With stadium built, RSL owner says 'Now it has to work'
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Dave Checketts vividly remembers the day Salt Lake County's mayor shot down his funding plan for a new Real Salt Lake stadium in Sandy, forcing him to confront the possibility that his vision for a new home for his pro-soccer team might never be realized.

"That was so devastating," recalls Checketts, who at the time had already written a huge check to pay for the steel.

Yet barely two years later, the $110 million project is all but finished, with RSL scheduled to play its first game in the new Rio Tinto Stadium against the New York Red Bulls on national television Thursday night - its first playoff appearance potentially on the line.

Coaches and players will feel the pressure, but it will be nothing like that on Checketts and any number of Utah lawmakers - who Checketts describes as "heroes." Their reputations are on the line after spilling gallons of political blood in their acrimonious rescue of the stadium deal against the wishes of many angry taxpayers and a generally skeptical public still wary of soccer.

Names were called, arms were twisted. Promises were made. The stadium was pitched as vital to the economic health and reputation of the area, never mind to the ability of the perpetually stumbling team to attract fans and truly compete in Major League Soccer.

After all of that, supporters cannot afford for the stadium to fail.

"Now, it's got to work," Checketts acknowledges.

'The most beautiful soccer stadium in the country': Rising from what had been a barren plot of mostly vacant land along State Street between 9000 and 9400 South in Sandy, the stadium already has become something of a beacon - its gleaming white canvas roof visible from Interstate 15 - while the acrimony that once surrounded it seems to have subsided.

The man who initially torpedoed the project, county Mayor Peter Corroon, toured the stadium last month with RSL President Bill Manning and said he hopes it becomes "wildly successful." Meanwhile, Checketts, who once mocked Corroon and other county leaders as "dysfunctional" [among other things], avoided expressing any smugness at seeing the stadium nearly complete.

"It's emotional," he said. "It really is. I don't know if it's satisfying. I'm just really proud with the way it's turning out. I'm proud we've created something like this for the community, and it's going to be a place to really enjoy for many years."

Certainly, he hopes so.

In addition to finally giving its players a permanent and comfortable place to call home after renting the cramped confines at Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah for nearly four seasons, RSL and its political allies are counting on the stadium to help it turn a profit and stimulate economic development in Sandy.

The prospect of the stadium as the centerpiece of a $650 million business, retail and housing district is a big part of the reason Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan and Republican Rep. Greg Curtis - who represents Sandy - fought so hard with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to persuade the Legislature to overturn Corroon's rejection of the stadium funding plan. Their insistence on committing $45 million of tax money to the project infuriated many fiscal conservatives, and could come back to haunt them at the polls - and hurt the city - if the project languishes.

Not that Dolan has any fears about that.

"Just the opposite," he said, standing outside the stadium last week. "We're feeling a great sense of relief that the product that has been delivered is everything it was promised to be. . . . This truly is the most beautiful soccer stadium in the country right now, and it's just going to be a huge plus for our community."

While city officials expect the stadium to generate $46.5 million in tax revenue over 20 years, the team expects to make annually a nearly $3.5 million annual profit in the new stadium within two years, Checketts has said, after losing between $3 million and $4 million a year until now. RSL will generate between $1.5 million and $2 million per year over the next 15 years, sources said, from its naming-rights deal with the Rio Tinto Group, one of the world's largest mining companies.

Some analysts have questioned whether RSL's projections are too rosy, though. The team plans to book 50 to 70 events a year for the stadium - including about a dozen major concert acts - in addition to the 18 or so MLS and exhibition games it will play there.

It has announced plans to host a junior-college football bowl game, an international rugby doubleheader, and the 2009 MLS All-Star Game. Officials have been negotiating with the Utah High School Activities Association to play prep championship games at the stadium, and Dolan said the stadium also will host a soccer camp and festival next summer.

"It's going to be a very exciting thing," he said.

Fans and sponsors seem to agree. RSL expects to sell out all 20,008 seats for both the inaugural game and the second game Oct. 18, in addition to selling all of their luxury suites and landing several major sponsors.

'Definitely not slam dunks': Politics and development aside, the question is whether RSL's new stadium can help it become relevant on a sports landscape dominated by the Utah Jazz - the thriving pro basketball team Checketts once helped guide to permanency.

The Bountiful native returned to his home state determined to make RSL the cornerstone of a nascent sports empire, but he has endured three frustrating seasons, which have included countless embarrassing missteps and a complete overhaul of the roster and coaching staff last season. The team still has not made the MLS playoffs; attendance has gradually declined.

Building a gleaming new stadium is supposed to help change all that (and help restore Checketts' local image, tattered in the funding fight) by creating a better soccer environment for fans, generating more money to build the team and giving players a sense of comfort and stability.

But former general manager Steve Pastorino - fired by Checketts in the purge last summer - cautioned that "these things are definitely not slam dunks."

Indeed, the rival Colorado Rapids opened their new Dick's Sporting Goods Park near Denver last season, only to rank 11th in the 14-team league in attendance and miss the playoffs. They're about even with RSL in the fight for a playoff spot this season, but are averaging about 2,000 fewer fans. Retail development around their rural stadium remains mostly in the planning stages.

The Home Depot Center in California has fared exceptionally well, but other teams that have opened new stadiums in the past few years - Toronto, Chicago, FC Dallas - have met with varying success. Toronto, for example, nearly leads the league in attendance, despite continuing to languish in last place, while FC Dallas has seen attendance slump horribly for some games at its suburban location about 32 miles from central Dallas, but enjoyed overwhelming success on the bottom line.

"Overall, across the board, all areas of our business in the new stadium have exceeded expectations," FC Dallas general manager Michael Hitchcock said. "Anytime you're running a more profitable business operation, it helps your cause on all levels."

For his part, Checketts is hardly naive about what's at stake.

"We have to have a very good club, a very competitive club, and, of course, we have to schedule good events in there," he said. "But I feel very good with where we are, especially the interest in this particular stadium. . . maybe because people knew what it took to get it done."

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mcl@sltrib.com