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A’s versus Bees. Which team would see the most fans in Utah?

Oakland Athletics explore interim home in South Jordan pending move to Vegas

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The undeveloped future home of the Salt Lake Bees is pictured in South Jordan.

The future home of the Salt Lake Bees is pictured in South Jordan on Oct. 5, 2023. Could it also provide a short-term stadium solution for the Oakland Athletics MLB franchise?

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Several publications over the years have named South Jordan, Utah, one of the best places to live in America, but could it be home to a Major League Baseball team, even for a season or two?

And could both a big league team and a minor league team coexist in the Salt Lake Valley? And would the Oakland Athletics, the worst team in baseball last year, or the Salt Lake Bees draw more fans?

Those questions might be a bit premature but with the A’s eyeing Utah as a temporary home before their planned move to a yet-to-be-built stadium in Las Vegas in 2028, they’re interesting to explore. The team’s lease at the Oakland Coliseum expires at the end of the 2024 season, leaving them without a home field for three years.

The Larry H. Miller Company hosted A’s executives last week and “demonstrated we can accommodate their ballpark needs,” said Miller Company CEO Steve Starks.

The company, which owns the Bees, is building a new 7,500-seat stadium for the Triple A team in South Jordan to anchor a sports and entertainment district called Downtown Daybreak. Starks earlier told the Deseret News the park, which is scheduled to open in 2025, could be expanded to 10,000 or 12,000 seats.

“This new ballpark will support the A’s needs and has been the focus of their interest,” Starks said.

South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey is prepared to roll out the red carpet. “The city of South Jordan is ready to embrace the opportunity of hosting a Major League Baseball team and would love to welcome the Athletics to our community,” she said.

South Jordan, really?

Some A’s fans are having a hard time wrapping their head around the idea. As Daniel Tatomer wrote for Athletics Nation:

“The A’s are exploring the possibility of playing their home games in South Jordan, UT.

“The A’s are exploring the possibility of playing their home games in South Jordan, UT.

“The A’s are exploring the possibility of playing their home games in South Jordan, UT.

“No matter how many times I repeat it, I still can’t believe it.”

Tatomer noted that he grew up in Utah watching the Salt Lake Gulls and Salt Lake Trappers at the old Derks Field, the site of what is now Smith’s Ballpark, the home of the Bees.

“But the idea of South Jordan being home to the A’s is irreconcilably surreal to me,” he wrote. “And the thought of the A’s blocking a perfectly good Triple-A team from moving into their new stadium just ... fills me with the sort of indigestion that precedes the spiciest of takes.”

If the A’s were to take up interim residence in Daybreak, the Bees, the top affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, would remain at Smith’s Ballpark, which is owned by Salt Lake City.

Starks said the “unique, two-stadium solution” would ensure that baseball stays in the Salt Lake market for additional seasons.

Intriguing idea

Eric Schulz, a senior lecturer in marketing and strategy at Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, said he finds the idea intriguing.

“I think it will be a huge success — tickets will sell out. For the A’s it will be a home run,” he told the Deseret News in an email, adding the Oakland Coliseum is old and run down. “The players and coaches will love playing in a new, state-of-the-art facility — even if it is only the size of their spring training ballparks. From a fan perspective, with only 11,000 seats, it will offer the best views of any major league ballpark.”

Spring training sites in Arizona and Florida offer a more intimate setting to watch games, with stadium capacity ranging from 6,500 to 15,000. The A’s drew 6,425 fans per game in the Cactus League, just under the 7,026 average for all 30 MLB teams last year, according to Ballpark Digest.

Schulz, whose résumé includes working with NBC and World Wrestling Entertainment in 2002 to launch the XFL football league and heading the Larry Miller Sports & Entertainment Group, overseeing marketing for the Utah Jazz, Salt Lake Bees and KJZZ-14 TV, said the A’s and the Bees could exist together.

The Bees would need to market and promote more, but he said he doesn’t see attendance dropping more than 15% to 20%.

