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Soccer & Utah: Boom or Bust?

Published February 20, 2005 1:08 am

Do taxpayers have the appetite to become frenzied futbol fans, or will they stick with traditional
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

People worry about the league's viability. The franchise is untested in the market. Few care about the team, which many fear could bolt for a bigger, more lucrative city.

No, we're not talking about Major League Soccer or Real Salt Lake and the doubts surrounding Utah's newest pro sports team. This was the talk in 1979, when the NBA's Utah Jazz moved here from New Orleans.

Those pessimistic predictions have gone the way of the underhand free throw for the Jazz. But they remain at the forefront of the current soccer debate. While many headlines focus on where the 22,000-seat stadium should be built - Murray or Salt Lake City - and how much, if anything, taxpayers should pay for it, the bigger questions may be:

* Is MLS here to stay?

* And is MLS here (in Utah) to stay?

In short, will RSL be another Jazz or the next Starzz, the women's basketball team that left Salt Lake City for San Antonio in 2002? Utah has seen at least nine pro teams come and go in recent years.

RSL owner Dave Checketts knows something about sports successes. In the 1980s he became the Jazz's general manager, oversaw the club's first profitable year, persuaded Larry Miller to buy into the team and, ultimately, save the franchise for legions of loyal locals.

Checketts is betting millions - $10 million for the team, $3.5 million in marketing and $30 million for half the stadium cost - that RSL will thrive in Utah as well. He hopes to create a "soccer culture" in which fans don red team scarves and spill out of TRAX trains in either Murray or Salt Lake City chanting the fight song.

But the risk is real - for team backers and taxpayers, especially if they foot the other half of the proposed stadium's $60 million tab.

"The risky thing to this whole MLS deal is: Will MLS survive in the United States?" says Perry VanDeventer, city manager of Commerce City, a Denver suburb that required Colorado Rapids owner Kroenke Sports Enterprises to guarantee some of the bond payments used to build improvements surrounding the stadium. "It's not had a long track record. It's hard to judge its popularity. You're not getting the Utah Jazz."

New Jersey's MetroStars are in a financial tussle about their stadium, due to open by 2006. The state wants the franchise to guarantee to help pay off the venue if the team or league folds, according to The (Newark) Star Ledger.

Even before RSL settles on a stadium site, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson is negotiating for protections so the city won't be left paying the mortgage on an empty venue in case the team leaves. Checketts says he's willing to "make those assurances."

James Wood, director of the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, warns that building a soccer stadium presents more risks than other publicly subsidized arenas in the state. "I'm all for having a soccer stadium if the investors pony up the money," he says. "It is a risk for taxpayers. What if MLS is not successful? It is an untested market, and if they have to leave, now we're stuck with a facility we have to manage and operate."

At first, Checketts was skeptical of MLS, too. After all, the decade-old league lost an estimated $350 million in its first several seasons. But he says the Jazz lost an average of $2.2 million in each of their first five years in Utah.

Plus, most U.S. sports fans have snoozed at the long, low-scoring soccer matches. Unlike the NBA, where the world's best basketball players go head to head, MLS historically hasn't attracted the greatest soccer stars.

But that may be changing. MLS players are credited with helping the U.S. Men's National Team reach the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup for the first time since 1930. And while the league has been seen as Europe's retirement haven, MLS is pursuing younger, American players.

Teen sensation Freddy Adu snubbed England's Manchester United to sign with MLS' D.C. United in 2003 - though it's too soon to say if Adu will be the league's Michael Jordan.

"I don't shy away from those naysayers who question the long-term position of our sport," concedes MLS Commissioner Don Garber in a phone interview from New York. "Soccer is truly going to be one of the dominant sports in this country. We will be one of the dominant leagues in time."

He points to the 18 million U.S. youngsters who play soccer - more than any other sport - and the surge in the nation's immigrant population, particularly Latinos. The average game attendance is up to 15,800 - a number RSL hopes to at least match.

Billionaires also back the league, though their interest appears to be waning. Philip Anschutz, whose associated company is one of the world's leading sports and entertainment presenters, owns five of the 12 MLS teams.

