Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stadium Series: Part 1

On the Threshold of a Dream
This is the first part of a series about the new stadium that will appear over the next two weeks leading up until the stadium opener on October 9th, 2008 against the New York Red Bulls. (Thanks to Trey Fitz-Gerald for his assistance with many of the details in telling this story.)

The dream began in around December 2003 or January 2004. That’s when Dave Checkett’s, owner of Real Salt Lake, attended an investment capital forum representing his recently founded company Sports Capital Partners. It just so happened that MLS Commissioner Don Garber and MLS President Mark Abbott were also in attendance, and gave a sales pitch about investing in the MLS.

The timing was right on both sides. Dave Checkett’s was taking his sports business background to the next level after having been involved with the Utah Jazz, and running some major sports properties in New York (Madison Square Garden, New York Rangers, New York Knicks). He had funded Sports Capital Partners (now SCP Worldwide) in 2001 and was now looking to get his feet wet in the sports investment business. He had also picked up the scent of soccer while spending a lot of time in Europe as a member of the NBA International venture. While there he saw the magic that soccer was for fans in that part of the world.

On the side of MLS, they had undergone contraction a couple of years prior and were taking some nervous steps forward in order to expand the league. They realized that expanding the league was crucial to its survival. They also needed new investors as the league at that time was riding the backs of a small number of investors (largely Lamar Hunt, Robert Kraft and Phil Anschutz). What they really needed was someone with both business credibility and credibility in the sporting world who would put the energy into helping build the sport. For this reason, Dave Checkett’s late bid to move to the head of the class was successful and Dave Checketts’ was awarded the 14th franchise in the league on July 14th, 2004. He insisted that this franchise reside in his hometown, Salt Lake City, and felt it was important that he make this gift to the city become a successful one.

Both Checkett’s and the league realized well before this announcement that the key to success in this small market was going to be a stadium. Without a stadium for soccer, the economics don’t work as well, and it’s much harder to build enthusiasm for a sport while playing in an atmosphere decidedly not ideal for soccer – an American football stadium.

The planning for a stadium began well before the newly named Real Salt Lake even played their first game at Rice-Eccles. A financial model for the team was put together which assumed moving to a new stadium in 2007. As early as July 2004, the intention was to place the stadium downtown. Quickly they honed in on the “Block 22” section of the city. This was the area next to the newly built Grand America. The owner of the land, Earl Holding was a friend of Dave Checkett’s and appeared to be on-board early on, but eventually reversed his decision and did not want to sale the land that he had battled hard to acquire a few years earlier.

About a month after playing their first home game on April 16, 2005, the City of Sandy put in a bid for the stadium. The political machinery had gone to work early on – in fact, Governor Huntsman, Mayor Anderson, and County Mayor Corroon kicked out the first ball. Sandy’s foray into the stadium tug-of-war started the project down a path that would turn out quite bumpy along the way.

In the background was a tug-of-war which can be oversimplified and described as a battle between Republican politicians on the south end of the valley or in Utah County and democrats from the downtown area. Downtown democrats were interested in revitalizing the downtown area, but Republicans outside of the downtown area were tired of the city proper getting all of the major projects and the County or State funding that went along with it.

The funding plan was a familiar one. Initially it was designed nearly identical to the one used to build the Delta Center. The majority of the infrastructure – some land, roads, sewage, electrical lines, grading, etc would be built through a public funding vehicle called the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) and the actual construction of the facility would come out of private funding sources put together by the team. However, several major snags would be hit along the way. First, Republican Curtis Bramble (perhaps best known for Pizza Gate, where he got into an argument with a Pizza delivery driver who would not accept a check)blocked one of the RDA funding mechanisms for a year because he was fearful that the funding was going to build the stadium in the downtown area. Second, some politicians raised concerns about whether or not a stadium would have a re-vitalizing effect after Franklin-Covey field failed to do so, and problems occurred with the private funding portions of the Aquarium downtown.

On October 12, 2005 a press conference was held outside of the South Town Expo Center announcing that the stadium would be built in Sandy. This was a result of House Speaker Greg Curtis, Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan and Sandy native Curtis Bramble coming together and brokering a deal. Although a road map had been laid out, there was still no funding deal in place.

The thinking at the time was the block on the use of RDA funds would soon expire, and the funding deal could move forward. In May 2006, Mayor Carroon said no to this plan and it appeared to be a setback, but not something that could not be overcome. The disappointment at the time was that this was really starting to push back the original intended timeline of moving into a new stadium sometime in 2007.

However, somebody came up with a new plan – to use Transient Room Taxes (TRT’s) instead of the RDA funds. This is a tax on hotel rooms in the county and it was set to phase out within a few years. If this were extended it could be used without any adverse affects to local taxpayers as visitors to the area would be footing the bill.

Unfortunately a lot of turmoil was taking place. So much so that on the eve of one of the most important matches in Real Salt Lake history against Real Madrid, Dave Checkett’s was uncertain about the future of the team, and the stadium.

On the night prior to the game at a dinner with the Real Madrid contingency Dave Checkett’s was thinking about whether or not he should follow through with his leap of faith. He leaned over to the President of Real Madrid and asked something like this, “If I take this leap could you make sure that (then Real Madrid icon) David Beckham is at the groundbreaking tomorrow?” The response was invigorating, something like, “not only will Beckham be there, but the entire team will be there.” And so just hours later on August 12, 2006 at the site the stadium has now sprung up on, some of the most famous footballers in the world put their weight behind special gold shovels and turned over dirt in a very symbolic move.

