Salt Lake City group joins MLB expansion chase
Salt Lake City, UT (April 12, 2023) — A Salt Lake City consortium led by the former owner of the Utah Jazz plans to pursue a Major League Baseball franchise in the coming years, touting the area’s population growth, strong economy and baseball history as draws for a coveted expansion slot, people involved with the project told ESPN.
Big League Utah, a group headed by longtime Jazz owner Gail Miller, will join Nashville’s Music City Baseball and the Portland Diamond Project in lobbying to join the current 30 MLB organizations. Las Vegas, considered a prime destination for a franchise, has emerged as a strong candidate if the Oakland Athletics relocate.
While sources said MLB does not plan to expand until it figures out the futures of Oakland and the Tampa Bay Rays — both of whom have considered moving amid struggles to secure new stadiums in their current metropolitan areas — commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN in July: “I would love to get to 32 teams.”
The Salt Lake City coalition includes the Larry H. Miller Company — the conglomerate founded by Miller’s late husband, Larry, an automobile magnate — as well as local business leaders and former major league players Dale Murphy and Jeremy Guthrie, both Utah residents. The group has targeted building a stadium in the Rocky Mountain Power District, a 100-acre mixed-use zone located between Salt Lake City’s new airport and its downtown core, an investment that would come on top of an expected $2 billion expansion fee.
“Salt Lake City is a major league city,” said Steve Starks, CEO of the Miller Company. “We believe that as a top-30 media market in the fastest-growing state in the country with the youngest population, that’s where our attention should be — and that we could accomplish bringing a team to the Wasatch Front.”
Starks said the group surveyed local fans about their favorite sports leagues for potential expansion and that MLB was the top choice, ahead of even the NFL.
“It would be, I think, a validation of everything that we’ve worked so hard to do,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox told ESPN. “We’ve proven ourselves in a sports capacity with Olympics in 2002 and coming back in 2030 or, more likely, 2034. We’ve hosted two NBA All-Star Games. We know we can do this. It would just be meaningful for people who love this sport, who care deeply about it. We’re a baseball state.”
Already owners of the Salt Lake Bees — the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels whose average attendance last year was 5,873, the 18th highest in minor league baseball — the Miller Company is building a new stadium for the team set to open in 2025. The Jazz, who moved to Salt Lake City from New Orleans in 1979, regularly sell out Vivint Arena.
Conversations with MLB about the possibility of expanding to Salt Lake City began about a year ago, when Starks inquired about the viability of a bid, with Las Vegas; Nashville, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Montreal among the other potential candidates.
Leaders of the Salt Lake City group highlighted a media market larger than that of four current major league teams: San Diego, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. They stressed Utah’s significant growth, as its population of about 3.3 million swelled by a higher percentage than any state from 2010 to 2020, according to the Census Bureau, and the Wasatch Front population — stretching from Ogden to Provo — is around 2.7 million. On top of that, the group said, Utah’s 2.4% unemployment rate in February was the fourth lowest in the country, with an economy trumpeted in recent years as among the strongest in the United States.
Recently, officials from the coalition visited the Battery, the mixed-use zone that surrounds the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium, Truist Park, and is widely regarded in the industry as the standard for such projects. The goal would be to build a Battery-style development around a new major league stadium.
“It’s time,” Murphy, a two-time National League MVP with the Braves who moved to Utah in 1994 after he retired, told ESPN. “It can happen. And it’d be a great market. There’s a healthy love of baseball out here.”
Among Utah’s baseball fans: the governor, who said he recently took in a game between the Padres and Colorado Rockies at Petco Park.
“I’m just sitting there in the ballpark, and I’m looking around, and I’m like, man, I get to do this maybe once a year when I’m traveling,” Cox said. “Me, my kids, we’ve missed out on this piece [in Salt Lake City]. And I want that.”
The Miller Company, which sold its auto dealerships for $3.2 billion in 2021 after divesting a majority share of the Jazz for $1.66 billion in 2020, has pivoted to other businesses, including health care, real estate and lending. A favorite phrase of Larry Miller — “Go about doing good until there’s too much good in the world” — underpins philanthropic efforts that have seen the company give away tens of millions of dollars in recent years.
“Gail lives that, and she brought that kind of focus to the Utah Jazz organization,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told ESPN. “And now we’re seeing their organizations branch out into other types of investments that build community as well. I think that MLB is fortunate to have a human being like Gail Miller and the Miller group that is so focused on bringing baseball to Salt Lake City.”
Though Larry Miller, who died in 2009, was best known as owner of the Jazz, his passion was fast-pitch softball. He was honored by the International Softball Congress Hall of Fame with a service award in 1992. The efforts to secure an expansion team, Starks said, would not only be an homage to Miller but also a gift to the city and a boon for MLB.
“One of our goals with the coalition is just to elevate this sport generally,” Starks said. “And so we’re going to be building a new ballpark for the Bees. We’re going to be investing in baseball in youth programs. We actually have the largest minor league-led youth baseball program. It’s 20,000 kids that play Little League baseball here, and we call them Junior Bees. All of it just builds awareness and excitement around the prospect of getting an expansion team.”