Monson: Real Salt Lake should do well in Utah
Any time a pro sports franchise in any league asks for taxpayer money to help build a venue, which is nearly every time a venue is built, there are questions to ask and answers to find.
Foremost among those questions: What's the payoff?
Well. Headlong into that poser runs Real Salt Lake, the city's - hold it, Dave Checketts' - new Major League Soccer franchise, poised to begin its inaugural season in April.
Already, RSL is looking for land and money - a match, in one scenario, of some $30 million just for the structure - via those who pay taxes to mix into a grand investment of at least $60 million for a gem of a soccer-specific stadium, which, by the way, will supposedly be versatile enough to draw other events, too. And thereby, be an economic boon to the surrounding area.
Here's the theory: If you build it, they - Fairfield Inns, Burger Kings, Hollywood Videos, Banana Republics, Red Lobsters, Olive Gardens, Café Rios, Abercrombie and Fitches, Victoria Secrets, Barnes and Nobles, Cheesecake Factories - will come.
I do not know how many sports fans want to eat pasta or grab a burger or spend the night or shop for a thong and a Miracle Bra in conjunction with their soccer experience, or whether merchandisers and consumers would see a futbol venue as the ideal spot to place and do their business.
Sometimes, arenas and stadiums transform neighborhoods, and sometimes they don't. But I do know the qualitative value of a well-run franchise at the top level of any major sport.
It can be magic and tonic for a community.
Anyone who was here remembers with exactness and fondness the Jazz's title runs in 1997 and '98. That was the pinnacle. Even now, when the Jazz, in a competitive sense, are momentarily a combination of vulnerable and pitiable, their impact on the state's residents, in terms of a kind of entertaining diversionary interest, remains high.
The place is better for having them, even if Howard Eisley is their point guard.
Same thing with Real Salt Lake and MLS.
It's not the Jazz, and it's not the NBA.
Soccer isn't basketball.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's something different, one more premium sports alternative, an entertainment option, for a city that sees itself as an emerging civic center with a national profile and an increasingly influential and diverse population.
When that population gloms onto a sports team that represents it, as a cultural anthropologist once told me, that team is remade into something bigger than just entertainment for its supporters. It becomes a troop of modern-day warriors doing battle with other warriors representing other communities. A healthy, nonviolent exhaustion of whatever it is inside most of us that craves for that kind of one-upmanship.
Many Utah fans recall how good it feels every time the Jazz put a whuppin' on, say, the Lakers. Why? Beats me. It just does.
The Jazz's sweep of the Lakers in 1998, by itself, would have been, in a lot of taxpayers' minds, worth a good $30 million in civic pride, alone.
Bring on, then, the L.A. Galaxy. Chumps.
There is a leap of faith here. Where public money is invested, comprehensive public interest intensifies in the overall health of the endeavor. As mentioned, MLS is not yet the secure equivalent of the NBA or Major League Baseball. The league lost a truckload of money - more than $300 million in its early years - but has shown recent positive signs of turning the financial tide. A $150 million deal with adidas is just one of them.
For teams in the league to move out of the red, they need their own stadiums, controlling the revenue generated from those attendant resources, and that's a major reason Checketts is counting on Salt Lake City or Murray or some other local city to offer up a good portion of the economic burden. He says he has to get a soccer-specific stadium for the financial equation to balance.
If he gets what he wants, there is a caveat. It's on him, then, to give back to residents here, fans through the turnstiles, a competitive product worth watching, a game experience at the stadium worth the cost. Of course, all of the other owners in MLS eliciting a mix of public and private funds for their venues are giving the same promises.
Somebody has to lose.
It doesn't take a cultural anthropologist to know, in American sports, winning is a huge key to stirring both interest and profitability.
MLS franchises averaged just over 15,000 fans a game last season, and Real Salt Lake figures it can draw at least that, particularly in its own stadium. Unlike so many other minor league sports franchises that have come and gone in Utah, always struggling at the gate, MLS offers, in theory, a top level of American soccer. It may not be the equal of Germany's Bundesliga or England's Premier League, but for the time being, it's the best this country has, and with most Americans, that's usually enough.
Owing to Utah's uniqueness - an army of youngsters playing the game (the state has the largest per-capita youth soccer participation in the nation), a burgeoning Latino population here, as well as the peculiarity of having thousands of returned LDS missionaries who lived for two years in countries where soccer was the predominant sport - a primary fan base is set.
"We're excited about Salt Lake," MLS commissioner Don Garber told The Tribune. He added that, if a stadium is built, RSL is "absolutely here to stay."
Maybe it would be.
With or without neighboring eateries, lodging and lingerie stores, Checketts' venture in his hometown is worth a private/public burden, a mixed financial risk for a mixed sporting spectacle and reward.