Since the county would administer these funds as well, Carroon still had some hesitancy and announced that this could not move forward without the review by an independent debt review board. This is when the tone of everything started to take a nasty turn. The public perception was that Real Salt Lake had their hands held out, and were robbing the taxpayers of millions of dollars. The truth is that the funding was only for infrastructure and because of the relative low dollar investment (compared to a $1B new Texas Stadium or new Yankee Stadium) the payback to the surrounding community appeared very solid. However, the debt review committee did not accept this logic, nor did they accept the studies that showed the financial success that recent clubs had seen after moving to soccer specific stadiums. They also weren’t buying any of Real Salt Lake’s projections, feeling that the increased ticket sales were unrealistic, the increased ticket prices were unrealistic, and that the projections for major concerts and other events at the stadium were also unrealistic. On January 17th, Mayor Carroon nixed the stadium deal stating that, "This is an unsafe investment for the public."

Times were indeed bleak. Tempers had flared in the paper between Checkett’s and Corroon. Allegations of dishonesty, political pandering, and withholding information were tossed about. A famous blowup from Checkett’s about former boss and newfound adversary to the stadium deal, Larry Miller had erupted on the radio. Larry Miller’s response was also scathing. Things were ugly, and it did not appear that there was an end in sight.

Dave Checkett’s had been through months of the on-again, off-again stadium saga and felt that it had nearly run its course, and he felt it was a hopeless situation. His gift to his hometown was not only under-appreciated, but was being outright rejected. He had known that finding acceptance for the game of soccer would take time, but he expected more support from the business community and assumed that somebody prominent would catch the vision. It appeared that was not going to happen.

By all accounts Checkett’s was within about a week’s time of accepting an offer by a St. Louis businessman to buy the team and relocate it there. Fortunately, for all of us, whether soccer fan or not, somebody did step in and demonstrate that he did see the vision. That came from Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. (although some insist that it only came at the prompting of the First Lady). His support gave the House the incentive needed to pass 1SHB38 by a 48-24 margin effectively paving the way for the public funding that would allow the stadium to be built. The announcement came down on February 8, 2007.

The final funding deal required Sandy to create a CDA (Community Development Agency) to administer the funds which were to be collected through the county. The deal includes $35M coming from the county TRT, $10M coming from the City of Sandy and the remaining $72.5M coming from SCP and financing partner I-star financial. The State, County and City will own the land, and Real Salt Lake will have obligations related to this funding. In addition, Real Salt Lake has already made a payment in the amount of $7.5M for a youth soccer complex to be built somewhere in the County.

All of this means that on October 9, 2008 – just two short weeks away, the dream will be finally realized. For many the result will include soccer, for others it may be a concert, or a graduation ceremony or a high school football game. I think that even those initially bitterly opposed to the stadium, will come to accept it for the shining jewel that it will be in Salt Lake County for decades to come.


September 2001: Sports Capital Partners (now SCP worldwide) is formed by Dave Checketts.

December 03/January 04: Marc Abbott and Don Garber give presentation at a venture capital conference attended by Dave Checketts.

July 14th, 2004: Announcement by the league awarding a franchise to Salt Lake City. Part of the agreement for this team is that a stadium plan will be developed.

July 2004-March 2005: Plan being devised to build a stadium downtown. “Block 22” next to Grand America is the primary target

April 16, 2005: RSL plays first home game in history with a 1-0 win over Colorado Rapids as a result of a Brian Dunseth goal. SLC mayor Rocky Anderson, County mayor Peter Corroon and Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. kicked out the first ball.

May 2005: The City of Sandy puts in a bid to have the stadium built in their city.

October 12, 2005: Press conference at South Town Expo Center announcing that stadium will be built in Sandy. Details include a “Real City” which includes a hotel.

May 2006: Corroon denies funding plan which included $35M in hotel tax dollars.

August 11, 2006: Corroon resurrects a funding plan with $40M in hotel taxes and Sandy chipping in $15M in RDA money.

August 12, 2006: Real Madrid groundbreaking at the stadium site; Real Madrid game.

October 3, 2006: Salt Lake County hires a consulting firm to review teams finances in anticipation of public funding.

November 17, 2006: RSL unveils a ground-breaking partnership with Xango to be the first jersey-front sponsorship in major-US sports.

January 29, 2007: Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon nixes stadium funding. Things look bleak.

February 8, 2007: State House voted to remove the sunset of the Transient Room Tax (HB 38), effectively clearing the way for the Stadium to move forward.

May 3, 2007: Kreis named as RSL’s second coach. Famously uttered the phrase “Audentis Fortuna Juvat”, or “Fortune Favors the Bold”

December 10, 2007: Steel topping out ceremony at the stadium site.

March 24, 2008: Levy restaurants announced at stadium construction office site.
May 2, 2008: David Beckham returns to the stadium site now as a member of the LA Galaxy.

July 9, 2008: Announcement by MLS President David Abbott awarding the 2009 All-Star Game to Real Salt Lake.

August 27, 2008: Announcement of the “Top of the Mountain Bowl” to be held at Real Salt Lake’s Stadium.

October 9, 2008: The realization of the Dream.