“For fans, it will be interesting for them to see the difference (and similarities) between Triple A and Major League Baseball,” Schulz said.

Fan duel or fan dual?

South Jordan is situated about 17 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Both the Daybreak stadium and Smith’s Ballpark are easily accessible by car and light rail.

A handful of major league clubs have their top minor league affiliates in the same metropolitan area. The Minnesota Twins and its Triple-A team, the St. Paul Saints, for example, are a mere 12 miles apart.

The Twins averaged 24,372 fans per game last season, ranking in the middle of the 15 American League teams, according to Baseball Reference. The Saints’ average attendance was 6,492 in 2023, ranking 13th among 120 minor league teams across the country, according to Ballpark Digest. (The Bees ranked 17th overall and fourth in the Pacific Coast League at 6,160.)

Granted, the Utah and Minnesota situations aren’t identical, and in Utah’s case it would be temporary, but there are some similarities.

David Berri, a Southern Utah University economics professor who specializes in sports-related issues, said minor league baseball isn’t a big draw anywhere.

The Bees draw fewer than 7,000 fans per game. But the most any minor league team drew is less than 8,000 and the average for 120 minor league teams is only 4,000, he said, citing Ballpark Digest statistics.

“So, what the Bees draw doesn’t tell us much about what the A’s would draw,” Berri said via email.

‘Best in class’

“Minor league baseball doesn’t draw because the key issue in fan attraction is being ‘best in class,’” Berri said. “If you present a competition between two competitors that are ‘best in class’ you will likely see a huge audience.”

Berri offered a couple of examples of what he means by “best in class.” The top two middleweight boxers fighting will draw a bigger audience than a fight between 11th-ranked and 12th-ranked heavyweights even though the smaller fighters have no chance against the bigger fighters, he said.

Michigan playing Alabama in college football draws a bigger TV audience than the Carolina Panthers vs. Arizona Cardinals despite the fact neither college team would have a chance against the pro teams. 

“But Michigan and Alabama are ‘best in class’ (class being college football) while Panthers and Cardinals are not (class being NFL teams),” Berri said.

When it comes to baseball, minor league teams can’t be best in class because their class is “adults playing baseball,” he said.

“If you are the best baseball player but you happen to be in the minors right now, the fans know you are moving on. Therefore they can’t form any emotional attachment to such players. The players who stay are — by definition — not that good,” Berri said.

“Given all this, the A’s will draw far better than the Bees. And what the Bees get tells us nothing about the size of the fan base in Salt Lake City.”

And maybe the A’s in South Jordan could outdraw the A’s in Oakland. The team was last in American League attendance for the past three years, averaging 9,595 fans per game over that stretch.

A trial run

In addition to wooing the A’s for a cup of coffee in Utah, the Miller Company is leading an effort to bring a major league expansion team to Salt Lake City. It has identified a site just west of downtown to build a stadium as part of an entertainment district.

Both Berri and Schulz say demonstrating to Major League Baseball that Salt Lake City can support the A’s would help the effort to bring a team permanently to the state.

Schulz said having the A’s in the state would give baseball a couple of interesting tests — Can a major league team thrive in a smaller ballpark and is Salt Lake City a good market for an MLB expansion team down the road?

Right now Salt Lake City is in line behind Portland, Montreal and Nashville in baseball’s expansion radar, but if the A’s are successful, it could help reshape that order, he said.

Berri notes the Salt Lake City area has more people than Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Las Vegas and Milwaukee, and it seems to be growing. 

“So I think if baseball can survive in those areas — and it most definitely does — then it should do well in Salt Lake City,” he said.

Having the A’s and the Bees in the Salt Lake Valley for a time would provide a glimpse into what to expect if Utah gets a team of its own.

Starks earlier told the Deseret News that if the state does land an expansion team, the Miller Company would keep the Bees in the market. The Triple-A team would play in South Jordan and the big league club would play in Salt Lake City.