Dreams of the big league.

Author:Hengesbaugh, Mark Gerard
Position:Sports Industry - Professional sports

Are we ready for another major sports franchise?

"I was in Moscow a week and a hail ago, and Russians told us they know Utah by the Jazz and the Olympics," says Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission. "It's ironic our small state is identified with sports. Not too many are."

Certainly, in 20 years here the state's high profile National Basketball League franchise has helped transform Utah's image around the world. Combine success of the Utah jazz and other Wasatch Front spectator sports with the area's relentless population growth, and it's natural to wonder if--or when--Utah will support a second major league sports franchise.

Are we ready? Professional sports is a business, of course, and while the enthusiasm of face-painted local fans is encouraging, it's best to double-check with the levelheaded front-office guys: "The fact the Jazz have done well in Utah is a plus," says Robert Hyde, 18-year veteran of the Jazz business office and president of its retail arm, Fanzz. "And the Stingers and Grizzlies draw well for minor league baseball and hockey teams. But it's a big jump in pricing and attendance from minor leagues to the majors."

Bringing a second major league sports franchise to Utah would require an investor with a stout heart. The prestige of owning a big league team is unbeatable, but the initial investment is daunting and the odds are stacked against the only viable long-term business plan: maintaining a team that's competitive every season.

Competitiveness is crucial. Despite major league attempts at parity, teams in small media markets like Salt Lake are perennial underdogs in acquiring talent to stay on the winning side of the ledger. Each franchise bids to sign a limited number of top athletes, and Salt Lake's market, 36th in size in the U.S. according to Nielsen Media Research, competes with Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston, which pull in huge local revenues for their teams. For example, the New York Yankees payroll is five times that of the Montreal Expos.

If a team loses regularly--as small market teams are inclined to do--big-league ticket prices are so expensive and alternate entertainment choices so readily available, fans quickly lose interest. Then, corporate sponsors begin shopping around for a winner.

So far, the Utah Jazz have beaten these odds. What fuels the franchise's continuing financial success in the fourth-smallest NBA market is winning on court. Nineteen years in the...

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