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It Seems To Me . . .

Salt Lake City is MLS expansion team despite shortcomings.

By Robert Wagman

(Wednesday, July 14, 2004) -- It's too bad that Dave Checketts was born and raised in Salt Lake City instead of say, Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio or Seattle.

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber announced today that Checketts, a Salt Lake City sports entrepreneur, has been given a MLS franchise which will begin play next season.

Earlier, a 2005 expansion franchise was awarded to Chivas USA, a team that will be owned and operated by Mexico's renowned Chivas of Guadalajara and is expected to share the Home Depot Center with the Los Angeles Galaxy in Carson, Calif.

By adding Salt Lake as the league's 12th team, to a large extent, a new franchise has been awarded to the exactly the right guy, but he is going to be operating his team in a very questionable market.

It is clear that Garber thinks the world of Checketts, calling him "one of the most visionary sports entrepreneurs." Checketts has a 20-year history running two National Basketball Association teams, first the New York Knicks and then the Utah Jazz. For eight years, he ran the Madison Square Garden operation including the Knicks and the MSG cable television network. He is highly regarded and his entry as an MLS owner-operator gives the league added credibility, which is a huge plus.

It's also pretty clear that Checketts was the right guy in the right place at exactly the right time. When potential expansion cities such as Seattle, Cleveland, and Oklahoma City fell by the wayside, and cities like Philadelphia, Houston and Rochester were not able to get a credible bid together for a myriad of reasons, MLS was very grudgingly willing to go to an odd number -- 11 -- teams next season. That would have created problems with scheduling and unbalanced conferences, so when the potential ownership group in Seattle -- MLS's last ditch hope -- said it could not be ready before 2006, there was Checketts, check in hand. The deal was made very quickly.

MLS has said for a number of years that expansion teams would be admitted to the league by three criteria: an established ownership group willing to pay the league's $10 million expansion fee, a commitment to build a soccer-specific stadium within a reasonable timeframe, and a showing that the local community was willing to support soccer, evidenced by the sale of 7,500 season tickets.

Right now, in Salt Lake City, the league has one -- and maybe one-and-a-half -- of those three pillars.

Privately, what league officials have been saying is that in this first round of expansion what they didn't want was a team in a small television market that will have to struggle to establish itself. In Salt Lake, that appears to be exactly what they are getting.

On the one hand, they look to be getting a strong ownership group. Checketts put together a group of investors in an attempt to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers. That group appears to be behind the MLS bid. So the money appears to be there.

As for a stadium, Checketts says that his group understands it's a linchpin to being successful, and that the group is willing to "commit an amount of private capital to build a stadium." It also appears they are looking for substantial financial help from some Salt Lake-area government. There are no specific plans, no specific timetable. All Checketts will say is "I don't know where it's going to be. But we will build it."

In the meantime, the new team will play at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium, a 44,000-seat football field with a Field Turf artificial surface with permanent football lines that the team plans to "paint over" during soccer games.

The biggest question mark is whether there is a fan base in smallish Salt Lake -- in 2000, the city population was 181,743 with a metropolitan-area population of 1.33 million) -- which will support professional soccer. Checketts and MLS say they are confident there is and cite the fact that the city has one of the highest youth soccer participation percentages in the country, plus a growing ethnic population.

However, league's from the North American Soccer League through MLS and the current A-League have struggled with only limited success with how to turn youth players and their families into ticket-buying supporters of the professional game.

Checketts thinks the new MLS team will have another leg up: "It's major league." Right now, Salt Lake has only one big-time professional team, the NBA's Jazz. He falls back on the belief that because MLS is "Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.," and not the kind of regional secondary markets that Salt Lake's smaller professional teams play in, the business community will get behind the team.

On the surface, Salt Lake seems exactly the kind of market that MLS wanted to avoid for now. But it needed a 12th team and Checketts was ready to sign on. That appears to have been enough.

Checketts says, "We are bound and determined to build a great organization that will contribute to MLS." Certainly MLS and other soccer fans hope he's right.Only time will tell if he will succeed. Remember, MLS is not even three years removed from folding its Florida franchises in Tampa Bay and Miami.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent. E-mail Robert Wagman.

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