MLB expansion to Utah: Pipe dream or reality?

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Photo by Brian Philbrick, courtesy of the Orem Owlz

July is upon us, and few things are as synonymous as baseball and summertime. It’s “America’s Pastime.” It’s nice to have something so consistent in an otherwise inconsistent world. The game has experienced relatively few significant changes since Major League Baseball was officially organized over 100 years ago. But it appears as though the boat may be rocked a bit in the near future, as the commissioner plans to add two new teams to the league.

The league hasn’t seen an expansion franchise in almost two decades, and this time around we might see something new: international expansion to the south. Mexico City has been mentioned as a favorite on the list of possible expansion destinations. Other cites mentioned include Montreal, Vancouver, Canada and various cities in Texas. One place that doesn’t seem to be on the radar of any MLB executives is Utah, but maybe it should be. Here are four reasons why.

First, Utah is a beautiful place. The skyline of Salt Lake City, highlighted by mountains, is certainly unique in comparison to other major U.S. cities. Playing baseball near the mountains marries America’s pastime to the natural beauty of the country. The combination just feels right. While an impressive landscape might not lead the list of items the MLB is concerned about, a change to the now ubiquitous overhead shot of a stadium among skyscrapers would be a welcome sight to baseball fans.

Second, and something that does make the list of things the MLB is worried about, is filling seats. Not only do full stadiums mean money in the owners’ pockets, but they also reflect positively on the league and speak encouragingly to the league’s vision of growing the popularity of the sport. Attendance isn’t something they’d have to worry about in Utah. Numbers from the state’s two pro teams can attest to that, as the Jazz and Real Salt Lake have both posted impressive statistics in recent years. Since 2001 the Jazz have ranked in the top 10 in average attendance every season except one. That speaks volumes to the quality of local fan support, considering that the organization fielded a few pretty bad teams during those years. Real Salt Lake has grown in average attendance by more than 20 percent since their first few years in the league and have nearly averaged a sellout for two seasons in a row. The baseball expansion committee wouldn’t need to be worried about selling tickets in Utah.

Third on our list is the opportunity to grow the popularity of the game. That’s the driving force behind all the talks of international expansion. But before looking to push America’s game further across the borders, they should consider how much room for growth exists in their own backyard. Baseball has dipped in popularity over the years, thanks to the wild acclaim of pro and college football, the rise of soccer and the huge following the NBA gained in the 1990s. In those regions without a professional team, baseball isn’t what it used to be. Outside of California, Western teams are relatively few and far between. Adding a team to the region would revitalize the interest in baseball and bring innumerable young fans to the game.

Lastly is market size. The Salt Lake City market may not be considered large enough to warrant a team. But it currently ranks 33rd in the top 100 TV markets in the U.S. It comes in ahead of current MLB cities Cincinnati (34th) and Milwaukee (35th), as well as a couple of possible expansion sites in San Antonio (37th) and Las Vegas (42nd). Market size is important to league officials because more people in a region means more potential viewers which translates into more money. But over the past few years alternative viewing methods have emerged. With the anticipated growth of these cord-cutting ways to watch ( for example), fans are not tied to the teams in their market as much as they have been in the past. This somewhat negates the impact that market size has on viewer ratings. Even so, the Salt Lake City market stacks up competitively.

But even with all this, the harsh reality is that money talks. It’s really the only voice sports executives are listening to. If we’re being realistic, the MLB stands to make more money by sticking to its short list and moving to a bigger city. For that reason alone, it’s unlikely that Utah will ever get a pro baseball team, which is a real shame. Bringing baseball here would improve the league and the game in ways that can’t be expressed with dollar signs.