether there are binding agreements, how much is being invested, or whether they may be investing at all, the list sees some high-profile individuals. The first question many wondered about was whether the Romneys might get involved. While former governor, presidential candidate and current U.S. senator Mitt is not listed as part of Big League Utah, his son Tagg Romney is. He is currently the Co-founder & Managing Partner of Solamere Capital. Solamere appears to be a key part of the effort as Spencer Zwick, the co-founder of Solamere is also listed as part of the effort. Solamere says they are a $2 billion multi-strategy private equity investment firm founded in 2008, which could play into pulling in additional funds needed to cover what could be as much as $4 billion needed to fund a ballpark and expansion fees. Other business leaders listed include Scott Anderson, President & CEO, Zions Bank; Lew Cramer, CEO, Colliers International; Kem Gardner, Chairman, Gardner Company.
The biggest question not yet answered is how much private money verses public money will be involved. Major League Baseball is no exception from other leagues in the U.S. in seeking public funds as part of any ballpark development. In nearly all cases, the league will seek the majority of funding on the public side over private to not set precedent for other franchises to follow. At least initially, the political backing of the effort reads like a who’s who in Utah politics. Key to the effort, Governor Spencer Cox is but one.
“Utah has the strongest economy in the country, is a top 30 media market, and is the fastest-growing state with the youngest population,” said Cox in the announcement. “These are the ingredients for a Major League Baseball market. As the Crossroads of the West, Utah has successfully hosted large sporting events, like the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and two NBA All-Star Games and is home to thriving professional and collegiate sports teams. We boast of the Greatest Snow on Earth, five national parks and 46 state parks. We are on the radar and pushing as hard as we can.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also is on-board saying, “Salt Lake City is distinctly ready to be Major League Baseball’s newest home. The infrastructure we already have in place – from our world-class international airport, to our robust public transit system, our hotel and hospitality sectors, and our arts, culture and entertainment community – make us a perfect fit for this evolution. Our capital city and the residents of North Temple near the Power District are poised for an investment like this, and I welcome the opportunity to keep growing this cultural and economic hub of our great state and region.”
In a sign that the state legislature, at least initially, will not be a roadblock, both Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson have signed on. Others supporting include U.S. Senator Mike Lee, Mitt Romney, Congressman John Curtis, Congressman Blake Moore, Congressman Burgess Owens, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson shoring up state and regional politicians across the spectrum for what will be needed when the rubber hits the road on funding.
The MLB to Portland effort has Russell Wilson and Ciara for a celebrity face while Nashville boasts Eddie George and Phillies president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski. For the MLB to Utah effort, NFL Hall of Famer and three-time Super Bowl champion Steve Young is listed. But what may be more telling is former MLB two-time MVP and all-star Dale Murphy is part of the effort. Murphy played high school ball in Portland and was seen at more than one MLB to Portland event. Shifting to Utah, where he lives, signals a shift in where he sees his chances.
“After playing nearly two decades in the MLB, I know what it takes for a city to successfully host professional baseball. Salt Lake City has it all: a young and growing population, a prime ballpark location, a booming economy, and a dedicated community of supporters,” said Murphy.
As noted, a key factor is a preferred site has already been targeted with a path to purchase. Rocky Mountain Power is a partner of Big League Utah and that’s key as they just broke ground on what is being called the Power District Project, which includes a new headquarters for the company. The district is a 100-acre mixed-use development.
“The Power District is ideally located between the Salt Lake City International Airport and downtown,” said Gary Hoogeveen, Rocky Mountain Power Chief Executive Officer. “A ballpark within our new development will be uniquely situated near I-80 and North Temple, along UTA’s light rail line, and have stunning views of the city’s skyline and Wasatch mountains.”
Other key partners include architecture firm Populous, who has been involved in nearly all of MLB’s ballpark efforts as of late, and Mortenson on the construction side, who have built several ballparks, most recently with the Braves’ Truist Park. Mortensen is the general contractor for the first phase of the Power District.
While the Utah effort looks great on paper, expansion itself, seems to be five or more years out. While MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said repeatedly that he sees the league as a growth industry with 32 teams as the goal, changes to the game such as universal DH and interleague now a daily occurrence, all of which sets itself up for regional realignment with expansion, nothing happens on those fronts until ballparks for the Athletics and Rays are completed. Both have been nearly two decades in discussions. Both have yet to firmly have a timeline for completion. For all the expansion markets pining for MLB – Salt Lake City included – maybe the biggest challenge will be holding the center over what may be years before being able to move concretely occurs. Politicians are likely to come and go. Development in the Power District may only be held back so long. Investors may be hard to retain as part of the capital stack. As the well-worn cliché in baseball at the start of each season says, hope springs eternal. At least at the beginning, the MLB to Utah effort has reasons to be hopeful.