Could Utah ever see an NFL team of its own? It’s not a simple yes or no

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INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 03: A general view of the NFL logo on the field is seen before the game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

(ABC4) – Fall is in the air and for many weekend warriors, Sunday is a sacred day for worshiping the church of the National Football League.

For a lot of football fans in Utah, watching modern-day coliseums celebrating some of the sport’s most legendary gladiators brings a real source of envy, with perhaps a shred of hope.

Many ask, when will it be Utah’s turn to host America’s biggest weekly sporting events for a few Sundays, Thursdays, and Monday each fall and winter?

Will Utah ever get an NFL team of its own?

To hear Utah Sports Commission President and CEO Jeff Robbins explain his answer – he says he gets asked this question a lot – the answer isn’t necessarily no, but getting top-level football in the state would be an incredibly complex project.

The most significant hurdle to overcome would be figuring out where to put the team and how to build the stadium.

It’s the same problem the state would have to woo a Major League Baseball club to the area, another popular topic of discussion around the water cooler.

“The stadiums have evolved and the infrastructure and cost to build stadiums have become so expensive that in some way shape or form if you look at most of the stadiums being built, there’s some type of fairly significant public partnership that has to be created,” Robbins explains, citing the construction of Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, which ran a bill of nearly $2 billion, $750 million of which came from public funds.

But let’s say that the local government leaders do approve of a project that would likely require hundreds of millions of dollars in public taxpayer money to break ground on the stadium, that only unlocks the next set of questions:

How much are the hypothetical team owners willing to pay out of their own pockets for the stadium?

What kind of infrastructure would need to be built to bring fans to the stadium?

What would the construction of the stadium look like?

Would it need to be domed or enclosed due to the climate?

Perhaps, most importantly, where would you put it?

The point of the mountain area where the old Utah State Prison will sit vacant in 2022 would likely be an ideal location to place a top-caliber stadium, which would be necessary to entice the NFL to place a team in the state. With the prison’s upcoming move to Tooele County, the massive piece of land in Draper that rests right where Salt Lake County meets with the bustling Silicon Slopes area is probably the best place that a stadium could possibly go. City officials have expressed an interest in building some kind of sports entertainment facility with the newly available and highly valuable land.

But again, the owners, local corporate sponsors, and even the public would have to decide that a multi-billion dollar project would be worth it.

With the NFL’s current 30 stadiums having an average capacity of just under 71,000, none of the current facilities around the valley would be able to provide the kind of experience that would titillate the league into expanding into Salt Lake (something that would also need an approving vote from the current group of team owners who would have to find it to be a profitable venture for the league as a whole).

BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium currently has the biggest capacity of any stadium in the state with 63,725 seats at the open-air venue in Provo, but providing the luxury box experience, not to mention fulfilling the massive demand for alcohol sales at an NFL game, would be impossible. Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City would have the exact same hurdles.

A new stadium would be a must.

But again, just because it seems like it would be difficult to accomplish, doesn’t mean it’s an impossibility.

Many numbers suggest that the Salt Lake Valley measures up favorably with other NFL markets.

For example, in the latest Nielsen DMA Rankings, which measures media consumption around the country to assist advertising and PR firms to make marketing decisions, Salt Lake City ranks 30th, ahead of places like Green Bay, Buffalo, New Orleans, and Kansas City. SLC’s resident median income is also on par with many of the NFL’s markets.

However, just because the television consumption in Utah is better than the area around where the Packers, Bills, and Chiefs play, it would be delusional to assume that a new team in Utah would have the same kind of following right off the bat as those franchises which have been around for decades.

An evidence-based approach would indicate that some level of professional football has historically failed to generate excitement in the area. The Salt Lake Stallions of the defunct Alliance of American Football finished dead last in the doomed league’s attendance figures, but of course, the upstart league didn’t have the same cachet as the NFL and the stadium where the team played, Rice-Eccles Stadium, wasn’t the jewel of the valley that a shiny new building would be.

So while it’s really hard to say yes to pro football in Utah, it’s also not prudent to completely close the door.
Utah has the nation’s youngest population as well as the fast-growing economy in the country. Along with the exploding tech sector in the Wasatch Front, it’s possible to check the boxes on a potential fanbase as well as the necessary corporate sponsors needed to build something major league in Utah.

Robbins, a major player in getting some gigantic sporting events to the state, is proud of the area’s love for competition, but he’s aware of what a massive undertaking, and frankly, risk of failure, that bringing the NFL to Utah would be.

It’s a conversation he’s had many times over the last two decades.

“Salt Lake City and Utah do have a tremendous DNA for sports and recreation, people here love their sports, love their college sports, and of course, the Jazz and Real Salt Lake,” Robbins boasts of the area’s residents. “But it’s become a very complex deal getting a Major League Baseball or a National Football League team here because there are just so many variables that you have to address.”

While it would be undoubtedly exciting, especially at the initial realization of another pro team in Utah, the potential of a multi-billion dollar project failing could have a catastrophic effect on the area for decades. Many researchers, including one team from UC Berkeley’s Economic Review, have found that publicly financed stadiums have little impact on a community as opposed to spending in areas such as education or housing that can have long-term increases in the standard of living.

Fortunately, Utah already has plenty of options for fans to participate in, and Robbins says, for now, that should satisfy their desire for sporting entertainment, even if the discussion on bringing pro pigskin to the state never goes away. However, for it to happen, the dollars and cents need to be as much a part of the game plan as the Xs and Os.

“I think we’ve compensated for maybe not having some of these additional these other professional leagues is through all of these other major sporting activities and competitions that are being held,” Robbins states, referring also to Utah’s strong college football presence. “It seems like some of those things have filled in the gap of not having an NFL team or an MLB team but over time the community is going to keep growing. I don’t think that that satiation for wanting the NFL or MLB is going to change.”

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