There must be something about the cheer of a crowd that brings out the arrogant fool in both athletes and rock stars. From bleacher brawls to the crass greed of Latrell “I’ve got to feed my family on $14.6 million” Sprewell, it strains credulity that so many people in so many places still show up to cheer their basketball, football or hockey teams to victory.
There’s a slight plus side to this lunacy. In the United States, perhaps it channels some of society’s tribal impulses away from religion and race and into the athletic arena.
As Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts has shown, however, even athletic team owners can act like babies. It’s not that soccer or, as everyone else in the world but us calls it, “football,” isn’t a great game. It’s not that RSL’s dream of putting our great city on the Major League Soccer map isn’t tantalizing. It’s just that ever since RSL first set foot on Utah’s soccer field in July 2004, many astute people have observed, quite rightly, that Checketts and RSL CEO Dean Howes have walked around Salt Lake City as if everybody owes them something. That something is, of course, a soccer stadium. Not just any soccer stadium, mind you, but one heavily subsidized by public money. Adding insult to injury, all this comes from a soccer team currently tied with the Los Angeles Galaxy for last place in the MLS Western Conference.
From Checketts’ bizarre whining that Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller headbutted RSL’s stadium plans'like Zinedine Zidane did to Marco Materazzi'to Salt Lake County Republican Party Chairman James Evans’ vow to hunt down whoever leaked RSL’s financial data to the media, RSL’s stadium quest has proved far more entertaining than it ever had any right to be.
Athletic stadiums subsidized either in whole or part are, depending on whom you ask, either God’s gift to municipal development or the worst of boondoggles. No doubt about it, if RSL’s top business brass sat down to personally explain and run through every detail of their plan to have you, me and every other taxpayer in Salt Lake County help pay for a large chunk of their MLS party house, they might make a solid case of this mess. They might also sell sand to Arabs. Either way, the fact is that in the game of selling athletic stadiums the only game that counts is public relations. It’s hardly a secret that RSL is 0-2 in selling their plan to Salt Lake County, or that RSL has set their own Aug. 12 deadline for breaking ground on a stadium somewhere'make that anywhere'in Utah before packing up for a greener pitch elsewhere.
Let’s run through a short recap. With Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson firmly in tow, and the sparkle of possible development in the city’s frazzled south end dancing in the mayor’s eyes, RSL set first sights for their stadium on Salt Lake City’s Block 22 between 600 and 700 South and Main Street and West Temple. Fine idea, but Earl Holding’s Sinclair Companies wasn’t interested in selling. For good reason, it turned out. “The amount of subsidies that Real has requested relative to the cost of the stadium itself has been, in my opinion, excessive,” Sinclair Companies Senior Vice President Clint Ensign told the Deseret Morning News. Spoken like a true businessman.
And, as it turned out, spoken after the Salt Lake County Council rejected for a second time millions of dollars in hotel-tax money to subsidize stadium costs, this time in Sandy. Why? Well, as one Salt Lake County Council member put it to Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan, it sure would be a great deal for Sandy, but not such a good deal for Salt Lake County. Dolan complained mightily that the county’s rejection of the deal was “anti-Sandy.” Well, fine. To most observers, it was crystal clear that Dolan wasn’t interested in RSL as much as the possibility of a $650 million mixed-use project centered around the stadium. That’s his right, and probably his responsibility, as Sandy mayor. But we should be thankful that Salt Lake County saw through it. It wasn’t as if RSL wasn’t trying. On paper, at least, their second pitch to Salt Lake County was $17.5 million less expensive than the first plan offered.
In the aftermath, an owner of the Geneva Steel property offered up free land in Utah County for stadium construction near I-15 access. Rocky Anderson kicked in with Salt Lake City Council approval to perhaps build the arena at the Utah State Fairpark. Checketts’ response to both of these offers, one of them generous indeed, seemed meager at best. Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson still claims the best contingency plan. Amid all the cries of disaster if RSL fails to get their coveted stadium, Rice-Eccles Stadium has worked just fine through two years worth of games. Why not help the University of Utah pay off the tax-exempt bond remaining from the 2002 Winter Games’ stadium expansion so that RSL might not have to share its revenue with the stadium, and possibly use the stadium a bit longer? Well, why not?
The fact that Checketts has repeatedly said Rice-Eccles isn’t good enough, and that his team must, must and must have its own stadium is apparently reason enough to reject anyone else’s bright idea or alternative. He could practice diplomacy. He could act the compromiser. Instead he acts seemingly as if we, the people of Salt Lake County, are too dim to understand the full glory of him and his soccer team.
Checketts’ act is a bit like the Hollywood studio exec screaming to the unwashed masses, “Don’t you know who I am?” Come this Aug. 12, the much ballyhooed deadline for breaking ground on a stadium somewhere'hell, anywhere!'in Utah, Checketts should finally find out who he really is, and what RSL is worth.