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Get ready for another major professional sports franchise, Utah. And don't worry about a name ending with a couple of Z's.
As expected, Major League Soccer announced in a morning news conference Wednesday at Rice-Eccles Stadium that Salt Lake City will be home to MLS's 12th team, beginning with the 2005 season.
League officials and new owner Dave Checketts -- the former Utah Jazz and New York Knicks/Madison Square Garden president who paid $10 million to the league for the team -- were optimistic about the league's expansion plans in front of soccer-community leaders, prominent business leaders and politicians.
"It's time that Salt Lake had another professional team, and Major League Soccer is it," Checketts said, adding, "I assure you, [the team] will not have two Z's anywhere in the name.
MLS's expansion to Salt Lake City marks the fourth time a major professional sports franchise has come to Utah. The first was the ABA Stars, which survived from 1970 to 1976. Then came the Utah Jazz of the NBA, which arrived in 1979. The Utah Starzz of the WNBA began playing in 1997, then left for San Antonio in December of 2002.
The team will unveil its name, colors and logo in early August. A head coach and other team officials will be named shortly after that. Players will be chosen in an expansion draft in November and another draft in January.
Checketts said tickets will start at $8, with the average ticket about $13. The most expensive tickets will be priced around $20, making Utah's games significantly cheaper to attend than most others in the league.
The season begins in April, which gives Checketts and his ownership group of his brother, Dan Checketts, and SportsWest Productions Vice Chairman Dean Howes about eight months to get ready.
The team will play at Rice-Eccles for at least one year. Officials believe in order for the team to survive in the long run, however, it must have a "soccer-specific" stadium to call home.
"I don't know how, I don't know where, but we will build a soccer stadium in Salt Lake City," Checketts said, adding that many people have contacted him regarding the project. "You have to believe me; I'm taking a flying leap on this one."
Checketts said he will have a plan in place for a 25,000-seat stadium by the end of the year. His word, apparently, was enough for MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
"We believe in this market, and we believe in Dave," Garber said. "We believe that we can get this done right."
The League's criteria for expansion include an involved soccer community, a capable leadership group and a willingness to build a soccer stadium. With Checketts' involvement in the bidding process, two pieces of the equation were added on to Utah's high per-capita involvement in the sport.
"When we heard it was Dave Checketts and Salt Lake, we thought this was too good to be true," Garber said.
Much of the decision to come to Salt Lake City (rather than other bidding cities such as Seattle, Cleveland, Houston, San Antonio and Philadelphia) was made partly because of the Utah capital 's success in the 2002 Winter Olympics and last summer's visit of the U.S. Women's National Team for a game against Ireland.
The Women's National Team match drew more fans to Rice-Eccles than any other women's game in the country last year.
"We really believe [Salt Lake City] is the right kind of city," Garber said. "This city can get it together and get behind a movement."
Much of Utah's soccer community has been elated but skeptical since media reports of MLS's expansion to Salt Lake City came out last weekend. Some have wondered about the team's viability in what will be the smallest market in the league. Also, the fact that Utah could not support the Starzz of the WNBA raises concerns.
"The marketing of the sport will be a big issue," Westminster men's soccer coach Chris Dorich said. "Somebody's going to have to do a good job with that."
Said Ralph Hansen, owner of the amateur Utah Salt Ratz: "If they only draw as well as the Blitzz, they are going to be in trouble. I'm hopeful, I really am hopeful."
The Utah Blitzz, a minor-league soccer team, drew 5,245 fans to last weekend's match at Rice-Eccles. But that was their highest attendance in years.
Checketts pointed to the Columbus (Ohio) Crew, the most lucrative team in MLS. The Crew play in a market only slightly larger than Salt Lake City, have won an MLS Championship and are one of only two teams in the league with their own stadium.
"Salt Lake City has truly qualified itself for this team," Howes, who will be the team's chief executive officer, said. Utah's high youth participation rate, Latino population, international familiarity (through the LDS Church's missionary program) and family focus make the demographic attractive to the league.
* To inquire about tickets for the inaugural season of Utah's Major League Soccer franchise, go to http://www.iloveutahsoccer.com