Opinion: Utah shouldn’t waste its time — or money — on an NHL hockey team

Gov. Spencer Cox and Mayor Erin Mendenhall should put this idea — and all the funding that they have proposed for it — where it belongs: in the penalty box.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Los Angeles Kings fans celebrate the Kings 4-3 win in overtime at the Delta Center, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

As the hype and excitement of attracting the first new big four sports team to Utah in 45 years climbs, so do the price tags of the new arenas and required public support.

There have been fantastic articles everywhere breaking down the economic pros and cons of these subsidies and whether or not it is worth it. These are certainly important conversations to have if you believe the market can support a team. But what if Utah can’t support a team?

Before I go too much further, I feel confident that, regardless of the subsidy, Utah could support a Major League Baseball team. Our media market is large enough and except for Real Salt Lake, which only has around 14 home games a year during MLB’s regular season, there is no overlap with other sports. Beyond that, multiple articles have reported on the strong interest from the MLB to use the Wasatch Front as one of its two expansion markets.

Selfishly, I would love nothing more than to take the game in at what is likely to be the most spectacular view in the majors. But that’s baseball. Hockey is another story.

It’s tempting to look at a market like Las Vegas with a similar size and argue that Salt Lake could support a hockey team. But Salt Lake City is not Las Vegas. Setting aside the cultural differences, the key market difference is that we already have a winter sports team — the Utah Jazz.

Las Vegas never had a winter team before the Las Vegas Golden Knights arrived. Getting a hockey team would put Salt Lake City into very rarefied air in the North American professional sports landscape. Currently, only 14 North American cities have both an NHL and NBA team. The smallest media market with both an NHL and NBA team right now is Denver. Technically, Miami-Fort Lauderdale is smaller, but that is because a key component of South Florida, West Palm Beach, is in a different media market. Denver has about 3.6 million people in its Combined Statistical Area, according to the U.S. Census. The Wasatch Front and Wasatch Back , meanwhile, have only about 2.8 million.

When analyzing a full state comparison, Colorado has 5.8 million people, while Utah has 3.4 million. That’s a huge disparity. Perhaps we could make up the population gap with enthusiasm if Utah had a deep love for hockey. However, the stats say we don’t.

USA Hockey tracks and publishes the number of registered hockey players from each state. Currently, Utah has fewer hockey players than Idaho — a state only half its size. Utah also has four times fewer players than Colorado, even after hosting events like the Winter Olympics that could spur interest in the sport. If there were going to be a groundswell of interest and passion in playing and enjoying hockey, it would have shown up by now. But it hasn’t.

In his fantastic article breaking down the economic benefits of sporting arenas, Andy Larsen pointed out previous economic findings that entertainment dollars are not infinite. Each new entertainment event has the potential to take away money from another entertainment event happening at the same time. Utah already has an incredible passion for the Jazz. Are there really enough people along the Wasatch Front with enough passion and income to fill a hockey arena similar in size to the Delta Center AND still go to Jazz games? I doubt it.

There are plenty of bigger markets, like Atlanta, with similar levels of hockey interest that have tried and failed to keep their NHL teams solvent in the face of competition from existing NBA franchises. Why do the powers that be believe that Utah is more capable of supporting a team than they are?

The economic pursuit of sports teams, especially in smaller markets, requires big tradeoffs in funding. Each public dollar supporting a team will come from a program that helps Utahns in some way shape or form. Were Salt Lake to be granted an NHL team, it would almost certainly struggle. The two options involved in getting a hockey team in downtown SLC would both have significant disadvantages as well. A Delta Center overhaul would destroy the basketball-first ethos of the Delta Center for a sport unlikely to succeed. A new, hockey- specific arena could become the largest white elephant in Utah history.

Gov. Spencer Cox and Mayor Erin Mendenhall should put this idea — and all the funding that they have proposed for it — where it belongs: in the penalty box.

(Photo courtesy of Drew Maggelet) Drew Maggelet

Drew Maggelet is a resident of Millcreek, an avid Utah Jazz fan and a member of The Salt Lake Tribune’s Innovation Lab Council.

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