Could the WNBA Return to Salt Lake City?

Adrienne Goodson wrote it all during her time as a member of the Utah Starzz. Shopping trips to Park City. the Pastor France Davis Prayers with the team before matches. Free meals at Benihana and Cracker Barrel. The Red Rock Brewery hangouts in downtown Salt Lake City. The few times Delta Center has been filled with 15,000 fans.

Then came when the team that drafted it left the market.

Starzz played at Utah from 1997-2002. Franchise was They were transferred to San Antonio due to low attendance and financial difficulties Before moving back to Las Vegas in 2017 and becoming the Ace, who just… They won their first WNBA title.

However, what emerges from Judson’s journal entries is not the pain she felt when she learned the team was moving. Instead, they conveyed a sense of joy at having lived and played in Utah after initially feeling skeptical she would enjoy it.

“It ended up being one of the greatest experiences — full of love, achievement and pride — that I’ve ever been a part of,” Goodson told The Salt Lake Tribune.

With the WNBA looking to expand in the next few years, could women’s professional basketball return to Salt Lake City? Some experts think so, as do the women who played here.

“For me it’s an obvious place because I lived there, and what it felt like to play there,” said Corey Hilde, who now coaches for the Chicago Sky. “I think Salt Lake would be my number one on the list of recommendations.”

WNBA status

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Stars player Tammy Reese gets a warm handshake from fan Felicia Camacho, 6, in 1997.

The WNBA is a much different place in 2022 than it was in 2002 when Starzz left Utah.

He. She Partnership with the newly established Women’s Sports Network. He. She Raised $75 million in investment capital. ESPN Fantasy included the WNBA For the first time during the 2022 season.

The league averaged 379,000 viewers across CBS and Disney in 2022, representing The highest viewership during the partnershipWhich has lasted 14 seasons so far.

There are also a few players who have become legit superstars. Candice Parker, Brenna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Sabrina Ionescu are just a few names that not only play at a high level but have become famous brands.

And perhaps most important of all: The WNBA is expanding. At least one team will be added by 2025 at the earliest, and commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in December that the league is seriously looking at 10 ownership pools. the athlete. And while she hoped to announce those teams by the end of the year, that didn’t happen. She noted, however, that the league is in no rush to name a new team and city.

Reportedly, some of the cities vying for a franchise are Nashville, Toronto, Philadelphia, Oakland, and San Francisco. Portland has also been brought up as a possibility.

Salt Lake City was not mentioned on that list, despite the fact that a WNBA team has been here for five years. A professional women’s soccer team, the Utah Royals, too Well done at Utah during 2018 and 2019 before Dell was Loy Hansen Forced to sell obligatory to Various disagreements During the time he owned the Royals, Real Salt Lake, and Real Monarchs football teams.

There is at least some interest among fans to bring a WNBA team back to Utah.

Despite a strong push to bring the Royals back to Utah, no one has appeared — at least publicly — to say they would bid Salt Lake City to be an expansion team in the future.

Could that ever change?

The former players loved Utah, and the fans loved them

(Ryan Galbraith | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans cheer the Utah Starzz during a game in 2002.

The players that Starzz fit in all those years ago were the unanimous fan support in the market. Stacy Friese, who only played one season with Utah, still remembers how friendly the fans would interact with the players while they were away.

Another memory lingering in Friese’s mind is the number of people who went to home games at the Delta Center.

“We attracted enough people that it was clearly not full, but we had enough people to make it an exciting atmosphere,” said Freese.

In the six seasons that Starzz has existed, the average home attendance per website across the schedule has been: 7543.7 (1997), 8104 (1998), 7544.1 (1999), 6465.1 (2000), 6906.7 (2001) and 7420 (2002).

Their highest attendance was 15,657 in 1998; 14,783 the year after that; 12,578 in 2002; and 11519 in 2001. In their final season, the Starzz made it to the Western Conference Finals.

Aside from the fans, the former players greatly enjoyed being part of the community and also some of the perks of being professional athletes at a time when the WNBA was getting its sea legs. Most of the players lived in fully furnished rooms at the Residence Inn near the arena. It had a basketball court and they would sometimes grill in the yard.

