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Even without another team, future of Utah sporting scene is bright

Published July 13, 2008 12:49 am

Utah may never land an NHL or MLB team, but fans worldwide know those aren't the only shows in town proven to draw a crowd
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jeff Robbins couldn't fall asleep. Though it was long after the sun went down, the nine-hour time difference and the lingering jet lag kept Robbins up in his Athens hotel room.

At about 2 a.m., the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission - who was in Greece for an international sports convention June 2-6 - tuned into a sports channel and found himself watching the Super Bike Event being held in Tooele at Miller Motorsports Park.

"It was broadcast out there live. My sense is people see the footprint of the state, in terms of sports, and it could be larger than we think it is," Robbins said. "It's not a stretch to say people are seeing Utah as a pretty robust sports market."

Robbins didn't expect to see an international broadcast of a Utah event, but he isn't exactly surprised.

"There is a high interest level in sports here," Robbins said. "People have a very positive image of Utah for sports and all the exposure we're getting. It's a very positive view of us right now."

And though landing a major professional franchise - such as a National Hockey League, National Football League or Major League Baseball team - is not likely in Utah's immediate future, the teams and sports with roots in Utah are well supported.

No lack of interest

This past season, the Utah Jazz had fans that made Energy Solutions Arena the rowdiest and loudest venue in the National Basketball Association. The Brigham Young football team brought out an average of about 65,000 people - ranked 27th in the nation - to its home games in 2007. The Blaze's average attendance, just under 15,000 a game, made the team tops in the league when it came to revenue.

Utah clearly can generate the interest to support its sports teams.

"We've got an unbelievable following of fans. We sold more season tickets than anyone else in the league," said Utah Flash owner Brandt Andersen. "But, would it support a Major League Baseball team? The market is potentially too small for that."

Indeed. The smallest baseball market is Milwaukee, with about 1.6 million people. Salt Lake's metro area is around 1.3 million.

A more dense population, Andersen said, would help build a fan base and foundation for a major professional franchise.

But fans in Utah are scattered along the Wasatch Front, making it harder to create a season ticket base.

Fan interest is just one aspect of whether another pro team would thrive in Utah. Sponsors are perhaps an even bigger part of the equation.

"You look at the cost of building a venue for football or baseball or the sponsorship needed to drive that business locally. We might be too early in the process of having a major league franchise," Robbins said. "[But], certainly I see information that seems like Salt Lake City or Utah is mentioned all the time in the discussion. There's a perception here that it could be a possibility."

Nontraditional route

Utah's sports landscape is growing in ways that don't involve the traditional sports. In recent years, the state has seen an increase in interest for extreme or action sports.

Last year, the Dew Tour made Salt Lake City one of five national stops and brought together the largest gathering of BMX bikers, skaters, boarders and motocross riders. It was the biggest multisport and multivenue event in Utah since the Winter Olympics in 2002. It also brought out 61,900 spectators.

The XTERRA Mountain Championship, an off-road triathlon, will again be held in Ogden this year on Aug. 16.

"We're just scratching the surface," Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey said. "Ogden is ideally suited for these adventure sporting events. Mountains are close by but there's an urban location. I really think we will continue to have national and international sporting events relocate to Utah."

The surge in popularity for these sports could also be due to the demographics of the state. Utah has the youngest population in the country by median age and less-traditional sports seem to be catching and keeping the attention of the younger fans.

Miller Motorsports Park has been a giant in creating a new genre of spectators. Since the park opened in 2006, it has hosted the Utah Grand Prix, Sunchaser 1000, NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series, and the FIM Superbike World Championship Robbins saw in Greece.

Ninety-five TV networks broadcast the Superbike event to 173 countries and was expected to draw an audience of an estimated 120 million people.

"People look at Utah now in a more diverse way. There's action sports, motor sports, extreme sports, international skiing - there's a tremendous sports infrastructure," Robbins said. "We have the best of both worlds. We have the natural venues and the state-of-the-art man-made venues."

Future growth in golf?

Just as the 2002 Winter Olympics brought the international spotlight on the quality of skiing in Utah, golf needs a major national event to bring the sport to another level.

"We had the best skiing in the world but until we held the Olympics, we were the only ones who knew about it," said Scott Whittaker, the executive director of the Utah Section of the PGA. "I think it's a little like that with golf."

The national exposure would bring in more spectators to golf in Utah, which is mostly a noncompetitive sport here.

The Utah Golf Association has held a State Amateur - the longest continuously held tournament in the world - and the Tournament of Champions, but a big-time sponsor would be needed to hold a national event.

Golf is more popular at the local level in Utah. There are about 130 golf courses in the state, allowing Utah to have the highest participation rate per capita in the nation.

"Golf is healthier from the ground up here. It's not a rich person's sport," Whittaker said. "There's a lot of interest in local tournaments, but not so much that [people are] watching it on TV every single weekend."

Another reason Utah hasn't had success in popularity on the national scale is the state doesn't have a golf course recognized as world class, although golf courses like Glenwild in Park City or Wolf Creek near Ogden Canyon could have the potential to hold a major event. Whittaker said the Utah Section of the PGA would support a big event, but Utah just doesn't have the resources - at least for now.

Golf is just another route that could further perpetuate the growth of Utah's already expanding sports market.

Filling the void

Although Utah fans probably won't have a major league baseball, football or hockey team to cheer for in the near future, the sports landscape in Utah is ballooning steadily.

It is because athletics is a big part of the culture in the state.

"Utah is a sports state. Sports is entrenched in who Utahns are," Andersen said. "We have some unbelievable pro and college teams and, win or lose, attendance will be there. That tells you people are spending money on sports."

And as long as there is that interest, the future of sports in the state is promising.

"I don't think Utah will sit and wait until one of these [professional] franchises materializes," Robbins said. "Football and baseball will have an opportunity but we'll evolve in other areas. That will fill the void."


"My sense is people see the footprint of the state, in terms of sports, and it could be larger than we think it is. It's not a stretch to say people are seeing Utah as a pretty robust sports market."

- JEFF ROBBINS, president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission




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