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Utah’s sports surge: What the state’s big plans could mean for future generations

May 20, 2024, 10:41 PM | Updated: 11:02 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – “Opportunity” – it’s a word we’ve been hearing a lot recently as Utah lures professional sports teams and hopes to host another Olympics.

To accommodate those dreams, a sports and entertainment district will soon transform downtown Salt Lake City. And training facilities could reshape other communities across the state. Taxpayers will help foot the bill for the downtown transformation, to the tune of nearly a billion dollars over 30 years.

And lawmakers paved the way for a similar deal for an MLB stadium.

The long-term investment has many excited for Utah’s sports surge, including Shannon Bahrke, a two-time Olympic medalist who made Utah her home after the 2002 games.

“I mean, there’s so many reasons that I clap for that,” Bahrke said of the growth in sports. “But I think for me it’s all about the kids,” she said. Bahrke is looking to the future and opportunities for her own children.

“Oh my gosh, we just got the Royals, a women’s professional soccer team,” she said, cheering out loud with excitement. “Like my daughter can know what’s possible.”

Orson Colby has already benefited from access to training facilities close to home, a result of Utah’s first Olympic spotlight.

17-year-old Orson Colby sits on the porch of his home in Riverton, Utah surrounded by competition photos. Colby is a youth national champion in luge. (Ken Fall, KSL TV)

“I’m very grateful,” said the national youth luge champion from Riverton.

“They always say it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something,” he said. “People from the East Coast would only go for a two-week camp to train [in Lake Placid]… versus where I’m only like a 40-minute drive to Park City. And I think that’s been like a lot more help for my growth.”

The State of Sport

Jeff Robbins, President of the Utah Sports Commission, says the surge is not an overnight phenomenon.

“All the great things that you’re seeing take place right now are an effort that took place for over 20 years,” he said – efforts which began on the heels of the 2002 Winter Games.

The commission was created to attract sporting events of all kinds to our state.

Their favorite slogan: “The State of Sport.”

And that vision goes beyond NHL, NBA, Major League Soccer, or the Olympics. His office promotes a diversity of sports.

“We’ve got the premier lacrosse league that a lot of people don’t know about,” Robbins said.

And 45 cities across the state have hosted major events, including the Ironman in St. George, Red Bull Rampage in Virgin, AMA Supercross, Tony Hawk’s Vert Alert, and now the Black Diamonds of Major League Pickleball.

Mike Headrick spoke with Jeff Robbins, the president & CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, which was created to attract sporting events to the state. (Ken Fall, KSL TV)

“Almost 1,100 hundred events that we’ve partnered on since. About $4 billion in economic impact, and probably not far off $4 billion in global media value,” he said.

And Robbins wants folks to remember what arrived in June 1979.

“The Jazz. And I don’t think anybody would argue that hasn’t been incredibly good for Utah,” he said.

Olympic legacy

“Every one of our venues is in incredibly high use today. And most of it’s with our kids,” said Fraser Bullock, President & CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games.

Bullock played a big role in the 2002 Olympics and expects another Winter Games here in the future.

He says the introduction of new sports in our state will start the pipeline of future athletes.

“We had the Youth Sports Alliance in Park City, which was born out of the games, and now we have thousands of kids who have gone through this pipeline of winter sport.”

The venues built for the 2002 games still attract world cup events and athletes from around the globe. Bullock said over 30% of the athletes who competed in the 2022 Beijing Winter Games live and train in Utah.

“When I see the NHL coming here, I’m thinking, ‘Think of all the ice sheets that are going to get built and all the kids that are going to start playing hockey.’”

Economically, he believes the benefit to the community is worth it. And he says fiscal responsibility was the keystone of a successful games in 2002.

“We did borrow a little bit at the beginning, $59 million dollars, which we paid back,” he said about the 2002 Winter Games. “We left behind a $76 million dollar endowment to fund the operation of those venues.”

That endowment was meant to last 20 years. Since that time, the state has had to step in. Over the past six years, the Utah Legislature has appropriated more than $94 million dollars to renovate and maintain the facilities. That number is expected to rise more than $140 million.

“For 2034, our objective is to leave behind a much larger endowment, so that that could fund everything – operations and maintenance – and the state wouldn’t have to put in any more money,” said Bullock.

But Bullock recognizes the big-league growth in Utah comes with big-league pressures.

“That’s why we need a comprehensive solution on housing, and more housing and transportation infrastructure to support a lot of people,” he said.

A positive for everyone?

“Just because you can grow, the question is: ‘Should you?’” asks Jason Godfrey, the CEO of Better City, an Ogden-based company which advises cities around the country on economic development, strategic planning, and growth.

Here in Utah, Better City has worked with communities from Brigham City to Tooele to Cedar City. It finished a major strategic study for the Wasatch Front Regional Council, and highlighted what it calls one of Utah’s weaknesses: reactive decision-making. According to the study, “Communities across the Region… are pushed to make decisions based on immediate or emerging circumstances, often driven by short-term considerations and goals.”

Godfrey believes Utah should get a gold medal for certain aspects of planning, like transportation, business growth and population projections.

However, “There’s a little bit of a blind spot when it comes to planning and looking at quality of life things,” he said.

Godfrey sees major concerns with cost of living, housing, and quality of life.

“Recreation, amenities, quality of life. That’s what dominates. You know, people really do want to have a good quality of life,” he said. “Is this going to be a net positive for everyone?”

Sports as a unifying force

Still, most in this widening state of sports welcome the growth and opportunity with their fingers crossed.

Bullock stressed success will be the result of a team effort, saying, “It takes not only the Ryan Smith and the Miller family, combined with the more limited corporate sponsorships we have

here, but also with the public, the Legislature, to put all the pieces together to make it work. And so, everybody in a community effort has to come together.”

“Time will tell how much return on investment we get,” said Robbins.

Bahrke, however, has no reservations.

“We can just do so much here and allowing that to flourish. I’m just so thankful,” said Bahrke. “Go Utah!” she cheered with her arms in the air.

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Utah’s sports surge: What the state’s big plans could mean for future generations