Jan 25, 2024 - News

Salt Lake's NHL and MLB efforts shouldn't conflict — until public money is at stake

Illustration of sports symbols as medals.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith made an official request to bring a National Hockey League expansion franchise to Salt Lake, his company announced Wednesday.

  • If successful, Salt Lake City would be the smallest city — by far — to host NBA, MLS and NHL teams.

Context: The move coincides with a campaign to bring Major League Baseball to town and the return of the Utah Royals women's soccer team this year.

By the numbers: With the Jazz and Real Salt Lake, that means Salt Lake is gunning to become a four-team town for men's major league sports.

  • Fourteen of the NHL's 32 teams play in cities with at least four major franchises — all of them significantly larger than Salt Lake.
  • Of those, Denver and Miami are the smallest, with the 17th and 18th biggest media markets in the nation; Salt Lake is ranked No. 27, per Nielsen data.

Yes, but: If you take soccer out of the picture, there are several two- and three-team cities with similar or smaller markets than Salt Lake, noted David Berri, economics professor at Southern Utah University.

  • Fans aren't stretched too thin in Pittsburgh (No. 28), Buffalo, New York (No. 54), Nashville (No. 26), New Orleans (No. 51), Indianapolis (No. 25) or St. Louis (No. 24).
  • "I think the population size supports [more teams]," Berri said. "And it's growing."

Zoom in: With a media market ranked at No. 40 — but a metro population about 1 million more than Salt Lake's — Las Vegas will have three major teams when the Oakland Athletics relocate there.

  • Some analysts anticipate the move will oversaturate the city with sports, with too many games for people to attend and too many loyalties dividing their attention.

Between the lines: Las Vegas is a bit closer to southern California's competing sports markets than Salt Lake would be to its nearest NHL or MLB city — which is Vegas.

  • Where baseball is concerned, the relative isolation and cultural distinctiveness of Utah could make it a more independent, untapped market, sports economist J.C. Bradbury told Axios last year.
  • With NHL teams even more far-flung than MLB, Smith could enjoy a similar advantage in his hockey bid.

The intrigue: Public funding could pose a challenge in recruiting two franchises at the same time, Berri said.

  • If either hockey or baseball moves forward with a promise of tax credits or a stadium, it could be hard to convince the Legislature to double down for the other sport a year or two later.

What they're saying: "During conversations over the course of the past two years, we have been impressed by Ryan and Ashley Smith's commitment to their community and their passion and vision for Utah, not only as a hockey market, but as a preeminent sports and entertainment destination," the NHL's prepared statement read. "Utah is a promising market, and we look forward to continuing our discussions."


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