One aspect of last week’s announcement that a Utah group chasing a Major League Baseball team stood out to me — and made it a lot more real in my eyes.
Standing at the site where she hopes to one day see a stadium built in Salt Lake City, The Larry H. Miller Co. owner Gail Miller said: “We know the league is considering expanding from 30 to 32 teams — a new one in the East and the new one in the West. And it only makes sense that Utah is on deck to become that expansion team [in the West].”
Why does this matter?
Well, take a look at the list of places reportedly being considered MLB expansion cities. One bookmaker’s odds of various North American cities, updated just this week, lists Nashville, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C., as the two favorites. They’re followed by Salt Lake City, Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas.
If MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred really believes expansion should be a matter of adding one team in the East and one in the West, then Salt Lake City’s two top competitors have been eliminated. Instead, it comes down to Salt Lake’s place among Western teams.
Furthermore, there seem to be extremely strong ties between the Oakland A’s and Las Vegas, which has spent significant time and efforts to woo the beleaguered club. Indeed, Manfred even told the San Francisco Chronicle that “the focus ... really has been on Las Vegas,” where officials are considering two sites for a new major league stadium: the Tropicana on the south Strip and the north Strip’s Las Vegas Festival Grounds, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
So let’s take Vegas out of the picture. Just comparing the Salt Lake City and Portland bids, which is stronger?
By nearly any calculation, Portland just has more people than Salt Lake City. The specific cities themselves aren’t particularly close: Salt Lake City barely cleared the 200,000 bar with a 2021 population estimate of 200,478, while Portland has a 641,162 population in that same year.
As we all know, though, the surrounding areas for both cities lend significant support to those figures. However, in general, Portland simply has more potential fans than Salt Lake City.
On aggregate, Salt Lake City households make more money and are larger than their Portland counterparts. Comparing census data from the two counties in which the cities are located shows that Salt Lake County boasts a median household income of $82,000, while Multnomah County’s median household income is $76,000. Utah households are bigger than Oregon ones. Per capita, Multnomah’s income of $45,000 is larger than Salt Lake County’s per capita income of $37,000.
Portland’s television market is larger than Salt Lake City’s — even though it includes all of Utah. As of 2023, Portland has 1,143,670 TV households in its designated media area, while Salt Lake City has 916,960 households.
Salt Lake City has a defined, preferred build site with substantial stakeholder support: the Power District. The 100-acre property is along North Temple and sits across from the Utah State Fairpark. It’s not in the downtown, central business district — it’s about 2.5 miles away from Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, the center of the city. Walking to the new stadium from downtown would take about 45 minutes, far too long for most.
But the stadium does lie right on an existing light rail line, the TRAX Green Line, with an existing stop. That trip takes 11 minutes from Temple Square. The site also abuts an Interstate 80 exit at Redwood Road, giving easy access to the likely majority of fans who would want to drive to the stadium — and the 100-acre size of the land gives plenty of room for parking.
The sheer size of the plot provides another benefit to the bid: the ability to just develop the heck out of the land surrounding the stadium. The comparison, brought up multiple times in last week’s news conference, is The Battery, the surrounding development around the Atlanta Braves’ new suburban Truist Park. The 60-acre development includes hotels, apartments, office buildings, shops, bars and restaurants. The Miller group has partnered with Minnesota-based Mortenson Construction — the group that helped build The Battery.
Whether this development is a good thing has been and will continue to be heavily debated, but it does certainly make a lot of money for the financially motivated parties.
Portland, meanwhile, hasn’t narrowed its search down to one site. The Diamond Project has scouted a dozen Portland sites, some downtown, some in the suburbs. The most commonly discussed site is called “Terminal 1 and Terminal 2″ — an industrial area right on the Willamette River. It sits just outside downtown to the north (2-3 miles away as well), and with some imagination, it’s a picturesque location. But there essentially aren’t any major transportation routes to the site now, either by public transit or by highway.
Another spot, Zidell Yards, also sits about 2 miles away from Portland’s downtown, but to the south. The 33-acre site is also near the Willamette but is privately owned and would be difficult to acquire. The Portland Diamond Project is also looking at multiple suburban locations, 20 to 30 minutes away from the city center.
In the end, it’s just much, much more nailed down in Salt Lake City.
One major advantage of the Salt Lake City bid: a dedicated ownership group with big pockets and past sports management experience.
The Larry H. Miller Group, having recently sold the Utah Jazz for $1.6 billion and its auto dealerships for $3.2 billion, is flush with cash. More than that, it also has sports management experience, having successfully run an NBA team for decades here in Utah. The net worth of the Miller family members would put them among the deeper-pocketed owners in Major League Baseball.
Meanwhile, the Portland group doesn’t have a billionaire owner converted to the project. In 2019, The Oregonian reported that the Portland Diamond Project had $1.3 billion committed from dozens of private investors, but there’s not really one big-value owner that would run the whole thing. NFL quarterback Russell Wilson is the highest-profile of the investors.
It’s unclear that the $1.3 billion would cover the cost of the team, either. Manfred told reporters that expansion fee costs would start at $2.2 billion. A stadium itself would likely cost between $500 million and $1 billion. The Millers’ group has that money, and it’s unclear that the Portland group does.
Salt Lake City’s bid showed more governmental support for a new baseball team in the area than Portland has, but Portland’s bid has a small package of public support on the table already.
Among local politicians, Salt Lake City Erin Mendenhall attended the announcement, and showed strong support at the event and on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has been more circumspect about his support for the Portland Diamond Project. “I continue to offer my support to the Portland Diamond Project and would love to see an MLB team in Portland. While the prospect is exciting, I am focused on my top priorities — including addressing homelessness, crime, and escalating gun violence in Portland. I will continue to meet regularly with the Portland Diamond Project to hear updates,” he said in a statement to The Athletic.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also attended last week’s announcement in Salt Lake City and lent his own support for the project. On the other hand, he said that he didn’t believe the projected stadium should be publicly financed. “I’m on the record saying that I don’t think taxpayers should subsidize billionaires,” Cox said in a news conference. “I don’t think that’s strong economic policy. I don’t think that’s good for taxpayers, especially when most of the benefits of that go directly to the franchise owners.”
Portland does have the benefit of a package passed in 2003, when Oregon was chasing a relocated baseball team. Then, its Legislature set aside $150 million in bonds, which would be theoretically recouped with player income taxes. That deal remains on the table. Meanwhile, Cox indicated that he’d support a property tax increment plan to help support the project, similar to the one that supported the Vivint Arena rebuild.
The road ahead
The expansion process will be a lengthy one. Manfred has said that expansion will wait until stadiums or relocation for the A’s and the Tampa Bay Rays are settled. It could be years until that happens. But while some consider the expansion talk to be merely a negotiating ploy, most consider MLB’s preference to expand to 32 teams a reality.
Overall, it’s a strong package — and a relatively safe one. While Salt Lake City’s ballpark is perhaps more unlikely to sell out every night with fewer fans, the strength of deep-pocketed ownership, a set location, and significant stated government support make it likely interesting to other MLB owners — the ones who will eventually have to approve or decline the expansion bid.
And so you can see why Miller is willing to issue statements like this:
“It’s not a done deal but we are confident that it’s going to happen,” Miller said. “It only makes sense that Utah is on deck to become [the next] expansion team.”
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