howardnlby Howard Stephenson

Last week in this column I began to discuss soccer and ReAL Salt Lake’s interest in getting taxpayers to fork over $30 million toward a $60 million dedicated soccer stadium in this valley. By the reaction, or lack thereof to my column last week, I’m convinced that the fans of competitive sports like football, basketball and baseball, don’t mind if anyone takes a jab at less-physical sports like soccer. Unlike the harsh backlash I experienced the first time I attempted a sports column two years ago, there wasn’t a single negative response to my poking a little fun at soccer. Everyone who responded said they enjoyed a laugh. Perhaps soccer fans don’t read the Enterprise.

I would like to propose a win-win solution for the success of ReAL Salt Lake without requiring taxpayers to fork over money they don’t have.

Major League Soccer (MLS) isn’t expected to draw the size of crowds other sports do, thus the effort by ReAL Salt Lake to get a stadium of their own – at taxpayer expense – so they don’t have to play in the “cavernous” Rice-Eccles Stadium. Even with their own stadium they admit that for ReAL to host World Cup events as they did last month, they would still have to move back into Rice-Eccles.

Soccer is a sport which, compared with American football and basketball is somewhat boring. ReAL has scored just 10 goals in 15 games and currently ranks second lowest among 12 MLS teams. Because of the off-sides rule there is no possibility of a fast break so the only way to score is methodical. The off-sides rule also ensures low scores, which makes the game less exciting. There is no three-point shot – regardless of the distance of the kick, the value of the goal is the same. Because use of hands is prohibited by everyone except the goalie, and there’s no player contact, the sport doesn’t utilize full body strength like American football. Because of these limitations, nobody can expect MLS to draw the crowds that football and basketball do. But this still doesn’t justify a separate, smaller soccer stadium funded by taxpayers. If Real Salt Lake can make a stand-alone stadium pencil out, more power to them. But don’t expect taxpayers to make it happen.

ReAL owners have suggested that they are doing Utah a real favor bringing the team here and have reminded us that they have received offers almost too good to refuse from other cities. Frankly, I’m not swayed by these arguments. I question how magnanimous the owners really are when they insist that taxpayers must subsidize their venture.

The ReAL folks are pretty competent, however, to get cities to fight over which one gets the stadium. Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson wants a new stadium to upgrade the FairPark. Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan wants the stadium to compliment the Southtowne Expo Center. Mayor Corroon met with ReAL representatives last week to explore getting the team to stay at Rice-Eccles Stadium. I hear the team isn’t excited about that idea and feels the legislature is on their side and will ultimately fork over $30 million in taxpayer funds. I think they’re reading the legislature wrong. They’re mistaken to think a Sandy stadium funding proposal will sail through the legislature, in spite of the fact that current and former legislative leaders come from Sandy. Senator Curt Bramble’s RDA reform bill passed by the recent legislature prohibits RDA tax increment financing from being used for stadiums, so the word is that Sandy wants a sales tax increment financing fund (STIFF) to take state and local sales taxes from the business activities neighboring the stadium. This new tax earmarking would be viewed as a dangerous precedent in a legislature currently undergoing a tax reform process which is focusing on ending earmarking of funds.

Stay at Rice-Eccles Stadium

The Rice-Eccles option would be the best bang for the taxpayers buck. It would require no additional taxpayer dollars while utilizing an under-used public facility. ReAL complains that the recommended playing field is 70 yards wide by 110 yards long. Rice-Eccles space between side-line seating is exactly 70 yards, leaving no side-line space and limiting visibility when the play is near the side-lines. However these are recommended, not regulation field sizes and teams all over the country are playing on smaller fields. Even if ReAL wanted to pay to reconfigure the side-line seating to make the playing field wider, it would be much less expensive than building a new stadium. Surely a lease with the University of Utah could permit ReAL to get the concession and parking revenues they’re counting on.

By staying with Rice-Eccles, ReAL avoids risking $30 million of their own money and asking taxpayers for another $30 million. So together, ReAL owners and taxpayers avoid spending $60 million dollars. This is a lot better for both parties despite ReAL not controlling the “experience” and marketing other events as a soccer-specific stadium would provide. If anything, this town has too many under-booked taxpayer-supported venues. One more venue competing for the same concerts is a zero-sum game.

Major League Soccer is now in its tenth year in the United States. There are currently 12 MLS franchises and only a few have soccer-designed stadiums. Columbus was the first soccer specific stadium built and that was about 3 years ago. The LA Galaxy and LA Goats both share a single soccer specific stadium, the Home Depot Center. Chicago plays where the Bears play. DC United plays where the Washington Nationals baseball team plays and where, until last year, the Washington Redskins played. Kansas City plays at Arrowhead, home of the Chiefs. San Jose plays at Spartan Stadium on the campus of San Jose state. Colorado plays at Invesco Field at Mile High, which is home to the Denver Broncos, although they are now building their own soccer-specific stadium.

If these other teams can make it work without a soccer-specific stadium why can’t ReAL? ,Given the fact that ReAL is in its first season, perhaps they ought to be happy at Rice-Eccles for a while.