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Checketts gets MLS to expand into Utah

Yet-to-be-named expansion team will begin play in 2005

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MLS commissioner Don Gerber, right, hands Dave Checketts a jersey.

MLS commissioner Don Gerber, right, hands Dave Checketts a jersey.

Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

Some six months ago, Dave Checketts was mulling his options for getting back into pro sports with both feet.

The 48-year-old native Utahn who's been the top executive of the Jazz, the New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden and its related companies and teams, didn't want to go back to the NBA. "So I began to look at, 'What are the opportunities in sport?' " said Checketts, already chairman of an investment service firm that owns Utah TV production company SportsWest.

Major League Soccer caught his eye. "If you look at all the major leagues and their growth and development, you have to conclude that soccer is finally going to take hold in this country, mostly because of the kind of ownership that these teams have. These are guys who are pretty determined and passionate about it," said Checketts, who decided to join owners like Lamar Hunt, who's involved in three MLS teams, and Denver Nuggets owner Kroenke Sports Enterprises, which also owns the MLS Colorado Rapids.

"The idea struck me that maybe if I jumped in, I could get a foothold and bring a team to Salt Lake," said Checketts. "I spend so much time here, I have so many friends and family and business interests here, that I thought it was a great opportunity."

Six breathless months later — and a year ahead of when he thought he'd be making this kind of announcement — Checketts and his pals in Sports Capital Partners LLC of New York were standing with MLS commissioner Don Garber and others at a well-attended media conference on the sixth floor of Rice-Eccles Stadium to formally announce that the MLS, North America's highest form of pro soccer, has awarded its 12th franchise to Salt Lake as one of two expansion clubs to begin play in April 2005.

The high-profile Checketts is perhaps the biggest reason Utah got that No. 12 franchise over a strong bid from Seattle, said Garber, whose league is experiencing problems in some cities and lost two franchises a couple of years ago but considers itself ready for expansion the next two seasons.

Teams in the league are located in Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Dallas, Kansas City, Los Angeles, San Jose, Washington, D.C.; Secaucus, N.J.; and Foxborough, Mass. Present divisions will likely be realigned with the addition of Utah and Chivas, a Mexican team putting a franchise in L.A.

The new Utah team's name, logo, colors and general manager should be announced in August, and a coach is to be named by September. Oddly, at Wednesday's news conference, Garber presented Checketts with a jersey that read "MLS 2005" — and was made in colors very similar to the new Utah Jazz team colors. Checketts said the team would have 15 home matches next season.

Checketts promises to have plans and the location for a new soccer-specific stadium by the end of the calendar year. The plan is to have a facility that can be used for outdoor concerts and other groups as well as the team.

At least the first season will be played at Rice-Eccles, where the field is just barely wide enough to accommodate soccer and where the near-50,000 capacity makes a crowd of 20,000 look lonely. Checketts said the new stadium, which will be built with a large amount of private money, should be 25,000-27,000 in seating.

"You have to believe me. I'm taking a flying leap on this one. I don't have any preconceived notions," Checketts said about the new stadium's possible location. "I've had lots of people approach me with ideas.

"Whatever we do, we have to build a stadium that can so enhance the experience that people will want to come. Does that mean downtown, does that mean Sandy, does that mean out in the soccer complex out on I-215? All of those are possibilities, and I really don't know where it will go."

He said it's necessary to speak with city planners and check freeway access and public transportation alternatives.

"My dream would be to build a stadium that people can sit in and have a view of absolutely gorgeous mountains. When you live here all the time, you don't realize how pretty this place is. Just spend 14 years in New York, and you'll recognize what you have here. So I want to build a stadium that shows off the landscape, so you can sit here on those beautiful nights and watch a really competitive team."

Among his top partners are his brother Dan Checketts, chief executive of SportsWest' and friend Dean L. Howes, CEO of Utah Soccer LLC and vice chairman of SportsWest.

The deal to bring MLS to Utah in 2005, rather than maybe in 2006, was a coup that Checketts brought about in less than an hour maybe a month ago.

"Our initial negotiations, and even leading to a handshake, was an option to put a team in Salt Lake City (for 2006)," he said. "And literally, the day I arrived to sign the documents for an option, Seattle had come in and put in a firm bid on 2005.

"So I was left with waiting till 2006 and becoming the 13th or 14th or 15th (team). I said, 'Forget the option.'

"I said, 'I'm not leaving your office until you give me the 12th team. I want to be the 12th team,' " Checketts related.

"We had to change all the documents, bring all the lawyers back in, and I bought the team. I understand the risks," said Checketts, who apparently plunked down $1 million of the $10 million expansion fee right then and there.

"You're committing millions of dollars. That's how big things get done," the entrepreneur said, admitting that this is more an investment opportunity for him than a dream to own a soccer team, though he's seen big-time soccer matches in person in Europe and England and saw many telecasts on MSG's network. "Although it doesn't take long to get very passionate about the game," Checketts said. "It's really an exciting game played by very talented athletes."

MLS teams carry 18 active and six development players on their rosters, all of which adds up to about a $2 million per year payroll, Garber said. Top players earn just under $100,000. Garber estimated crowds need to average 15,000.

Checketts said top ticket prices will be in the $20 range, with the cheapest around $8.

Soccer playing in Utah is purportedly the highest per capita involvement in the nation, one reason Garber and Utah Soccer LLC say it can survive in what will be the league's smallest market when it failed in bigger locales.

They both said the league's players make a real effort to become part of the community and go out of their way to be good role models, which should appeal to Utah's family culture.

Checketts said he sees this venture as a way to give back to Utah. "It's time for Salt Lake City to have another major league team, and we're that team," he said. He added that Utahns like big-league status but will expect winning and an all-around pleasant experience. He plans to provide that before asking the community for its all-out support.

"I remember this with the Jazz, too, it always used to drive me crazy when people would say, 'You've got to support the Jazz because we're lucky to have an NBA team so the community should support the team.'

"That's not how this works. The team better give the community something to come for. We have to put a winning club on the field, we have to have stars, it has to be compelling, the game entertainment has to be exciting, it has to be a fun place to be — it has to be the place to be.

"And if we do all that, then people will watch, businesses will sponsor, ratings will be great and we will have a franchise," Checketts said, one official day into the process.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com