A Salt Lake City consortium led by the former owner of the Utah Jazz plans to pursue a Major League Baseball franchise in the coming years, touting the area’s population growth, strong economy and baseball history as draws for a coveted expansion slot, people involved with the project told ESPN.
Big League Utah, a group headed by longtime Jazz owner Gail Miller, will join Nashville’s Music City Baseball and the Portland Diamond Project in lobbying to join the current 30 MLB organizations. Las Vegas, considered a prime destination for a franchise, has emerged as a strong candidate if the Oakland Athletics relocate.
While sources said MLB does not plan to expand until it figures out the futures of Oakland and the Tampa Bay Rays — both of whom have considered moving amid struggles to secure new stadiums in their current metropolitan areas — commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN in July: “I would love to get to 32 teams.”
The Salt Lake City coalition includes the Larry H. Miller Company — the conglomerate founded by Miller’s late husband, Larry, an automobile magnate — as well as local business leaders and former major league players Dale Murphy and Jeremy Guthrie, both Utah residents. The group has targeted building a stadium in the Rocky Mountain Power District, a 100-acre mixed-use zone located between Salt Lake City’s new airport and its downtown core, an investment that would come on top of an expected $2 billion expansion fee.
“Salt Lake City is a major league city,” said Steve Starks, CEO of the Miller Company. “We believe that as a top-30 media market in the fastest-growing state in the country with the youngest population, that’s where our attention should be — and that we could accomplish bringing a team to the Wasatch Front.”
Starks said the group surveyed local fans about their favorite sports leagues for potential expansion and that MLB was the top choice, ahead of even the NFL.
“It would be, I think, a validation of everything that we’ve worked so hard to do,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox told ESPN. “We’ve proven ourselves in a sports capacity with Olympics in 2002 and coming back in 2030 or, more likely, 2034. We’ve hosted two NBA All-Star Games. We know we can do this. It would just be meaningful for people who love this sport, who care deeply about it. We’re a baseball state.”
Already owners of the Salt Lake Bees — the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels whose average attendance last year was 5,873, the 18th highest in minor league baseball — the Miller Company is building a new stadium for the team set to open in 2025. The Jazz, who moved to Salt Lake City from New Orleans in 1979, regularly sell out Vivint Arena.
Conversations with MLB about the possibility of expanding to Salt Lake City began about a year ago, when Starks inquired about the viability of a bid, with Las Vegas; Nashville, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Montreal among the other potential candidates.
Leaders of the Salt Lake City group highlighted a media market larger than that of four current major league teams: San Diego, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. They stressed Utah’s significant growth, as its population of about 3.3 million swelled by a higher percentage than any state from 2010 to 2020, according to the Census Bureau, and the Wasatch Front population — stretching from Ogden to Provo — is around 2.7 million. On top of that, the group said, Utah’s 2.4% unemployment rate in February was the fourth lowest in the country, with an economy trumpeted in recent years as among the strongest in the United States.
I’m a proponent of MLB expanding, and I believe they should be thinking bigger than 32 teams. As such, I sometimes play a little game of “how many new MLB teams could I reasonably place somewhere in North America”. Salt Lake City has been on my list of fantasy destinations, so this possibility doesn’t come as a big surprise to me. SLC would not be on my short list for a two-team expansion, but if we’re talking six teams, or especially ten teams (yes, expand to 40 teams, and yes I see that SLC is not on that list) then it’s definitely a contender.
That said, there are some concerns, including the existing minor league team and a more existential problem, which Jay Jaffe notes in his overview of the Big League Utah proposal.
After decades of drying that have accelerated in recent years due to climate change and population growth, the Great Salt Lake reached a record low water level in November, dipping to 4,188.6 feet above sea level, having lost 70% of its water since 1850. A June 2022 report in the New York Times sounded a dire warning regarding the air quality if the lake continues to dry up: “Most alarming, the air surrounding Salt Lake City would occasionally turn poisonous. The lake bed contains high levels of arsenic and as more of it becomes exposed, wind storms carry that arsenic into the lungs of nearby residents, who make up three-quarters of Utah’s population.”
A January 2023 story in the Washington Post highlighted a report by researchers at BYU that showed that without dramatic cuts to water consumption — consumption driven by the same population growth that makes the area appealing as an expansion site — the lake was on track to disappear in five years. Since then, thankfully, the city has experienced its seventh-snowiest winter on record, with eight local ski resorts reporting record snowfalls. Already, the lake has risen three feet in five months, though it’s still six feet below “the minimum acceptable elevation for the lake’s ecological and economic health,” according to BYU ecologist Ben Abbott, the lead author of the January report.
The current snowpack and its runoff could raise levels another three or four feet, but the long-term sustainability of the lake remains in question, all of which would make for a thorny issue for MLB to consider in the context of a Salt Lake City bid. The likelihood that it will be a few years before the league makes up its mind about expansion — what’s the rush, right? — at least leaves time to see which way the wind is blowing, so to speak.
On the one hand, every city is already dealing with the effects of climate change, and some will have very big challenges going forward (Miami, anyone?), so we shouldn’t be too hard on SLC. On the other hand, any time you talk about arsenic in the air, that sounds like a problem. SLC is also at an elevation similar to Denver, so it would likely be a pretty offense-happy place. Assuming MLB can ever get the Oakland and Tampa situations resolved (which could be imminent for the A’s), we’ll see where we are with this.