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Best spot to watch RSL? It's a tossup

Published May 23, 2005 12:26 am

While trend points to 'burbs, studies give downtown the edge
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Downtown or suburbia?

Ask Major League Soccer fans where they want to catch a Real Salt Lake match and they'll offer an opinion. Inevitably, though, they usually come around to what Gary Hadley said last week during RSL's win over USA Chivas: "I'll go wherever it's at."

Fans may not have strong preferences, but city and state leaders sure do. A political battle is brewing about RSL's proposed stadium site. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and the Salt Lake Chamber want it downtown or on its outer edges. Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan and House Speaker Greg Curtis point to 9400 South and State Street. And Murray Mayor Dan Snarr touts 4400 South near Main.

RSL officials, who are counting on the public to help subsidize a 25,000-seat venue, say they will pick whichever city can get it done. The MLS trend points to the suburbs, where other teams are building their futbol cathedrals.

But, setting aside that movement and money matters, national experts say downtown is better than the 'burbs.

While studies indicate stadiums make poor investments as job and tax generators, they show central-city venues stand a better shot at improving nearby neighborhoods and drawing fans than suburban ones do. That's because there are more opportunities for fans to spend money at restaurants, shops and bars downtown than at outlying venues often surrounded by blacktop and little other activity.

"If you want to advance regional economic development through a stadium, you need to make the stadium a destination for people to come in from the outside, drive in and spend the night," said Chris Nelson, an urban-affairs professor at Virginia Tech whose 2001 study maintains downtown is the only place to build stadiums. "If you put the stadium in a suburban location, there's no incentive for people to come in except to see the game. They're not going to want to stay and visit the suburb."

Downtowns also are better for the venues themselves, attracting more fans to the stands as well as corporations to rent pricey hospitality suites, says Timothy Chapin, a Florida State University associate professor who has studied stadium locations and their impact on neighborhoods.

Suburban sports venues typically offer what he calls a "parking lot experience" - the same as going shopping at a big box like Wal-Mart. Fans park, see the game, drive home.

"Downtowns offer something different," Chapin said. "The [surrounding] buildings are older. The scale is different. It's walkable. People like interesting urban places."

The professor's 2000 study tracked the placement of big-league baseball, football, basketball and hockey stadiums during the past century. He found that, after a decades-long shift of stadiums to bedroom communities that mirrored the flight of retail to the suburbs, those sports are returning downtown.

The NFL's Lions moved to downtown Detroit. Cleveland's downtown is home to the NBA's Cavaliers and MLB's Indians. Baseball parks have been built in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle. Denver has all four of its major teams downtown. Indianapolis' basketball arena is centralized, along with a football stadium it is rebuilding.

"Sometimes suburban locations are mentioned. It's never been a serious consideration," Monica Whitfield Brase, spokeswoman for Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, says of the Colts' new venue.

The main reason, she says, is because the stadium also will aid a convention center. "You just know if you go downtown, it's going to be really busy, there's going to be something going on."

Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards launched the widespread move downtown in 1992. "It allows people to feel more connected to the team," said Kristin Zissel, with the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "It also helps attendance. People will just decide last minute to stay downtown to go see the game. That might not happen if there was much of a commute getting to it."

By comparison, Chapin and Nelson point to the Texas Rangers' Ameriquest Field in suburban Arlington as being a bust economically for the surrounding community. The NFL's Dallas Cowboys may build a stadium nearby.

The Wasatch Front provides its own - mixed - examples. The Delta Center is credited with helping build up downtown's western edge. Franklin Covey Field, plopped down in the middle of a Salt Lake City neighborhood, hasn't spurred development. But the suburban E Center in West Valley City has.

None of the stadium studies has examined Major League Soccer. Of the six MLS stadiums built or started, five are in suburbs. Land is cheaper and more plentiful there so teams can build stadiums and surround them with youth soccer fields - which help inculcate young players and their parents into becoming MLS fans. And the suburbs would seem to house a sizable chunk of the soccer fan base: kids and their soccer moms and dads.

"It's not like we go into it saying, 'Suburbs. Where are they?' " said Simon Borg, MLS spokesman. "It's which site makes the most sense, which is the best situation for the team, the league, the community involved."

In Salt Lake County, more families live in the suburbs than in Salt Lake City.

A 2004 RSL poll, taken before Sandy was in the running, showed soccer fans favored Murray, then the west side of the valley, followed by downtown Salt Lake City.

At the RSL-Chivas game, Heather Torriente said she would prefer Sandy. "We live in South Jordan so it'd be closer. We'd probably go to more [games]."

But Latinos are a major fan base, too, and the capital has at least 34,000, while Sandy and Murray are home to a combined total of 6,400, according to the 2000 census. Salt Lake City's parks are so overrun by soccer matches that residents agreed in 2003 to raise their taxes to eventually build a sports complex with 30 soccer fields at about 2200 North and Redwood Road.

Chivas fan and North Salt Lake resident Jesus Castaneda declared downtown his first choice for a stadium. "It's closer to where I live. There's more to see downtown than [in] Murray or Sandy."

Chapin concedes that when major-league teams move downtown, they leave behind much of their fan base, who then must commute farther to games. But, by being downtown, they can cater to perhaps a more important clientele: Big bosses. Hospitality suite rentals are cash cows.

Nelson agrees. "You don't impress [clients] by taking them out to the suburbs."

hmay@sltrib.com