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The NFL in Utah: Possible or pipe dream?

By Ryan Teeples

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Feb. 1 2013 11:35 a.m. MST

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) runs from Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Mike Neal (96) and cornerback Casey Hayward (29) during the second quarter of an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game in San Francisco, Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Tony Avelar, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns love their football.

High School fans pack stadiums on frigid Friday nights while Saturdays (plus Thursdays and conference weekend Friday) are reserved for college football — even if the games aren’t in the afternoon anymore.

And while each winter the Cougars, Aggies and Utes may find themselves gearing up for a final battle in a bowl game, it’s a bittersweet moment, for fans realize it’s the last glorious hurrah for the local gridironers for eight long, torturous, rumor-filled months.

So as we approach the Sunday of all Sundays for NFL fans, sports-minded individuals in the Beehive state inevitably begin cranking their proverbial mental gears to consider a decade-old question:

Could Utah support an NFL team?

Those mental jumping-jacks lead to inevitable myopic thoughts of Super Bowl victory parades and trophy presentations in downtown SLC as the greatest snow on earth falls and the world watches.

While such dreams are as likely to come true as a 2013 Jazz run through the finals, it’s still interesting to study the business and demographic feasibility of Utah supporting a team in that pinnacle of all sports leagues.

So, let’s, shall we?

By the numbers

Fans eager to predict an NFL franchise could thrive in Salt Lake City as the Jazz have are quick to point out, in terms of population, Utah is on par with other NFL towns.

Buffalo, Jacksonville, Charlotte and even Cleveland all pop to the top of the list as examples of smaller-market geos that have found success in supporting a team under The Shield.

That is certainly true. Smaller markets have successfully built impressive franchises.

This chart shows the smallest NFL cities’ rank among all US cities based on metropolitan population from the 2010 census. I’ve thrown in Salt Lake City and San Antonio for purposes of comparison.

Looking at those numbers, it’s natural to think, “If those cities can do it, Salt Lake certainly can. And I’d totally jump on the bandwagon. After all, I’ve only been a Ute fan since 2005 and I love them!”

But the numbers aren’t telling the entire story.

Businesses don’t look at cities. They look at markets. And when you look at these geographic areas through that magnifying glass, the picture begins to look very different.

Designated Market Area, or DMA, is a Nielson trademarked household and media-market size metric used by marketers and analysts as a starting point for audience or fan-base focused investigations — like whether a professional sports team can thrive or survive in a compact, finite media market with highly attractive women like Salt Lake City.

So here’s the same table including the Nelson DMA television market rank:

Notice how markets like Cleveland, Charlotte and Nashville become much more attractive when you consider number of households in an extended market.

However, you’ll also notice when considering DMA, markets like Jacksonville, New Orleans and Buffalo appear to be much less desirable for business ventures that are TV/household centric like professional sports.

But that’s still only part of the story.

You also have to consider related smaller markets to get a complete understanding of what fan support in a given market would look like.

Now look at cities which are geographically related to our core markets but are considered separate media markets. But for purposes of fan support for a professional sports team, these ancillary markets would be included and considered important when determining market support.

This table was a bit too large to put right in the article body, so I put this table to the left and made it expandable to be easier to see.

Suddenly, Cleveland is a very attractive market (well, at least in terms of potential fan base). Nashville, Buffalo and Charlotte also grow considerably in size.

Of intrigue is the fact that Jacksonville and New Orleans (on paper, at least) do not appear to be strong support bases for NFL teams. But considering the dramatically high fan participation in high school and college football in SEC country, it’s not a stretch to expect those markets to be just plain more devoted to the sport and subsequently an NFL team — although Jacksonville isn’t exactly thriving in terms of fan attendance and TV ratings, and their on-field product is so bad even Tim Tebow could help.

So considering all the data above, it appears that Salt Lake City would be very much an outlier in terms of potential fan-base and market size for an NFL franchise.

The realities

Analysis like the one above would only be the beginning in any true pro-forma evaluation of the viability of such an undertaking as relocating or starting an NFL franchise.

Intense market research and sentiment analysis would help determine how much capitalization potential there is in a market (what percentage of the population would be interested), how many potential corporations there are for sponsorship, whether there is infrastructure for supporting events, etc.

Not only that, who would actually buy or bring a team to Salt Lake? The list of potential owners in Utah is shorter than the VIP list at a University of Utah basketball game.

Utah routinely shows up on “best of” lists for states great for starting businesses. Or “most livable” states and cities. A primary reason for this is Utah has a low tax-rate and fairly conservative fiscal policy. This makes the pool of tax dollars in a city much smaller, and the state as a whole much less likely to pay for a stadium and infrastructure with any kind of public funds.

And then there’s the Sunday Sabbath issue. As mentioned above, capitalization is a big issue. If there is a large portion of the population who would go to church and roast-beef family dinner rather than watch or attend games, that could become a significant factor in the viability of the financial mode.

The conclusion

So again, the question: Could Salt Lake City, Utah, support an NFL team?

The answer: Maybe, but probably not at present. Without having done any detailed market research, the proposition looks iffy. Cities like Jacksonville have certainly done it, but that franchise isn’t exactly model. And it has the advantage of siting in the epicenter of football.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter because there are plenty of cities that would be in line ahead of Salt Lake — namely, Los Angeles.

But were an ownership group able to get a seat at the table after resolving the aforementioned issues, the road to success would be like a hike to the top of Timpanogos.

Then again, I’m sure Larry Miller was told all these things before.

Ryan Teeples is a respected marketing and technology expert, full-time sports fan and owner of Ryan Teeples Consulting Inc. (RyanTeeples.com) — Would you like to contribute to DeseretNews.com? Contact Landon Hemsley. Email: lhemsley@desnews.com

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