After a meeting with investment partners at the JPMorgan Chase offices in midtown Manhattan last April, three Larry H. Miller Company executives walked the few blocks to Major League Baseball’s headquarters on the Avenue of the Americas.

Opened in 2019, the sleek office space exudes a high-tech vibe but there’s no question that baseball is the center of it all. There’s red stitching on the leather-wrapped reception desk. Large murals of some of the sport’s greats adorn the walls. Banks of monitors provide live updates, statistics and games. Designed to support innovation, the interior embodies baseball past, present and future.

Larry H. Miller Company CEO Steve Starks, managing partner Dave Smith and chief financial officer Ian McDonald were there to talk about the future.

The business empire Larry and Gail Miller built has undergone a transformational change the past three years. The Miller family sold the Utah Jazz to Ryan Smith. The Millers peeled off the auto dealerships that helped make their fortune. They invested in real estate and bought a planned development community, a home construction company and a health care provider.

In the span of 15 months, LHM engaged in transactions totaling $5 billion. And always with an eye on how it could enrich the community

The portfolio shuffling didn’t include the Salt Lake Bees, the longtime Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels. But in January, the company announced plans to move the team from Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City to a new stadium it will build in the Daybreak community it now owns in South Jordan.

Internal discussions about how to enhance the fan experience led to the exploration of the future of baseball in Utah. Salt Lake City, they decided, should be home to a big league team.

And now here were Starks, Smith and McDonald stepping into the box at Major League Baseball.

The three Utahns toured baseball’s state-of-the art replay operations center and met with a variety of baseball people before sitting down with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.

Starks is careful not to reveal much of what Manfred said in the meeting, but he and his colleagues left encouraged that when and if baseball decides to add two more teams, Salt Lake City would definitely be in play.

“Starting with that conversation and continuing over the next year, we became confident that Salt Lake City was a legitimate contender for an expansion team, that we are a viable candidate for it and these are exactly the types of things we as a state should be focused on,” Starks said in an interview.

The trio left the meeting excited about what they heard, and shared it with the Millers, who have a long family history with baseball, a sport the late Larry Miller loved along with fast pitch softball, at which he excelled as a pitcher for many years. The family was all in, vowing to do what it takes to make it happen.

Steve Starks, chief executive officer of the Larry H. Miller Company, speaks about the possibility of bringing a Major League Baseball team to Salt Lake City at the ground breaking of the Rocky Mountain Power District property on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.
Steve Starks, chief executive officer of the Larry H. Miller Company, speaks about the possibility of bringing a Major League Baseball team to Salt Lake City at the groundbreaking of the Rocky Mountain Power District property on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

MLB expansion

Manfred has expressed a desire for baseball to expand to 32 teams. Portland, Las Vegas, Nashville, Charlotte and Montreal have an interest in becoming a baseball town. But the commissioner has said the league won’t consider adding new teams until the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland A’s resolve ongoing issues over getting new stadiums.

One of those shoes dropped last week when the A’s announced an agreement to buy property in Las Vegas for a stadium, which could accelerate expansion if it works out. MLB hasn’t expanded since the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks joined the league in 1998.

“When you’re evaluating an opportunity to bring a major league baseball team to your market you don’t walk at it, you run at it because it’s so meaningful for our state and what it would mean for us,” Starks said.

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Starks and his staff set out to build community support a phone call at a time. They encountered nary a naysayer. Utah federal, state and local elected officials, business and community leaders, and sports and entertainment figures jumped on board.

Starks also let on that he had a “secret” focus group, some of his closest friends whom he texted about the project and swore to secrecy a few months ago. All huge baseball fans, they quietly offered their opinions and expertise.

Getting into big league baseball is a high-cost proposition. The Oakland A’s plan to build a $1.5 billion 35,000-seat stadium and entertainment complex in Las Vegas, and are seeking a $500 million public financing contribution. MLB fees for an expansion franchise could be in the $2.2 billion range. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has said he opposes using tax dollars for the project.

Though the Miller company isn’t focused on lining up an ownership group right now, Starks said it became apparent during those calls that it was viewed as having the experience, background and capital to lead one.