Free meals at downtown restaurants were common. Whether it was Benihana, Cracker Barrel, or Red Rock, Starzz felt royal.

“We had all these different restaurants and bars that wanted us to come to them and be part of their movement, and they wanted to be part of our neighborhood and help us grow,” Goodson said.

Goodson said Benihana was a favorite of 7-foot-2 Margo Dedek. Dedek loved having chefs cook right in front of them and would try to catch shrimp in her mouth.

The WNBA season takes place during the summer, so the team has never had the opportunity to ski in the mountains or experience snow. But players often go shopping in Park City. Amy Herrig Tane, who played for Utah State for three seasons, described the city as the team’s “shopping oasis”.

“I knew Park City like the back of my hand,” Herig Tani said.

Herig Tane also said that even in the early 2000s, Salt Lake City was home to many diverse people—from “the lesbian community to the more conservative Mormons”. I have enjoyed seeing “all walks of life” on various occasions.

Can the team return to Utah?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Frank Layden talks to his team during his break as head coach of the Utah Starzz WNBA team in 1998.

Experts say Salt Lake City has the requisite infrastructure, potential fan interest and population growth to welcome back the professional women’s basketball franchise.

First, there is the location. The Utah Jazz play at Vivint Arena, and Starzz already has a history of being involved with their NBA counterpart. If that’s not possible, there’s the Maverick Center in West Valley City, where the NBA G League’s Salt Lake City Stars play.

Transportation to and from the arena is also convenient. There are several Trax lines that lead to Vivint, and Maverik is easily accessible via Highway 15.

These factors give the SLC market an “edge,” said Walter Franco, director of sports market research firm Victus Advisors.

What also helps, Franco said, is the level of interest in basketball among girls in Utah. His company is looking at participation data provided by the National Association of High Schools to determine if a city can build a fanbase for a team. And with 3,196 girls participating in basketball during the 2021-22 school year, the potential is high there.

“Thinking specifically for girls, if you have high participation rates for girls in certain sports, that usually translates into a fandom and you become an adult when you go to college,” Franco said.

But like all multi-million dollar business decisions, the devil is in the details. Franco said that one of the main challenges for a WNBA team coming to Utah is figuring out the company’s sponsorship status.

If an expansion team is brought in by owner Ryan Smith, the Jazz and Real Salt Lake, for example, the question that needs answers is whether the company’s partners are expected to support the WNBA team as they do the Jazz and RSL, or if they will be considered The team as its own revenue engine.

Franco said that if someone else brought a WNBA team to Utah, then they would compete with Smith for those corporate partners. He said SLC doesn’t have a lot of companies with that kind of money.

“There are a lot of competing interests with a lot of different sports,” Franco said. “So there are a lot of challenges that any co-owner has to consider just from a financial sustainability standpoint.”

Financial challenges aside, there seems to be plenty of reason to believe Utah can keep a WNBA team. Sophie Goldschmidt, president and CEO of US Ski who used to work for the NBA in partnerships and business development, said that while the SLC market offers fans different options for the sport, she wouldn’t describe the market as saturated.

“I think there is room for more,” Goldschmidt said.

Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the Utah State Athletic Commission, believes that women’s sports as a whole “will become a very viable business model over the next five years,” and he is “optimistic” about the idea of ​​keeping a WNBA team in Utah one day.

The former players are equally optimistic it can work.

“I think if there was an owner who wanted to bring the team back, he couldn’t do anything but be successful,” Goodson said. “You already have a fan base out there who are disgruntled or upset about leaving the team in the first place. Those people are still there.”

Herrig Tani added, “It feels like there’s a good connection there and it makes sense to try and do it again.”

Utah may not have been the place for a WNBA team in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But it might be a different story now.

“I think there can be arguments for saying that maybe Starzz came too soon over 20 years ago,” Franco said. “But I think the demographics have changed enough now, 20 years later, that with the right business model and the right approach to the market, they can be successful here.”

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