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Is new Salt Lake Bees ballpark in the works–or is MLB the final goal?

Smith's Ballpark

With ownership of 1,300 acres of land for development, the Larry H. Miller Company may be looking to build a sports-centered community in Salt Lake County for the Salt Lake Bees (Triple-A; Pacific Coast League) — or may have its sights on an MLB team and ballpark.

A few issues are at play in Salt Lake City: the current state of Smith’s Ballpark in central Salt Lake City, city hopes that ballpark renovations could help revive the neighborhood, the impending end of the team’s lease, the potential for Smith Entertainment Group, the Miller Company and Arctos Sports Partners to spearhead a drive to bring MLB to Salt Lake County. Yes, there’s a lot here to unpack.

Let’s begin with Smith’s Ballpark. The ballpark is set in one of the most scenic locales in baseball, and though it’s a little older–it opened in 1994 as Franklin Quest Field–it seems to be in pretty fine condition, based on our last visit. One of the challenges for the Bees not been the ballpark, but rather with the surrounding neighborhood, sorely in need of some TLC. The city has been talking about renovations as part of a new lease; with a capacity of 14,511, it could use a little downsizing to create a more intimate game experience.

The City Council has been mapping out a neighborhood revival plan for several months now. That plan relies on the use of the ballpark more than just for Bees games; hence the Smith’s Ballpark upgrades proposed by the city, including the addition of an expansion of the ballpark footprint to include an expanded entertainment plaza. To work, however, the city will need a commitment from the Bees in the form of a new lease, accompanied by ballpark upgrades, including some mandated by Major League Baseball. The team’s current lease expires in 2024, with the license with Major League Baseball ending at the end of the decade. 

But the Bees have not yet committed to a new Smith’s Ballpark lease, with the locals pointing out that Larry H. Miller Company has purchased 1,300 acres in the 4,000-acre Daybreak development in South Jordan and could potentially use that land to build a new ballpark for the Bees. Heading to the suburbs is not the way ballpark development is happening these days, but mixed-use development anchored by a new sports facility certainly is.

Now, there’s a little connect-the-dots aspect to this story. In a separate transaction, the Larry H. Miller Company sold its 10 percent stake of the Utah Jazz (NBA) and Vivent Arena to Arctos Sports Partners. That makes Arctos a stakeholder in Smith Entertainment Group (SEG) ownership, which includes the NBA’s Utah Jazz and Vivent Arena, as well as investments in MLS’s Real Salt Lake and Rio Tinto Stadium. The stated rationale for the the investment: bringing another major sport to the market. Previously, Arctos has invested in over 20 professional sports groups and franchises and was the first firm of its kind to invest across MLB, MLS, NHL and NBA. Its investments include Fenway Sports Group, Chicago Cubs, Golden State Warriors, and Los Angeles Dodgers; Theo Epstein is a major part of the group.

This investment came after RSL owner David Blitzer spoken of his desire to see the NWSL’s Utah Royals team return to the Beehive State, saying it was a matter of if, not when. And given the chance to land a NWSL team at a considerable discount in a market that previously support pro women’s soccer, NWSL would be the logical assumption that when all parties involved discussed bringing a major sport to the market, it would be NWSL–where expansion teams are expected to fetch $250 million for 2023 and 2024. (Yes, it wasn’t long ago that NWSL expansion teams were going for $250,000. You missed your chance.) Discussing major sports and Salt Lake City inevitably led the local media to speculate on whether the NFL or NHL would be heading to Salt Lake.

So why not speculate on Larry H. Miller Company bringing MLB to Salt Lake City? The NFL seems unlikely and there’s no indication that any NFL expansion is on the table. While MLB expansion is inevitable, it looks like the NBA will become the next major sport to expand, with teams reportedly lined up for Las Vegas and Seattle. Still, there are some reasons to think MLB in Utah is not the craziest idea. It’s no secret MLB would love to see a team in the East and a team in the West; Nashville has been aggressive in building a fan base, but the Portland effort seems to have lost any momentum. Some of the MLB-to-Utah talk is crazy talk; while there are some connections between Arte Moreno and Salt Lake City (he was an investor in the late, great Salt Lake City Trappers), it would make little sense for Moreno to move his Los Angeles Angels and walk away from his $3-billion local broadcast deal, which runs through 2031. Though the Salt Lake MSA population is only 1,263,061 (about the size of New Orleans, a little larger than Hartford and a little smaller than Louisville) and the Salt Lake television is #30 in the United States (larger than Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Kansas City), the combined population of Salt Lake County and Utah County approaches 2 million.

There are a lot of wheels in motion and a lot of local speculation. It will be a fascinating process to see if any MLB talk is actually centered in reality or if there’s a lot of wishful thinking from local pundits.

RELATED STORIES: Salt Lake City: Smith’s Ballpark upgrades key to development; Salt Lake City eyes Smith’s Ballpark area for development

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