Big League Utah, a group led by former Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller, is interested in bringing an expansion Major League Baseball franchise to Salt Lake City, reports Jeff Passan of ESPN.
Major League Baseball has not expanded in 25 years now, when the 1998 season saw the league grow to 30 teams with the additions of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, with the latter club later dropping the demonic portion of their name. Many have wondered when the league might consider expanding again, with commissioner Rob Manfred frequently stating that the Rays and Athletics need to resolve their respective stadium situations before expansion will be legitimately on the table. Passan’s report indicates that is indeed still the priority, though all signs point to expansion being just over the horizon.
Both of those stadium situations seem to be moving towards resolutions, one way or another. The Rays have put forth a plan to redevelop the St. Petersburg Gas Plant District, with mayor Ken Welch backing the proposal. The negotiations are still ongoing but it seems like progress is being made before the club’s lease on Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season. The A’s, meanwhile, have been in talks with the city of Oakland for a while about developing their own stadium, threatening to move to Las Vegas if nothing gets done. Manfred recently suggested that January of 2024 is an unofficial deadline for them to get something done with Oakland.
As those situations near their conclusions, the talk of expansion should only increase. A couple of groups have already positioned themselves to be in the mix for new franchises. A group in Nashville has attached familiar names like Dave Dombrowski, Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart. They recently added Don Mattingly while branding themselves as the Nashville Stars. Dombrowski and Mattingly are currently employed by the Phillies and Blue Jays, respectively, but are still connected to the Stars/Music City Baseball. There’s also the Portland Diamond Project, which has been trying to position itself for a club for many years, submitting bids for parcels of land five years ago. Passan also lists Charlotte, Montreal and Las Vegas as potential expansion locations, the latter presumably only if they don’t end up hosting the Athletics.
Those two ventures will now seemingly have some competition from this Salt Lake City group. The 79-year-old Miller owned the Utah Jazz until recently. Her husband Larry H. Miller had purchased the team in the 1980s but she took over the club, and his other business ventures, upon his death in 2009. The Miller family sold the Jazz in October of 2020. Passan reports that Big League Utah involves the Larry H. Miller Company but also former big leaguers Dale Murphy and Jeremy Guthrie, both of whom live in Utah now. The group has its sights set on building a stadium in the Rocky Mountain Power District, an area outside the downtown core of Salt Lake City.
“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.”
Utah Governor Spencer Cox also seems on board. “It would be, I think, a validation of everything that we’ve worked so hard to do,” Cox said. “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.”
Per Passan’s report, members of the group have already been in contact with Major League Baseball and have also toured the facilities of the Atlanta Braves. They are touting the viability of Salt Lake City as a destination based on its population, which makes it a larger media market than that of the Padres, Royals, Reds and Brewers. They also highlight a strong economy which includes an unemployment rate of just 2.4%. Starks also said local residents were surveyed about their preferences for expansion sports teams and MLB was the top choice in that polling, ahead of the NFL.
However the expansion competition ultimately plays out, it figures to be a boon to the league. For one thing, expansion tends to create millions of new dedicated fans, which is good for growing the sport. There also should be plenty of interest among current baseball fans, as expansion will need to be accompanied by a draft, with the new clubs filling their rosters by plucking players from the others. Beyond that, expansion franchises pay fees for the right to join the league, with that money divided amongst the existing clubs. The new franchises in Arizona and Tampa each paid $130MM in fees back in 1998 but Passan estimates the fee will be closer to $2 billion this time around.