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Brad Rock: Salt Lake fans: Prepare to open wallets

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 22 2004 9:02 a.m. MDT

I'm hot. My palms are sweaty. I'm feeling a little dizzy. Could someone open a window? I'm getting a little claustrophobic.

Things got more crowded than ever Monday when the Arena Football League announced a team in Salt Lake in 2006. For those keeping score at home, that makes it one football, one soccer and one basketball team added to the market — this year.

There's the new AFL team, the new Major League Soccer team and the new minor league Utah Snowbears. Add that to the existing monster in the market, the Utah Jazz. Toss in the hockey Grizzlies, baseball Stingers, soccer Blitzz, Salt Ratz and Spiders, football Warriors and the Ute and Cougar teams, and you have a genuine stew.

I half expect to be driving to work tomorrow and see a billboard that says, "Welcome Salt Lake Expos!"

I'm not even going to address such teams as the Provo Angels and Ogden Raptors. I have enough to worry about right here in my own yard.

Are there enough sports fans in town to support them all? And the companion question: Are there enough corporate sponsors?

Time once was when Salt Lake was virgin soil for almost any pro sports team. Triple-A baseball existed here for decades. Later, hockey and basketball came along. But that was about it. This was a growing, optimistic market — with plenty of space for parking.

Various teams rolled through, ranging from rodeo to volleyball to roller hockey; few stayed.

There was even a five-year period with the WNBA Utah Starzz, but even they left in a swell of red ink.

But the latest teams to arrive in town have upped the stakes.

While the American Basketball Association's Snowbears don't look likely to grab much revenue, the MLS and AFL clubs must grab a respectable share to survive.

"I don't know anything about their leagues, but you have to consider how many entertainment dollars are out there, with the hockey, the Jazz, the Stingers, pro soccer and now this," said Jazz vice president Jay Francis. "I guess everyone will just have to sharpen their marketing skills and go after their slice of the market."

The AFL team faces a particular challenge. It isn't directly competing with the local college football teams, because the season runs February-May. But it does compete with the Jazz, Ute and Cougar basketball teams, and Grizzlies hockey, during both the regular season and playoffs.

"It's also prime ski season," said Kim Raap, University of Utah assistant marketing director.

Unique to Salt Lake are large families and LDS Church members that tithe 10 percent — both limit discretionary income.

"People do pick and choose. Generally they take only one or two things," said Raap.

Also, Salt Lake has a limited corporate pool. Some teams, such as the now-defunct Utah Freezz, based half their operating revenue on corporate sponsors.

"Even the corporate base in Salt Lake is going to have to pick and choose," continued Francis. "Maybe they'll say, 'OK, do we give up a little here and do this?' It's going to be interesting."

The competition should mean better deals for consumers. But in other ways, it will likely mean making hard choices.

"I think, quite honestly, that probably everyone can succeed if everyone does their due diligence and has a good strategic plan, and knows exactly who their audience is," said Francis.

Added Raap, "I think it's an exciting addition to the community; I do think there are a lot of options, as far as sporting events go. There will be a fair amount of competition for dollars. I think it will be difficult in some regards for them (the AFL team). But football is big in Utah, and I don't think it's a difficult sell."

We'll know when they start asking people to get out their wallets.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com

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