So you're saying there's a chance? Why this expert gives Utah's MLB bid strong odds


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SALT LAKE CITY — Big League Utah's bid to bring a Major League Baseball team to Salt Lake City is rekindling a debate over which city is on deck to be the future of America's pastime.

And at least one national sports oddsmaker is willing to put Utah's case near the top of the list as MLB mulls expansion, including ahead of all other Western cities vying for a team.

Adam Thompson, an oddsmaker for the Florida-based Bookies.com, unveiled new hypothetical odds over who he speculates is likely to receive an expansion Major League Baseball franchise, listing Salt Lake City's odds at +350, giving it an implied probability of 22.2% of landing one of the two spots. The odds are based on what the league insiders told him about what they want in a new market and what the cities have.

Salt Lake's implied probability falls behind only Nashville, Tennessee, (46.5%) and Charlotte, North Carolina, (25%) among possible candidates on his list. Perhaps more importantly, Thompson, who previously served as the senior handicapper for SportsLine and CBS Sports, lists Salt Lake City as having slightly greater odds than Portland, Oregon (21.1%) and Las Vegas (16.7%), which round out his top five.

Three other cities are also considered in the odds, as well as the field of any other possible option. It's one of the first looks at how sports experts rank the expansion competition since former Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller and Larry H. Miller Company CEO Steve Starks, who organized Big League Utah, the coalition that announced last week that it is actively trying to get a team to the Beehive State.

"I think Salt Lake City is a good destination for MLB," Thompson told KSL.com on Tuesday. "The city has a strong reputation when it comes to supporting their local teams and ... I think they've shown the ability to host major events like the Olympics, like NBA All-Star weekends; and when it comes to area, they have a strong economy."

What helps Utah's case?

Both Miller and Starks said last week that they were informed by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred that the league would add one team from the East and another in the West once it does expand. If the league views Salt Lake City much like Thompson does, then Salt Lake City could be considered the Western front-runner for the time being.

Salt Lake City's bid garnered mixed reactions from MLB fans and players, some of who laughed it off, especially as Utah capital city's population is about one-third of any of the other cities currently bidding for an expansion franchise.

But Thompson, a former Sandy resident, is also well aware of Salt Lake's unique population and market dynamics. The Wasatch Front's population is about 2.6 million people, which is similar to Charlotte's metro population. It also provides millions of people not really in either the Denver or Las Vegas media market, so while Colorado Rockies games are on TV, Utah's market is usually split up by fans of various major league teams.

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On top of that, Utah's economy is flourishing above some of the others. Its 2.4% unemployment rate is below the United States' 3.5% rate and continuously ranks among the best in the country. It also leads in several other economic categories, which isn't the case for some of the other possible candidates. That's helping the region grow and making it even more appealing.

Then there's Utah's sports scene, which the Millers have helped shape. The Jazz have essentially grown into the fabric of the community after they relocated from New Orleans in 1979 and the Miller family purchased the NBA team in 1985. The passion the fans have for the Jazz, Real Salt Lake and Utah Royals, as well as the local college programs and minor league teams, offers hope that residents would become equally enthusiastic about an MLB newcomer.

Yet, the biggest draw might be the plan that Big League Utah unveiled last week. While exact details of a stadium are vague, they have a "shovel-ready" location in mind with Rocky Mountain Power redeveloping its 100 acres of land on Salt Lake City's west side. There are also big financial names who have joined the cause, and that's an important detail, Thompson says.

"In terms of stadium plans, I think it's the best one — or, at worst, rivals the other ones," he said. "They really put their best foot forward with this plan."

Putting this all together, it was enough for him to consider Salt Lake City as one of the leading candidates for an expansion team.

Nashville is his overall front-runner because of its circumstances. He favors Music City because it is quickly growing, its economy is strong, it has a good stadium plan, and it's becoming a popular tourism destination — in addition to its record with major sports leagues.

What would hurt Utah's chances?

Thompson said Salt Lake City's odds could drastically change from circumstances out of Utah's control.

Major League Baseball is working to figure out the future of the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays, two clubs that are currently exploring relocation options, before it considers adding more teams, per multiple national news outlet reports. Part of the reason Salt Lake City jumps out ahead of Portland and Las Vegas on Thompson's list is that the two cities are considered the leading candidates for the A's relocation.

He warns that Utah's odds would likely tumble if the team ends up anywhere other than Las Vegas. That's because the country's leading sports leagues are ready to tap into Sin City after years of uncertainty. The WNBA's Aces, NHL's Golden Knights and NFL's Raiders are all faring well, and it's helping MLB and NBA officials look to jump into the market now that there's little concern about the city's gambling reputation.

"I think Vegas is going to have a team in the future, and if it's not the A's, then it might be a new team, and that's going to hurt Salt Lake City," he said. "Somebody's going to end up in Vegas. ... I think (all the leagues were) waiting for someone to make the first move, and after the NHL did it, the floodgates opened."

So, in essence, those who want a team in Salt Lake City should root for the A's to move to Las Vegas. If that does happen, Salt Lake City may very well be the next in line in the West to get a major league team.

"I think they're due," Thompson said. "To have a community of (2.6 million) people without an MLB market seems like a missed opportunity. I think MLB would be wise to seriously consider a team there."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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