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I can still remember the flyers plastered in the hallways of my junior high school: “Bonnet ball begins next month. Sign up now.” The flyers started a conversation between a good friend and me—should we sign up for bonnet ball or try an alternative sport known as soccer? The year was 1975 and soccer, especially for women, was a largely unknown sport in the Beehive State.
Soccer prevailed—largely because I found the title “bonnet ball” off-putting—and I started playing soccer in the Utah Soccer Association’s inaugural year of competitive women’s soccer. Turn back your clocks … there were no soccer programs in Utah for girls in the recreation leagues, competitive leagues, high schools or colleges. I was an early adopter and started what was to become a 25-year playing career, playing for competitive clubs like Alemania, Berlin, Pan World, the University of Utah and FC Utah.
Times were different then. The only place you could purchase authentic soccer cleats was in the basement of a German immigrant’s Sugar House home. Mia Hamm was only four years old when I started playing, and Abby Wambach, a current star on the U.S. Women’s National Team, wasn’t even born yet.
So you can imagine the smile on my face at each Real Salt Lake home game when roughly 20,000 soccer fans pile into Rio Tinto Stadium. This is my hometown and soccer is here to stay.
Major League Exposure
Real Salt Lake enters the playoffs this month as one of the best teams in the league. We seem to have it all—the best goalie in the league, a scorer in Alvaro Saborio, two U.S. national team members in Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, the speed of Robbie Findley and Joao Plata, the creative play of Argentine star Javier Morales, and the gritty and talented play of Ned Grabavoy, Nat Borchers and the others.
Dave Checkett’s vision and perseverance brought the team here; current team owner Dell Loy Hansen’s skill and generosity keeps it here.
I once had a revealing conversation with Hansen about the economic impact of Real Salt Lake on the state of Utah. He reminded me that eight of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the country field Major League Soccer (MLS) teams. He said every time we play New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, New England, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston or D.C. we receive coverage in these massive media markets. Hansen said, “You’re the economist. You must place a high value on that.”
Hansen is right. We live in the interior West. It used to be the “flyover zone,” but not anymore. When it comes to soccer we are in the premier league in this country, and every time we play one of the 18 franchises from larger MLS markets, we benefit.
Economists calculate economic value by measuring new money attracted to the state. TV revenues and visitor spending add up. Then there’s the out-of-state media exposure we receive during every game. The Utah economy is larger and stronger because of the economic contribution of Real Salt Lake and Rio Tinto Stadium.
But the actual economic benefit of soccer transcends traditional economic bean counting. It’s something called “life quality,” and it has value just as valid as the traditional economic measures of jobs and wages. It’s just more difficult to calculate.
It’s the satisfaction Real fans feel when they leave the daily grind and settle in to watch a match. It’s the unity they feel as they walk into the stadium with thousands of other fans dressed in soccer jerseys. It’s the fulfillment a father feels when his athletic daughter watches and learns soccer, a sport that may earn her a scholarship to college someday. It’s the pride we feel as Utahns when ESPN or another major broadcaster pans in over Lone Peak and downtown Salt Lake City, showing our beautiful home to national and international television audiences.
It’s the inspiration we feel when we watch these amazing athletes, urging us all to be just a little better in what we do.
I started playing soccer for the love of team sports. I learned the thrill of competition, the value of team play and the joy of effort. It made me a better person on and off the field. I never imagined the uncommon sport I started playing so many years ago would inspire so many Utahns.
For me, the power to inspire is the true economic value of Real Salt Lake. To this we owe our gratitude to the players, Hansen, club president Bill Manning and others on the professional staff. From a grateful fan, thank you.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.