Dale Murphy has been asked the question more times than he can remember.
When will it finally happen?
The retired Atlanta Braves star, who now calls Utah his home, believes he has an answer: “It doesn’t take long to look at the numbers now and say it’s time.”
It’s time, he says, for Major League Baseball to come to Salt Lake City.
A coalition led by the Miller family and The Larry H. Miller Co. — and backed by Utah politicians, investors and celebrities like Murphy — is launching an official campaign to try to bring a big league ball team to Utah’s capital.
“We believe in the power of sports to elevate and unify communities,” Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Co., said in a statement. “Larry and I risked everything to acquire the Utah Jazz, and it was a tremendous honor to ensure it thrived as a model franchise. We now have an opportunity to welcome Major League Baseball to Utah and invite all Utahns to join us in this effort.”
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has publicly endorsed expanding the league from 30 to 32 teams. For the past year, the Miller group has had discussions with MLB leaders and believes Salt Lake City can be a serious contender for one of those franchises. The 100-acre Rocky Mountain Power property along North Temple across from the Utah State Fairpark on the west side is the preferred location for a future stadium and mixed-use development.
“Nothing is guaranteed, but this is really exciting for people who have dreamed of this for a long time,” said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who has thrown his support behind an expansion bid.
A ‘shovel-ready’ site
On Wednesday, Rocky Mountain Power will break ground on the first phase of what officials are calling Salt Lake’s Power District. In time, they envision the 100-acre parcel becoming home to a major league ballpark with views of the skyline and the Wasatch Mountains amid a thriving mixed-use development along the city’s western gateway. The site is along an existing TRAX line and has access to freeways and the nearby Salt Lake City International Airport.
“That area has been locked up for energy and industrial use,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said. “Unlocking it would bring about a shift we’ve been working on from a city perspective for years. It has not only ample space for a ballpark and the accessory needs, but ample space to build an entire community that can be activated 365 days a year, that can benefit the west-side community year-round.”
While LHM still plans to move the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees to a new stadium in South Jordan’s Daybreak, officials believe a major league team would have to be located in Salt Lake City.
“Our coalition feels very strongly that Salt Lake is the major league market in Utah,” LHM CEO Steve Starks said. “Our bias has always been that your major league sports franchises should be located in the capital city.”
This is not the first time a potential investor group has eyed the area for a sports venue. In the early 2000s, the Real Salt Lake soccer team made a push for a stadium at the Fairpark before Sandy lured the franchise south. That’s something Mendenhall said she wants to avoid this time around.
“We saw too many incredible opportunities pass us by because of the tenor of city leadership at the time,” said Mendenhall, who announced her bid for a second term Wednesday. “We’re in this as a partner — at this point an exploratory partner — who sees the potential for this area.”
The coalition has partnered with Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction, the group that helped build Atlanta’s “Battery” around the Braves’ Truist Park.
Salt Lake City’s ballpark would likely be among the smaller stadiums in Major League Baseball, following a leaguewide trend, Starks said, with a capacity smaller than 40,000 and possibly under 35,000.
Will there be public financing?
The Big League Utah coalition has not attached any sort of dollar figure to the proposed stadium or Power District project at this point. Officials said there have not been any discussions about public financing for the project yet.
“I’m sure there will be down the road,” Cox said. “I’m not a big believer in subsidizing billionaires with taxpayers’ dollars to build stadiums. We haven’t done that historically. I’m not really interested in starting that. But I do believe there are things we can do to help alleviate that burden.”
Cox expects there to be discussions about tax increment financing, which the Millers used to help pay for renovations at Vivint Arena in 2016. The governor also said he supports other means of support, including help with infrastructure.
“Then you’re not just subsidizing one entity, but you’re helping lift an entire area,” he said. “I’m sure there will be lots of conversations about those things in the future, but I kind of recoil at some of the details I’ve seen in other states. Where you’re taking dollars to build ballparks or stadiums, that benefit just accrues to the owner and not the individual taxpayers.”
Can Salt Lake City support MLB?
One of the country’s fastest-growing and youngest populations, a diverse and thriving local economy, geographic location and the nation’s 29th-ranked media market are all reasons coalition leaders say Utah is “the future of America’s pastime.”
According to the 2020 census, Utah led the nation in population growth over the previous decade (18.4%). Coalition leaders believe the 2.6 million people living along the Wasatch Front would make a Salt Lake City bid competitive against Las Vegas (2.2 million in the metropolitan statistical area), Nashville (2 million) and Portland, Ore. (2.5 million).
“The last 10 years have been the tipping point,” Cox said. “When you look at Utah in a little broader sense than downtown, I think our numbers match up fairly closely. … I have no doubt in my mind that we have the economy to support a couple of franchises.”
There are obstacles still: the landscape of regional sports networks, which are a significant revenue stream for many franchises, has changed dramatically in recent months; and filling a 35,000-capacity stadium during a regular season twice as long as the NBA’s would mean selling some 2.8 million tickets.
Back in the game
Ownership of the minor league Bees aside, members of the Miller family appeared to be looking to get out of professional sports. In 2020, they sold their majority ownership stake in the Utah Jazz to Ryan Smith. Two years later, they sold a portion of their remaining shares to a private equity firm.
“Beyond our ownership of the Salt Lake Bees, a minor league team, we thought our days in sports leadership were moving in a different direction,” Gail Miller said in a statement. “We have no regrets about selling our majority interest in the Utah Jazz. That said, when we learned the great state of Utah was a viable candidate for a Major League Baseball expansion team, we couldn’t escape our family’s love of baseball. We became energized to help lead another professional team to Salt Lake City.”
The family has a passion for the diamond, Starks said, pointing to the late Larry Miller’s place in the Utah Softball Hall of Fame, the family’s ownership of the Bees, and sponsorship of a number of fields around Utah, including Brigham Young University’s Miller Park.
“We always want to be in conversations to do big things, and bringing a baseball team is among the biggest things that we could do for our state,” Starks said. “Anytime you’re in the running to add a professional baseball team to your market, you jump at that opportunity. Baseball becomes synonymous with great cities across this country. It helps form their identity.”
Will the Bees hurt chances?
LHM officials believe a new 8,000-seat stadium in Daybreak won’t cannibalize Utah’s baseball fanbase and will help clear the Salt Lake City market for a major league team. MLB teams in Boston, Seattle, Minnesota, Atlanta and Houston are in similar situations. The Houston Astros’ affiliate in Sugar Land, for example, is about 20 miles away.
Is Ryan Smith involved?
When the Millers sold some of their remaining shares of the Utah Jazz to private equity firm Arctos Sports Partners last August, new Jazz owner Ryan Smith announced his intentions to bring another major league franchise to Utah. Smith’s plans are separate from the Millers’ baseball coalition. The Jazz owner seems to be focused on the National Hockey League instead.
What’s the competition?
Other cities are vying for either MLB expansion or relocation. Las Vegas appears to be the front-runner in courting the Oakland A’s, whose ownership is eager to escape from an old stadium in the Bay Area. The Tampa Bay Rays are another team that could one day be on the move.
On the expansion front, retired Nike executive Craig Cheek has been pitching the Portland Diamond Project in Oregon for more than five years already. And former major league star Dave Stewart is leading a coalition of his own in Nashville.
“It’s a competitive process,” Starks said. “We believe that we stack up very favorably against those other expansion groups.”
Murphy believes it, too. The Oregon native had been part of the Portland Diamond Project until he learned about Utah’s bid.
“Portland is where I was born and raised, but this is where we put our roots down after I retired,” Murphy said. “We don’t plan on leaving, and I want to help bring baseball to our backyard. We’re a major league city.”