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Utah Sports Commission celebrates 20 years — and $2B in economic impact

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Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, speaks during a luncheon with members of the U.S. Olympic Committee at the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — For Mike Leavitt, it all started when he watched people borrow money.

The people were Olympic bidders. They wanted to borrow $59 million from Utah taxpayers, in the form of a bond, to build a bobsled run, a ski jumping hill, a speedskating track and other winter sports facilities in the hopes of Utah winning an Olympic bid.

This was in 1989; $59 million was a lot of money back then, and getting the Winter Olympics was no sure thing. Some thought it was a pipe dream.

So to get the voters to approve the bond, the Olympic boosters got creative. If the Olympics didn’t come, their reasoning went, the facilities should be built anyway, because they would turn Utah into a winter sports capital, paying dividends well beyond the $59 million.

Everyone knows the rest of the story: The sales pitch worked, the bond passed, the facilities were built, the 2002 Olympics were awarded.

Leavitt, who became Utah’s governor in 1992, never lost sight of the bidders’ if-you-build-it-the-world-will-come strategy. Even before the Olympics arrived, he was thinking of how to capitalize on the Games after they had come and gone.

To that end, in 2000 he created the Utah Sports Commission and hired a former tennis pro named Jeff Robbins to head it up.

Leavitt gave Robbins one instruction: “I told him he had to be somebody who got up every morning and thought about bringing sports events to Utah,” Leavitt said in an interview this week. “As it turned out, we couldn’t have picked anyone better.”

Part of the reason was because Robbins is competitive by nature, a born salesman, personable, persistent.

The other part was dumb luck.

Robbins, as fate had it, had never skied, never snowboarded, never strapped on ice skates. From an early age, he was a tennis player, ranked as high as No. 1 in the country when he played for the University of Utah. Sports on ice and snow that had a potential of injuring him were verboten. He grew up in Salt Lake City, but it might as well have been Miami.

When Leavitt mandated him to think about bringing sports events to Utah, Robbins didn’t restrict himself to winter sports only. He thought about all sports.

“The way I looked at it, sports are sports. They all need venues, volunteers, sponsors, exposure, no matter when they’re played,” Robbins said. “I think if someone else had come in whose whole focus was on winter, it would have been different,”

This year, the Utah Sports Commission, with Robbins still very much in charge, is celebrating its 20th year in business.

To commemorate the occasion, the commission tallied up the impact it has made over the past two decades.

Through its efforts over the past 20 years, a total of 850 events — an average of nearly one a week — have been hosted in 27 Utah cities from one end of the state to the other, resulting in more than $2 billion in economic impact.

That’s $1,941 million more than that initial $59 million bond ... and counting.

Just try and name a sport that hasn’t been here at least once. Besides the traditional Olympic winter sports, there’s been everything from archery to weightlifting; jet ski racing to judo; crossfit to mixed martial arts; fishing to ultimate frisbee; lacrosse to the annual Red Bull Rampage in Virgin (where mountain bikers look like they’re purposely trying to kill themselves but don’t).

This April the world fencing championships will be in the Salt Palace. In May the Monster Energy Supercross world finale is scheduled for Rice-Eccles Stadium, a dirt bike event that is projected to generate from $80 to $100 million in economic impact — the biggest haul since the Olympics. In 2021, the world Ironman championships will be held in St. George.

If it weren’t for the Utah Sports Commission, the Utah Fairgrounds wouldn’t boast what none other than Tony Hawk has proclaimed the world’s greatest skatepark; there would be no annual State of Sport awards, no Nitro World Games.

If all this sounds like bragging, it should. Because while it would seem that setting up a sports commission like Utah’s would be standard operating procedure for most states, and especially for those that have held an Olympics, for some reason it isn’t.

Go to places that have hosted an Olympic Games, winter and summer, and more often than not their Olympic legacy ended with their Olympics. Look at Rio and Sochi, two recent Olympic hosts. Their facilities are left to ruin; or at best recycled.

Utah didn’t do that. The 2002 Winter Olympics is the gift that keeps on paying dividends.

“We never viewed the Games as 17 days in February of 2002,” Leavitt said. “We viewed the Games as a means of being able to bring a brand to Utah that meant we could compete with the world and we could win.”