Utah Bets Big on Major League Dreams

People will come, Ray. They’ll come for reasons they can’t even fathom…And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. People will come, Ray. Oh…people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.” So intones James Earl Jones’s Terrance Mann in the final scenes of the 1989 baseball film Field of Dreams

Utah is indeed dreaming big, about baseball, hockey and, once again, the Winter Olympic Games (2034). Here we go again. In 2002 Salt Lake hosted the Winter Games, maybe you heard about that, and it is widely accepted as Utah’s debut on the national stage. Careers were made and Mitt Romney, well, you know what happened there.

The big dreams are two-fold. Big League Utah, backed by the Larry H. Miller group, wants to build its Field of Dreams—a Major League ballpark for an MLB team on a patch of land near the Utah State Fair Park, on the TRAX Green Line. Meanwhile, back at the idea factory, current Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith is pushing to bring a National Hockey League team to the Delta Center and eventually—wait for it—rebuild the Delta Center into a world-class NHL-NBA-Olympics Venue. The trifecta! 

There is juice behind both. The Millers have come to the table with $3.5 billion in funding and it turns out the Utah State Legislature wants to play ball (and hockey). Two bills signed by Gov. Spencer Cox paved the way for some sales and hotel tax jujitsu that could be used to back both efforts to the tune of $900 million. Let’s just call that a cool billion.

But if we build it, will they come?

Consider this. Currently, Utah has two major league teams, the Utah Jazz (NBA) and Real Salt Lake (MLS). These big dreams, if realized (and that’s one big if) would bring that number to four. We also have two professional minor league teams, the Bees and the Grizzlies. The Wasatch Front has a population of about 2 million. In other cities about our size, only Minnapolis-St. Paul and Denver have four majors. Phoenix, which has 6 million people is about to lose its NHL franchise the Coyotes, because of a lack of fan support (and also hockey in the desert is weird). 

Yes, Utah has fans. Average attendance at Jazz games is a not-to-shabby 18,000, considering how the team is playing. At the college level, the Cougars and the Runnin’ Utes create devotion bordering on insane. However, the Bees rarely fill up Smith’s Ballpark, unless it’s a firework night (because it’s a cheap night out with the kids) and the Grizzlies’ average attendance is about half of the capacity of the Maverick Center.

And, of course, it would be “way cool” to have as many teams as stupid Denver. The State of Utah itself was based on the big dreams of its settlers. But is that ancient precedent enough? 

Will they come?  

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Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pughhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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