Matthew D. LaPlante: Women’s soccer would be a Royal solution for Salt Lake City’s ballpark

NWSL team would revive city’s baseball stadium, and neighborhood.

The old baseball stadium on the corner of 20th and Morrison in southwest Portland was a terrible place for soccer. The field shape was wrong. The sightlines were horrible. And the Astroturf-style playing surface, which was bad enough for playing baseball, was absolutely horrendous for “the beautiful game.”

None of that stopped The Timbers from calling Civic Stadium home when that team was first born in the 1970s during the gritty early days of professional men’s soccer in the United States, or when that franchise was resurrected as a minor league team in the early 2000s. And it didn’t stop the Women’s World Cup from using that same stadium for the back-to-back tournaments that were hosted in the United States in 1999 and 2003.

It was at that latter event, which I was reporting on for a newspaper in Oregon, that I saw a vision for the potential of that stadium — then called PGE Park — to be a truly magnificent place for soccer. Albeit still not perfect, the sightlines had been improved. There was real grass on the field. And a capacity crowd was packed into the park on Oct. 5, 2003, when the United States fell to Germany 3-0 in the tournament semi-final. After the game, U.S. striker Mia Hamm told me that the hardest part of the loss was the fact that she had rarely, if ever, played in front of such passionate, raucous fans.

Today, the place now known as Providence Park — home to the third iteration of the Timbers and the two-time champion Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League — is among the best places to watch soccer in the United States, with infamously cacophonous crowds packed into a place that bears only a passing resemblance to a stadium that was once home to America’s other pastime.

It is also Exhibit A for a nearly perfect solution to the puzzle that is now facing leaders in Salt Lake City: What to do when Minor League Baseball’s Salt Lake Bees leave Utah’s capital for a new hive in the suburbs.

The answer is Royal.

When the National Women’s Soccer League announced its expansion into Utah in 2017, there were plenty of questions about whether Salt Lake could support two professional soccer teams. Those questions were answered in the first season, when the Utah Royals became one of the top-drawing clubs in the league. And it wasn’t a lack of support but some very bad luck for fans — in the form of an owner pushed out of the league after making racist comments — that led to the selling of the team to an eager ownership group in Kansas City.

But the group that later took over the men’s team has retained the right to relaunch a club in the women’s league, and owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith have made it clear that this is a “when not if” proposition.

“We’re very excited to bring an NWSL team back to this marketplace,” Blitzer told The Salt Lake Tribune in early 2022. “They did incredibly well here. The fanbase loves it. The market is growing. The athletes are incredible. Women’s soccer is continuing to grow dramatically and this is a perfect place to have this team.”

Indeed, Blitzer and Smith would be wise to work with civic leaders to relaunch the Royals and give them a home in the heart of Salt Lake City.

It is true that the Royals could once again share digs with Real Salt Lake in Sandy, as the two teams did for several years. That’s an absolutely reasonable option. But other teams in the women’s league are demonstrating that there are tremendous benefits to having their own home stadium. Kansas City, for instance, will become the first city to build a soccer-specific stadium for a women’s team when that facility opens in 2024; the stadium at Berkley Riverfront Park will cost $70 million.

By way of contrast, the Salt Lake ballpark, which is owned by the city, has been leased to the Bees for $15,000 a year.

And no, that’s not a typo. For less than the rent for a small apartment in the same neighborhood, the Bees have had a home stadium for decades. And that deal has actually made sense for the city, because of what having a resident team does for a neighborhood that is mononymously known as Ballpark — providing identity, a hub for activity, and both figurative and literal fireworks.

Given a similar deal on rent, the Royals would do all of that, too.

That seems like a good idea to Sheena McFarland, the co-host of the Utah soccer-themed podcast Real Salty, and a former resident of the neighborhood.

“The Salt Lake City ballpark is such an ideal place for a sporting venue,” she told me. “Making that space the new home of the Royals would bring world-class soccer within a short walk or quick TRAX ride for so many Utahns, and it would continue to draw the crowds to support some great local businesses in the area.”

And it might do even more. The Bees have always been a popular draw, but baseball attendance at every level has been dwindling in recent years, while soccer attendance for both men and women’s games is soaring. The Royals averaged about 10,000 fans during their seasons in Utah, and based on attendance in other places in the league, there’s good reason to believe there’s plenty of space for growth from there.

Nick Christensen knows what that could look like. Back in 2009, when Oregon’s largest city was considering investing tens of millions of dollars on baseball, the Portland resident vociferously and presciently warned that minor league baseball wasn’t a good long-term bet for his city. But soccer absolutely has been, and Christensen said he delights in taking his 7-year-old daughter to Thorns games at Providence Park.

“We pick up some dinner in the neighborhood — for some reason she associates going to soccer with poke bowls, and I’m all for that — then we walk to the stadium,” he told me. “It’s just a great experience. You get to watch soccer and enjoy a beautiful sunset on a warm summer evening … and between the historical parts of that stadium and the renovations that made it work for soccer, it really is just a gorgeous place.”

Christensen, who has attended minor league baseball games in Utah and was struck by the beauty of Salt Lake’s stadium, believes the baseball-to-soccer plan could work in the Beehive State just as it did in the Beaver State.

He’s right. And the timing and conditions couldn’t be better for Salt Lake to become one of the top places for women’s soccer in the United States — and for Ballpark to continue being home to an actual ballpark.

Matthew D. LaPlante

Matthew D. LaPlante is a resident of Salt Lake City, a professor of journalism at Utah State University, and a rabid soccer fan.