Utah group interested in MLB expansion franchise

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Major League Utah, led by former Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller, is interested in expanding its Major League Baseball franchise in Salt Lake City, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Major League Baseball did not expand for 25 years, and when the league expanded to 30 teams in the 1998 season with the addition of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the latter club dropped the Devils part of its name.

Many have wondered when the league might consider expansion again, with commissioner Rob Manfred often saying the Rays and Athletics need to resolve their stadium situations before expansion is legally on the table. It’s still a priority in Passan’s account, though all signs point to an expansion on the horizon.

Both of these situations in the stadium seem to be resolved in one way or another. The Rays proposed a plan to redevelop the St. Petersburg Gas Plant District, a proposal that Mayor Ken Welch supported. Negotiations are still ongoing, but progress appears to be on the cards before the club’s lease at the Tropicana ground expires after the 2027 season.

The A’s have been in talks with the city of Oakland for some time to develop their own stadium and have threatened to move to Las Vegas if nothing is done. Manfred recently suggested January 2024 as an unofficial deadline to do something with Oakland.

As these cases draw to a close, discussions about expansion are only expected to intensify. Several groups are willing to join the fray for new franchises.

The band from Nashville has enlisted household names such as Dave Dombrowski, Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart. They recently added Don Mattingly as the Nashville Stars. Dombrowski and Mattingly are currently with the Phillies and Blue Jays, respectively, but are still affiliated with Stars/Music City Baseball.

There’s also the Portland Diamond Project, which has been trying to establish itself as a club for years, submitting bids for land five years ago. Passan also lists Charlotte, Montreal and Las Vegas as possible expansion spots, unless the latter hosts the Athletics.

Both of these companies will now have some competition in this Salt Lake City group. Miller, 79, until recently owned the Utah Jazz Club. Her husband, Larry H. Miller bought the team in the 1980s, but took over the club and its other businesses after his death in 2009. The Miller family sold Jazz in October 2020.

According to Passan, Larry H. Miller’s company will also be involved, along with former major leaguers Dale Murphy and Jeremy Guthrie, who now live in Utah. The group aims to build a stadium in the Rocky Mountain Power District, just outside of downtown Salt Lake City.

“Salt Lake City is a big league city,” said Miller CEO Steve Starks. “As one of the 30 fastest growing media markets in the country with the youngest population, we believe that’s where our focus needs to be and we can achieve that by bringing a team to the Wasatch Front.”

Utah Governor Spencer Cox also appeared on board. “I think it would be a validation of everything we’ve been working so hard on,” Cox said. “We proved ourselves in sports at the 2002 Olympic Games and we are back in 2030 or maybe 2034. We hosted two NBA All-Star Games. We know we can do it. It would be important for people who love sports and care deeply about it. We are a baseball nation.

According to Passan’s report, members of the group have previously been in contact with Major League Baseball and have also toured Atlanta Braves facilities. They note Salt Lake City’s vitality as a destination based on its population, making it a bigger media market than the Padres, Royals, Reds and Brewers.

They also note a strong economy that includes an unemployment rate of just 2.4%. Starks also said that local residents were asked about their preference for sports teams, and the MLB came out ahead of the NFL in that poll.

Still, the expansion rivalry ultimately seems like a boon for the league. First, expansion creates millions of new fans, which is good for the growth of the sport.

There should be plenty of interest among current baseball fans as well, as the expansion should go hand in hand with the draft, with new clubs filling out their rosters by picking up the remaining players.

In addition, expansion franchises pay a fee for the right to join the league, which money is split among the existing clubs. The new franchises in Arizona and Tampa each paid $130 million in 1998, but Passan estimates the commissions this time around will be closer to $2 billion.

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