Some friends and I attended a Utah Grizzlies game on Jan. 26. In it, the Grizzlies dominated the Rapid City Rush 6-3, and the announcer had the pleasure of telling the audience that the game was sold out. The following day, the Grizzlies played and beat the Rush again in front of another sold-out audience.
The Utah Grizzlies are a minor-league professional hockey team affiliated with the Colorado Avalanche. They play in the East Coast Hockey League, which is one tier below the American Hockey League, which is subsequently one tier below the National Hockey League (NHL).
It became evident to me during the game I attended that Utahns love hockey. Rowdy, passionate fans decked out in Grizzlies gear filled the stands of the Maverik Center, the West Valley City arena where the team plays their home games.
So, when I heard Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith had made an official bid to the NHL to bring a team to Utah, I was not surprised. In fact, one of the primary reasons Smith gave the NHL was Utah’s reputation for passionate sports fans.
After my experiences at Grizzlies games this hockey season, I’d have to echo that sentiment.
The reasons are clear
Sports fans in Utah are yearning for another professional franchise. Despite the Jazz being a team originally from New Orleans, La., fans in Salt Lake City and beyond have embraced them and cheered them on voraciously.
Part of the Jazz’s success has to do with two contributing factors: a relatively strong economy and a youthful population.
In a U.S. News analysis, Utah ranked No. 1 in fiscal stability out of all the states in the country. Additionally, the Beehive State ranked first in employment and second in economic growth.
This means employers and companies feel safe moving to or staying in the state, and that employment across nearly all sectors is seeing healthy numbers. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “The state of Utah has a favorable landscape for businesses and individuals, with a diverse economy, strong labor market recovery, and a robust small business ecosystem.”
The chamber also reported that “Utah’s median household income of $95,800 well exceeds the national average of $70,000.”
The relative economic prosperity of Utah, combined with the state’s 2021 designation as having the youngest population in the country, means that people have money to spend – and a lot of those people are young sports fans.
Add Utah’s international reputation as a winter sports capital to the youthfulness and economic prosperity here, and it becomes clear why the state is primed for a new sports franchise, especially that of a winter sport like an NHL team.
So are the justifications
Ryan Smith has already proven his leadership in sports in Utah, along with his wife, Ashley Smith. Their company, the Smith Entertainment Group (SEG), has total ownership of the Utah Jazz, a team that has shown championship potential frequently over the last decade.
SEG also has partial ownership in professional men’s soccer team Real Salt Lake and women’s professional soccer club the Utah Royals. All the teams mentioned are thriving as far as play and the voracity of their fanbases.
The NHL recognized Utah’s primed ability to host a new or relocated NHL team in a Jan. 24 announcement, essentially a response to Smith’s formal request. The announcement read:
“The NHL appreciates the interest expressed by Smith Entertainment Group to bring NHL hockey to Utah. During conversations over the course of the past two years, we have been impressed by Ryan and Ashley Smith’s commitment to their community and their passion and vision for Utah, not only as a hockey market, but as a preeminent sports and entertainment destination. Utah is a promising market, and we look forward to continuing our discussions.”
In his initial request, Smith affirmed that Salt Lake City could host an NHL team immediately, saying the Delta Center could serve as the team’s home arena. However, as Utah is currently bidding to become the home of the 2034 Winter Olympic Games, Smith made it clear that another, larger arena would be a powerful contribution to that bid.
It’s unclear whether Smith fully intends to build a new arena, but he said they are committed to doing so should the 32 NHL owners decide Utah will indeed get an NHL team. Smith contended the construction of said arena would make Utah’s ability to host a world-class Olympic Games, including men’s and women’s gold medal hockey games, an absolute no-brainer.
That said, what would happen to the Delta Center? Well, according to Smith, the arena in downtown Salt Lake would serve as the new NHL team’s interim home arena while a new one undergoes construction. While it has been pointed out that the Delta Center may not be adequately equipped to host a rink – as it would shrink the audience size compared to Jazz games – it still means a team could move here immediately should the NHL owners decide Utah is right as a new home.
And there just so happens to be one current NHL team desperately in need of a new home rink. The Arizona Coyotes have been playing at the relatively small arena belonging to Arizona State University, and their owners have been looking for a new place to call home.
As evidence of the potential benefits to a new NHL team in Utah, one need only look at Las Vegas and the brand-new NHL franchise, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, that formed there in 2017. Salt Lake is often compared to Vegas marketwise, both sharing a youthful population and strong economy, not to mention the two cities’ geographical similarities.
What the outlook is now
As I’ve mentioned, it is ultimately up to the now-32 NHL team owners to decide whether Utah will get a new or existing NHL team like the Arizona Coyotes.
For now, SEG has formally submitted its bid. The Utah Senate has bolstered Smiths’ bid by passing Senate Joint Resolution 12 on Jan 29. Resolution 12 formally recognizes Utah as an “emerging sports market.”
Resolution 12 passed the Utah Senate unanimously and now moves to the House for another vote. And if that wasn’t enough support from Utah leaders, Gov. Spencer Cox, House Speaker Mike Schultz and Senate President Stuart Adams met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, along with Ryan Smith.
It seems the Utah legislature is vying with and for Smith Entertainment Group’s official bid, but for now, all we sports fans can do is hope the current NHL owners see the reasons and justifications as clearly as we do in Utah.