Could the WNBA return to Salt Lake City?

The Utah Starzz existed between 1997 and 2002 before moving to San Antonio and later to Las Vegas.

(Grayson West | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Starzz forward Adrienne Goodson in 2002.

Adrienne Goodson wrote everything down during her time as a member of the Utah Starzz. The shopping excursions to Park City. The Rev. France Davis praying with the team before games. The free meals at Benihana and Cracker Barrel. The hangouts at Red Rock Brewery in downtown Salt Lake City. The few times when the Delta Center filled with 15,000 fans.

Then came when the team that drafted her left the market.

The Starzz played in Utah From 1997-2002. The franchise was relocated to San Antonio due to low attendance and financial struggles before moving again to Las Vegas in 2017 and becoming the Aces, who just won their first WNBA title.

What comes across from Goodson’s journal entries, though, isn’t the pain she felt when she learned the team was moving. Rather, they conveyed a sense of joy for having lived and played in Utah after initially feeling skeptical that she’d enjoy it.

“It ended up being one of the greatest experiences — full of love, accomplishment and pride — that I’ve ever been a part of,” Goodson told The Salt Lake Tribune.

With the WNBA looking to expand in the next few years, could women’s professional basketball return to Salt Lake City? Some experts think so, as do the women who played here.

“To me it’s an obvious place because I have lived through it, how it felt to play there,” said Korie Hlede, who now coaches within the Chicago Sky organization. “I think Salt Lake would be my first number on a list of recommendations.”

State of the WNBA

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Starzz player Tammi Reiss gets a warm handshake from fan Felicia Camacho, 6, in 1997.

The WNBA is a much different place in 2022 than it was back in 2002 when the Starzz left Utah.

It partnered with the newly created Women’s Sports Network. It raised $75 million in investment capital. ESPN Fantasy included the WNBA for the first time during the 2022 season.

The league averaged 379,000 viewers across CBS and Disney networks in 2022, representing the highest viewership during the partnership, which has lasted 14 seasons thus far.

There are also a few players who have become legitimate stars. Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Sabrina Ionescu are just a few names that not only play at a high level, but have become name brands.

And probably most important of all: The WNBA is expanding. At least one team will be added by 2025 at the earliest, and Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in December that the league is looking seriously at 10 ownership groups, per The Athletic. While she hoped to announce those teams by the end of the year, that did not end up happening. She did note, however, that the league is in no rush to name a new team and city.

Some of the cities reportedly in the running for a franchise are Nashville, Toronto, Philadelphia, Oakland and San Francisco. Portland has also been floated as a possibility.

Not mentioned in that list is Salt Lake City, despite the fact that for five years, a WNBA team existed here. A professional women’s soccer team, the Utah Royals FC, also did well in Utah during 2018 and 2019 before Dell Loy Hansen was forced to sell due to various controversies during the time he owned the Royals, Real Salt Lake and Real Monarchs soccer teams.

There exists at least some interest among fans to bring a WNBA team back to Utah.

While there has a been a strong push to bring the Royals back to Utah, no one has emerged — at least publicly — to say they would put a bid in for Salt Lake City to be a future expansion team.

Could that one day change?

Former players loved Utah, and fans loved them

(Ryan Galbraith | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans cheer on the Utah Starzz during a game in 2002.

Players who suited up for the Starzz all those years ago unanimously raved about the fan support in the market. Stacy Frese, who played just one season for Utah, still remembers how fans would interact in a friendly manner with players while they were out and about.

Another memory that sticks in Frese’s mind is how many people went to home games at the Delta Center.

“We drew enough people where it wasn’t obviously full, but we had enough people to make it an exciting atmosphere,” Frese said.

In the six seasons the Starzz existed, their average home attendance per website Across the Timeline was: 7,543.7 (1997), 8,104 (1998), 7,544.1 (1999), 6,465.1 (2000), 6,906.7 (2001) and 7,420 (2002).

Their attendance highs were 15,657 in 1998; 14,783 the year after that; 12,578 in 2002; and 11,519 in 2001. In their final season, the Starzz made the Western Conference Finals.