“We didn’t start with that intent but as we’ve had conversations with other people, they’ve said we would be more interested in wanting to be part of this if we knew that you were involved in it,” said Starks, the former president of the Utah Jazz.

The company built financial models to evaluate the cost of owning a team. It also looked at the market and its corporate sponsorship base to determine whether Salt Lake City could support a team, noting it is the expansion area with the highest median income as well as the fastest-growing economy, job market and population in the country, Starks said.

“It pencils that we can lead an ownership group and it pencils that this would be a very viable franchise and that it could sustain itself and be competitive in a way that could make all of us proud,” he said.

Renderings released Wednesday, April 12, 2023, depict what a new Major League Baseball stadium could look like in the Power District located on North Temple in Salt Lake City, according to Big League Utah, a group described as a “broad community coalition led by the Miller family. It consists of Utah’s federal, state and local decision-makers, business and community leaders, former MLB baseball players and potential investors.” | Big League Utah

Big League Utah

Earlier this month and a year after the initial meeting with Manfred, Gail Miller and her family company announced that they have convened a group of potential investors to pursue local ownership of an MLB team.

Calling itself Big League Utah, the coalition of business and community leaders believes the Beehive State is well-positioned for another major sports franchise and has targeted a shovel-ready site for a new ballpark at the 100-acre Rocky Mountain Power District on Salt Lake City’s west side.

On the morning of the press conference, Starks looked at some photos from his own Little League days.

“I imagined what it would be like going to a game and watching the Red Sox roll into town. It’s hard to quantify the impact that has on kids, on youth, on families across our state. To have that option is really meaningful. It gets us all excited,” he said.

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Not only are he and the Millers financially willing to step up but they are also emotionally invested in bringing an MLB team to the state.

Steve Miller, chair of the Larry H. Miller Company, said his family took a thoughtful approach as it considered launching the campaign.

“Passion for baseball is a given, but I wanted to ensure our family and company were aligned on all of the other considerations involved in leading the Big League Utah coalition,” he said.

Truist Park is seen before a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Miami Marlins, Sunday, May 29, 2022, in Atlanta. | Hakim Wright Sr., Associated Press

Power brokers

Unbeknownst to the Millers and Starks, Rocky Mountain Power and Mortenson Construction, which is building Rocky Mountain’s new headquarters, were kicking around ideas for a sports and entertainment complex in the Power District for more than a year. Mortenson, which constructed Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and the Chase Center in San Francisco, pegged Salt Lake City as primed for a venue like The Battery, a mixed-use development it built in Atlanta, that includes Truist Park, the home of the Braves.

“To be honest, it did not take me immediately to Steve Starks,” said Josh Caldwell, Mortenson director of business development.

But in January, executives at Rocky Mountain Power, Mortenson and Larry H. Miller Company had lunch together. It was then that they learned they were on the same path.

“It was serendipitous,” Caldwell said.

Both had some gaps in their plans that the other could fill. “Between the two of us, it checked all the right boxes,” he said.

Caldwell said if there were ever a site in Utah or the country, for that matter, that makes sense for a mixed-use sports and entertainment development it’s the Power District, given its proximity to an airport, a downtown, a freeway and public transit. It’s not a matter of if but when Salt Lake City gets a major league team.

“We were, of course, really supportive and excited about that,” said Tiffany Erickson, Rocky Mountain Power spokeswoman.

Erickson said there isn’t a site development agreement in place for the stadium but anticipates there will be one by the end of the year.

Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, sees Salt Lake City’s bid for an MLB team as the culmination of the state hosting more than 1,000 major sporting events, including the NBA All-Star game and a UFC Fight Night, since the 2002 Winter Games put Utah on the global sports map.

“I think that’s helped position us as a sports destination. It’s the evolution of all that we’ve done after the Olympics,” he said. “It’s not just happening all of sudden.”

The Miller family is a key part of the coalition, Robbins said.

“You have to have an anchor in the community,” he said. “Certainly, what they’ve done with the Jazz and all their other activities is significant.”

Cox sees Gail Miller’s presence as a huge leg up on the competition.

