Bringing an NFL team to Utah: Why and why not?

Posted at 9:41 PM, Feb 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-05 23:41:52-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Salt Lake City does not seem to be on the NFL’s radar.

Val Hale, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and former Athletic Director at Brigham Young University, says as much.

“I don't think it's really on the radar," he said. "If it is, it's over in the corner. It's a small blip."

Why not?

The NFL is facing it’s most transient offseason in years. The Rams are leaving St. Louis to return to Los Angeles. The Chargers committed to another year in San Diego, though they have first option to join the Rams at a new LA stadium. And the Raiders, if spurned in that LA deal, have already been talking with Las Vegas city officials and with multi-billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Adelson reportedly wants to finance a new stadium to be shared by an NFL franchise and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

There are facts that should make Salt Lake City a clear favorite for an NFL franchise.

Pro for an NFL team in SLC: Size

Salt Lake City is the 24th biggest population center in the United States, when measured as a combined statistical area, or CSA. That’s the way the federal government categorizes metro areas to get a more realistic view of areas like Utah’s Wasatch Front.

With 2.4 million residents, Salt Lake’s CSA is bigger than Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Nashville, Jacksonville, New Orleans, and Green Bay.

Pro for an NFL team in SLC: Proximity to other teams

There are bigger cities without an NFL team, like Portland, Oregon; Orlando, St. Louis (after the Rams leave for LA), and Sacramento. However, all but St. Louis are a one to two hour drive to the nearest team. St. Louis is a 248 mile drive from Kansas City.

Conversely, Salt Lake City is 521 miles from Denver, putting it at the center of the largest regional hole in the NFL.

Still, there are also some facts that make Salt Lake City unlikely as an NFL prospect. As the current jockeying for markets continues in the offseason, Salt Lake will likely be on the outside of a series of moves that bring teams to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and possibly in the next five to ten years: London.

Con for an NFL team in SLC: The Sunday thing

The first argument sounds superficial but may get at what seems to be the deep-rooted disinterest that seems to be the NFL’s attitude toward Salt Lake: It’s a Sunday thing.

Utah is 58 percent Mormon, and the Pew Foundation says that percentage has actually been growing in recent years. The LDS Church places a high value on observing the Sabbath, in part by not frequenting businesses, like a football stadium.

However, Hale still thinks Utah would likely prove capable of filling an NFL stadium.

“Yeah, I think Utah does really well. We have a lot of non-Mormons now,” Hale said.

Con for an NFL team in SLC: No Corporate Headquarters

Jeff Robbins, CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, said, “A lot of the major sports franchises, you'll see headquarters of major businesses be title sponsors.”

Utah has a thriving, diverse economy that serves it well when weathering depressions and adjusting to new economic realities. But Utah does not have headquarters of any of the giant kinds of businesses that sponsor football stadiums.

That’s what sets Utah apart from some of the smaller metro areas that already have teams. Cincinnati has Eli Lilly. Indianapolis has Procter and Gamble, and even tiny Green Bay has Ameriprise Financial.

The publicly traded company in Utah with the largest market cap (measure of value using number of stocks multiplied by stock price) is called Extra Space Storage. It’s worth $11.2 billion, which is nothing to sneeze at unless you’re Procter and Gamble, with a $217 billion market cap.

Con for an NFL team in SLC: No owner

In the rarefied air of big-time Forbes certified wealth, Utah is a small player.

The richest man in Utah is Jon Huntsman Senior, founder of Huntsman Chemical, which is Utah’s second largest publicly traded company with a market cap of about $5.5 billion.

Forbes estimates Huntsman’s worth at $1 billion. He’d be worth more, but he’s chosen cancer research over saving up for an NFL team of his own (truly there’s no indication he is, or ever has been, interested in the NFL, but it’s the lot of a billionaire to have others think about what you could do with all that money).

Huntsman’s bank account is a fortune beyond fortunes for most of us, but the billionaire courting the Raiders to Vegas, Sheldon Adelson, has an estimated net worth of $29 billion.

A new NFL stadium would likely cost $2 billion to build. That was the estimated cost of Levi’s Stadium, home to the 49ers and site of Super Bowl 50.

So Utah is not on the precipice of NFL glory, though the Wasatch Front is a large-scale metro area big enough to support one.

While Utah waits, Jeff Robbins has a suggestion.

“Long term, we've got a prison site that's going to have 600 acres or so,” Robbins said.

Robbins said he would love some visionary politicians to set aside some of the land where the state prison sits, so that when an NFL owner arrives, he or she has a place to call home.