Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith looks on before the start of their NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, March 16, 2022 in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)
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SALT LAKE CITY – Could a new sports team be heading to Utah? That’s the goal of the Smith Entertainment Group.
Over the past two years, the Ryan Smith-led group has purchased Utah Jazz and taken a stake in Real Salt Lake. Now he has his eyes set on adding a third team to the mix.
On Friday, it was announced that Arctos Sports Partners, a sports-focused private equity firm, had invested a minority stake in SEG, a move the Smith Group believes is a crucial step in bringing an additional sports franchise to the ‘State.
For Arctos, the deal brings the Jazz into a growing portfolio that includes six MLB teams, three NHL teams and two other NBA franchises. In total, Arctos has invested in more than 20 professional sports groups and franchises; Arctos already had a stake in Real Salt Lake.
For SEG, this calls for a partner who shares its lofty expansion goals.
Smith Entertainment Group, a source said, wants to build something similar to Fenway Sports Group. The Boston-based group is the parent company of MLB’s Boston Red Sox, English football’s Liverpool FC and the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Fenway got the Penguins in November following an investment from Arctos.
But unlike Fenway, which has accumulated assets outside of its headquarters, Smith Entertainment Group wants to build a sports center in Utah — and Arctos is committed to helping them get there.
“We believe in Utah and all the amazing things happening in the state, and we believe SEG is poised to be the next big sports and entertainment group,” said Chad Hutchinson, partner of Arctos Sports Partners. “Ryan Smith sees opportunity and innovation, and we look forward to supporting his vision for Smith Entertainment Group and Utah sports fans.”
Now, is something imminent? No.
There will be no announcement in the coming days that the NFL, MLB or NHL is expanding to Utah. According to a source, there is no set timeline for the introduction of the third sports franchise, but Smith Entertainment Group sees Friday’s announcement as a necessary step to get to that point.
In May, Arctos raised $1.1 billion for a second investment fund, bringing the company’s total assets to more than $5 billion, according to Sportico. The company is well funded and well connected.
“My wife Ashley and I are passionate about the state of Utah and are committed to building organizations that can be a unifying force in our community. Few things do this as powerfully as sports,” Smith said in a statement. “We are thrilled to partner with Arctos. They are committed to Utah and investing in this community and our athletic teams and facilities.
“As SEG continues to grow the state’s professional sports landscape, the Arctos partnership brings a strong commitment to Utah sports and a deep connection across all major sports leagues.”
So the desire (and, presumably, the funds) is there to bring in a new franchise. But are there options?
Last month, MLB Players’ Association executive director Tony Clark said, “We hope … we can find ourselves in a world of 32 teams instead of 30.” And it came less than a month after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said he would “love to join 32 teams” in an interview with ESPN. Manfred, however, recently said expansion cannot be seriously considered until new stadium deals are in place for the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics.
In November, there was a report of the NFL having talks of expanding up to 40 teams. This would mean that up to eight new franchises could be added to the mix. But given that the league “prohibits professional investment in teams”, according to the Financial Times, the rules would have to change for the Smith-Arctos partnership to work in the league.
After the NHL announced expansion of the Seattle franchise in 2018, commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would not expand again for the foreseeable future. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly returned later that year, saying, “I’m not sure there’s any magic about 32. Expansion is appropriate when it can be proven convincingly that it will be beneficial and add value to the league as a whole.”
In May, the Arizona Coyotes signed a three-year contract to play in a 5,000-seat arena at Arizona State University as they seek a new permanent home. Things are moving forward for a proposed permanent arena and entertainment district in Tempe; but if that can’t be finished, a team that is often said to be for sale could be looking for a new home.
And Utah isn’t too far away.
Everything is speculative at this point; from now on it’s a waiting game. But Friday’s announcement made the idea of a new sports franchise in Utah much more plausible.