“We have Gail Miller. I wouldn’t undersell that. That’s probably the most important advantage we have,” the governor said last week at his monthly PBS Utah news conference.

Fans take a photo prior to an NHL exhibition game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Portland or Salt Lake City?

Portland might be Salt Lake City’s chief competition for a team in the West. Ironically, three decades ago, Salt Lake City enticed away from Portland what is now the Salt Lake Bees.

A leader of the effort to bring a major league franchise to Portland had a message for Salt Lake City after being told the weather in Utah was unseasonably cold last week.

“Go get a hockey team and leave the baseball to us,” Craig Cheek, founder and president of the Portland Diamond Project, told the Deseret News in a phone interview. Jazz owner Ryan Smith recently met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and indicated in a tweet over the weekend that something might be in the works to get a team in Utah.

Formed in 2017, the Portland effort has a long head start on Salt Lake City. But Cheek sees its bid as “extremely credible” despite just getting into the game.

“Anytime you have capital, you have a vision, you have support at the state and the city level, you’re thinking the same way about a large, mixed-use entertainment development, you’re going to be taken seriously and very credibly because those are the elements on the punch list a league would be looking for,” he said.

“You can catch up in a hurry if you can put those pieces of the puzzle together.”

Baseball will look favorably at Gail Miller because of her family’s sports DNA and “capital prowess” she brings to the table, Cheek said.

‘Free agent’ signing

Salt Lake City has already managed to steal something or somebody, rather, away from Portland, landing its first “free agent” as it were.

Cheek wasn’t surprised when Salt Lake City jumped into the mix, saying he has a “number of moles” throughout the country and knew something was percolating in Utah.

But what did catch him off guard was former Atlanta Braves’ star Daly Murphy’s defection. A Portland native who now lives in Utah, Murphy was serving as an adviser to the Portland Diamond Project.

Cheek said Murphy, who he describes as the nicest guy on the planet, called him the night before Big League Utah’s press conference to say he and his wife, Nancy, enjoyed being part of the journey in Portland but that they are “Salt Lake City through and through.”

“So we got a chuckle out of it,” Cheek said. “I said, ‘Well, you know I’m a huge fan, Dale. Love you guys. So I wish you success, just not too much success.’”

Murphy said Don Stirling, executive director of the Miller Family Office, texted him a month ago about the Utah campaign for a team. He met with Starks, and was instantly taken with the prospect of MLB in SLC.

“Man, I just really like the package,” said Murphy, who has lived in Utah County since a year after his retirement from baseball in 1993. Salt Lake City, he said, has a “very, very compelling case.”

“We are a major league city,” the two-time National League MVP said.

Murphy, who spent his last season with the expansion Colorado Rockies, said he believes Utahns would embrace a big league team just like the fans did in Denver.

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Salt Lake City and Portland have similar sports franchise footprints. Both have NBA, MLS and NWSL teams. Portland is the 22nd largest media market in the country, while Salt Lake City is the 29th. Salt Lake City has an emerging high tech sector. Portland has Nike and Adidas.

“I affectionately call us ‘Sportland’ not Portland,” Cheek said.

It’s hard to say whether Salt Lake City or Portland benefits more from the Oakland A’s announced move to Las Vegas. It’s plausible that baseball could choose both cities, though most observers see one in the West and one in the East.

A franchise in Salt Lake City, though, along with Denver and Las Vegas, would put three major league franchise in the Mountain West. “As a founder and president of this effort, I would be selling against Salt Lake with that proximity,” Cheek said.

Caldwell, who lived in Portland, said Salt Lake City has several advantages over the Rose City, including public and private support as well as a stadium site ready to go.

Having a team in Portland would create a natural rival for the Seattle Mariners. “We fill in kind of a nice gap or a hole on the West Coast,” Cheek said.

Starks said several baseball owners have told him they support Salt Lake City’s endeavor, including one who said there’s no question it’s a major league market.

“We believe that we can be part of the future of America’s pastime,” Starks said. “We’d be incredibly honored to bring the sixth national park to Utah, which would be a major league baseball.”