Bob Kraft, owner of the NFL's New England Patriots, also owns an MLS franchise. And Lamar Hunt, who created the American Football League and owns the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, has three MLS squads -he is trying to sell one of them.

While the North American Soccer League died in 1984 after 16 years, MLS has a different structure that controls player salaries and overall spending and allows team owner/investors to share revenue. But a Business Week commentary in November complained that oversight has made for uninspired play. "For the MLS to take advantage of its business successes, it has to put more energy and money into raising the level of its game."

Scott Warfield, who has followed MLS for the Sports Business Journal, says the league has a solid future. He points to a recent 10-year, $150 million contract with Adidas. "That is a huge deal for them. Obviously, somebody sees the league as a viable option."

Warfield sees the proliferation of soccer-specific stadiums as another positive sign.

The two teams that either have broken even or turned a profit - albeit a small one - play in soccer stadiums. The Los Angeles Galaxy led MLS in attendance even before they built a stadium in 2003 but didn't reach the black, by $150,000, until they had their own home and controlled all the money to be made from sponsorships, concessions and suite rentals. Plus, with their own stadium, teams don't have to pay fees just to open the gates. And fans prefer the intimate seating.

That's why MLS requires every new franchise to build a venue. Two are already built and five are under way with a mix of public and private financing. The league anticipates adding up to six new teams by 2010.

And that's why Checketts is pushing for a stadium even before RSL plays an official game. Its inaugural season starts in April at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"Just like the Jazz cannot succeed without the Delta Center, we can't succeed without a soccer-specific stadium," he says.

But the Jazz played at the Salt Palace for 12 years before moving to the Delta Center. So why doesn't RSL wait a few years to gauge fan support?

"That's not my style," Checketts says. "This team's going to be in Salt Lake. This is my hometown. I'm not here threatening to take it someplace else."

Even while teams in larger markets struggle, Garber, the MLS commissioner, expects RSL to draw well. Utah boasts the largest per-capita youth soccer participation in the country. Thousands of returned LDS missionaries served in nations where soccer reigns. And the area's Latino population is skyrocketing - it's nearly 20 percent of Salt Lake City.

Marcos Martinez, of Taylorsville, plans to attend matches. "I come from a country where they don't have money to eat but they have money to go see the game," says the native Argentinian who plays recreational soccer with his 21-year-old son. But while he doesn't expect MLS to compare to the quality of international leagues, "you want to go with your son and see a game. There's nothing better than that."

"We're excited about Salt Lake," Garber says. If a stadium is built, "They're absolutely here to stay."

Teams without stadiums aren't so secure. San Jose may lose its team because of low attendance and the lack of a soccer-specific stadium. And the Kansas City Wizards, who don't have their own venue, are for sale. So the stadium is key to RSL's future. And the team says taxpayers are key to building that stadium.

"Everything's a risk," Checketts says. "At the same time, if we don't find a way to build a soccer-specific stadium in Salt Lake, it can't work for us long term."

hmay@sltrib.com

lwodraska@sltrib.com

Proposed Real Soccer Stadium

PUBLIC CONTRIBUTION: Land (up to $20 million in Salt Lake City between 600 South and 700 South from Main to West Temple or an unknown amount in Murray near 4400 South and Main); around $30 million for the $60 million stadium through a Salt Lake County bond.

PRIVATE CONTRIBUTION: $30 million for the stadium.

NUMBER OF EVENTS PER YEAR: 16 RSL matches. There are plans for eventually 100 to 150 events, including exhibition soccer games, high school championships, meetings, conventions and concerts.

NUMBER OF SEATS: 22,000

OTHER AMENITIES: Other soccer stadiums are built with suites, hospitality areas and meeting spaces. RSL may want a retractable roof, though it would boost the construction cost to $90 million.

Some teams that left:

Salt Lake Golden Eagles - minor-league hockey

Salt Lake Gulls - minor-league baseball

Salt Lake Predators - women's pro volleyball

Salt Lake Ratzz - men's soccer

Utah Blitzz - men's soccer

Utah Freezz - men's indoor soccer

Utah Rattlers - indoor football

Utah Starzz - WNBA team moved to San Antonio

Zion Pioneerzz - minor-league baseball (St. George)