Aside from the fans, former players greatly enjoyed being part of the community and also some of the perks of being professional athletes at a time when the WNBA was just getting its sea legs. Most of the players lived in fully furnished rooms at the Residence Inn near the arena. It had a basketball court and they sometimes grilled in the courtyard.

Free meals at downtown restaurants were commonplace. Whether it was Benihana, Cracker Barrel or Red Rock, the Starzz felt like royalty.

“We had all these different restaurants and bars that wanted us to come in and be a part of their movement, and they wanted to be a part of ours and help us grow,” Goodson said.

Goodson said Benihana was one of the favorite restaurants of 7-foot-2 Margo Dydek. Dydek loved that the chefs cooked food right in front of them and she would try catching shrimp in her mouth.

The WNBA season takes place during summer, so the team never got a chance to ski in the mountains or experience snow. But players often went shopping in Park City. Amy Herrig-Tanny, who played in Utah for three seasons, described the city as the team’s “oasis for shopping.”

“I knew Park City like the back of my hand,” Herrig-Tanny said.

Herrig-Tanny also said that even back in the early 2000s, Salt Lake City was home to many diverse people — from “the lesbian community to the more conservative Mormons.” She enjoyed seeing “all walks of life” at various events.

Can a team return to Utah?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Frank Layden talks to his team during a timeout as head coach of the Utah Starzz WNBA team in 1998.

Experts say Salt Lake City has the requisite infrastructure, potential fan interest and population growth to welcome back a professional women’s basketball franchise.

First, there’s the venue. The Utah Jazz play at Vivint Arena, and the Starzz already have a history of sharing it with their NBA counterpart. If that’s not feasible, there’s the Maverik Center in West Valley City, where the NBA G League’s Salt Lake City Stars play.

Transportation to and from an arena is also convenient. There are multiple Trax lines that lead to Vivint, and Maverik is easily accessible via Interstate 15.

Walter Franco, principal at sports market research firm Victus Advisors, said those factors give the SLC market an “advantage.”

What also helps, Franco said, is the level of interest in basketball among girls in Utah. His firm looks at participation data provided by the National Federation of High Schools to determine whether a city can build a fan base for a team. And with 3,196 girls participating in basketball during the 2021-22 school year, there is high potential there.

“Thinking specifically for girls, if you have high participation rates for girls in certain sports, that typically is going to translate to fandom moving on as you become an adult as you go to college,” Franco said.

But like all business decisions that involve millions of dollars, the devil is in the details. One major challenge of a WNBA team coming to Utah, Franco said, is sussing out the corporate sponsorship situation.

If an expansion team were brought in by Jazz and Real Salt Lake owner Ryan Smith, for example, a question that would need answers is if corporate partners would then be expected to also support the WNBA team like they do the Jazz and RSL, or if the team would be seen as its own revenue driver.

If someone else brings a WNBA team to Utah, Franco said, then they’d be competing with Smith for those corporate partners. And SLC just doesn’t have that many companies with that kind of money, he said.

“There’s just a lot of competing interest with a lot of different sports,” Franco said. “So those are a lot of challenges that whichever owner would be involved would have to take into consideration just from a financial sustainability standpoint.”

Financial challenges aside, there appear to be plenty of reasons to think Utah can sustain a WNBA team. Sophie Goldschmidt, president and CEO of U.S. Ski who used to work at the NBA in partnerships and business development, said that while the SLC market provides fans various options for sports, she would not describe the market as saturated.

“I think there is room for more,” Goldschmidt said.

Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, believes women’s sports as a whole will “become a very, very viable business model over the next five years,” and he is “bullish” on the idea of Utah sustaining a WNBA team someday.

Former players are just as optimistic that it can work.

“I think if there is an owner that wants to bring the team back, then it can’t do anything but be successful,” Goodson said. “You already have a fan base there who is disgruntled or upset that the team left in the first place. Those people still exist.”

Herrig-Tanny added: “It just feels like that there’s a good connection there and it makes sense to try and do again.”

Perhaps Utah wasn’t the right place for a WNBA team back in the late 90s and early 2000s. But it could be a different story now.

“I think there can be arguments to say that maybe the Starzz came too soon 20-plus years ago,” Franco said. “But I think the demographic has changed enough now, 20 years later, that with the right business model and the right approach to the market, that they could be successful here.”

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