'I fix broken things,' says new RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen
His is an empire built on troubled times.
In the late 1980s, there were the apartment complexes and housing units he bought from the federal government, offered cheap in the wake of the Savings and Loan crisis, that built Wasatch Property Management's $1.2-billion portfolio. Later, there were the Wells Fargo and Ken Garff buildings, a pair of struggling downtown Salt Lake City office towers when he bought them, that now are filled with tenants.
But Dell Loy Hansen balked when he first looked at Real Salt Lake's books.
"What I realized quickly was the team was in some desperate financial straits," he said.
In advance of the club's first home game, Hansen, a man whose soccer knowledge once came almost entirely from the book Soccernomics, spoke candidly with The Salt Lake Tribune about his ascension to being RSL's sole owner. Hansen discussed his newfound love for the world's most popular sport, his plans for RSL, his initial hesitation to invest in a franchise he described as "at the brink of collapse," his gradual takeover from RSL founder Dave Checketts and Checketts' effort to buy back control of the club.
In RSL, Hansen saw a team in need of saving, he said. And the Cache Valley-bred mogul believed he had the ability to do something.
"That's my skill set," he said. "I fix broken things."
Casual observer to investor • The September 2009 game was only the second professional soccer match Hansen had ever attended but the experience swept him up: the fans and atmosphere; the guest list (including former Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner); the chicken cacciatore in the owner's box.
Hansen was at the game between the United States and El Salvador to raise funds for Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan, but when he heard Checketts pitching Eisner on a chance to invest in RSL, Hansen listened.
Later, though, as he pored over the team's finances, he hesitated. In creating a team from scratch and building a new soccer stadium, Checketts and RSL were "hopelessly behind on their bills," Hansen said. "And they put a mortgage on [Rio Tinto Stadium] that was a death mortgage. It could never be met. They had defaulted nine times in 14 months."
Only after Checketts managed to reduce the stadium's mortgage did Hansen reconsider. Even then, he said, another thought motivated him: "Utah will never see a major league team here in this century if we lose this."
New team, small market • Checketts bought a Major League Soccer franchise in 2005 and said he wanted to build it in the place where he grew up. With partners' help, he launched a club in one of the league's smallest markets.
"We took all of the risk," he said. "We did everything in our power to build a great stadium and ... a great franchise that the people of Utah could be proud of for many years. I will never get that money back, but I'm not sorry about anything I did."
RSL's founder disputes Hansen's view that the team was ever in jeopardy.
Checketts was able to get the $110 million stadium built in Sandy despite his major investment partner, Lehman Brothers, declaring bankruptcy just months before completion. He never defaulted on the stadium's mortgage either, he said.
"We did all of that in the middle of the most difficult economic period of our lives at least," he said.
Still, Checketts said, he had reached a financial limit. Between RSL's inception and his first meeting with Hansen, Checketts and his partners had spent $72 million on Real Salt Lake. But he was committed to excellence.
"We won the Cup in 2009," he said. "We had the best club in the entire league. We had a huge number of sellouts. Even as the team struggled to meet its obligations and once I got to the $72 million I really didn't have any more to put in Â we never let any of these struggles impact the team. We had the best players, the best coaches and the finest stadium. You can fault me for a lot of things, but we didn't let it impact a great franchise."
A businessman at work •Â Hansen knew little of the sport when he first bought in, but his passion and business savvy were undeniable. Immediately, he dove into sponsorships and ticket sales, he said.
"I went out, being a Utah businessman, and networked," he said. "If I've done business with you, I'm inviting you to be a part of it."
When Hansen first came on, RSL was bringing in $2.8 million in sponsorships a year. This season, the club will bring in $8.5 million, he said. That number will cross the $10 million mark next year with a new jersey-front sponsorship deal.
But for Hansen, who once said he learned the importance of investment from a great-grandfather who grew up in a dugout basement home and put 50 cents of every dollar into a jar, RSL is unlike any other investment he's made.
"One thing that's black and white: I will never make money running this," he said.
The club's profits, he said, will go back to the team in hopes of making RSL perennially one of Major League Soccer's top four clubs.
"We're under a salary cap, but that doesn't mean you can't buy really good talent," he said.
RSL isn't a passion project at all costs, though.
Hansen acknowledges he has frustrated RSL staff and president Bill Manning as he reworks the club's finances, cutting in some places and breaking off media and other components into separate entities. Spending has to make business sense, Hansen said.
Players on board • RSL players love Checketts.
"You have to acknowledge first and foremost how much Dave Checketts did for this club," center back Nat Borchers said. "He built it from the ground up. This club was his idea. He put in a lot of time, effort and money into creating this whole idea of Real Salt Lake. We're all indebted for life to Dave Checketts for doing that."
Checketts knew his players' names, and the names of their wives or girlfriends. He commanded a room. Borchers recalled his pregame speech before a playoff game against Seattle last year. "He referenced Winston Churchill and never giving up," Borchers said. "When Dave gets in front of a group of people and speaks, you're moved."
But players see a promising future nevertheless with Hansen. Midfielder and captain Kyle Beckerman said he hopes his new boss "can take the team to the next level and continue to build on what Dave started."
"We're really looking forward to having him as an owner," Borchers added. "He's going to be a little more hands-on than Dave was because he lives here locally. There's a lot at stake for Dell Loy Hansen in this project."
Ownership evolves • Checketts' partnership with Lehman also opened up the door for Hansen to acquire greater control. When he first invested in Checkett's SCP Worldwide sports properties in the fall of 2009, Hansen owned 49 percent of the club.
By fall 2012, Hansen had acquired 62 percent of RSL.
"Literally for the last three years, whenever ... we'd do the capital call and he'd try but couldn't get them to fund it," Hansen said.
The percentages, however, did not bother Checketts.
He had anticipated he might have trouble meeting those obligations. The partnership agreement with Hansen was set up so that Hansen could acquire more equity if Checketts could not meet the capital calls, but Checketts would remain the managing partner.
"I would call the shots," he said. "The coaches, players, front office would continue to report to me. As long as that was the case, I frankly didn't care if I owned 10 or 90 percent. I wanted to build a great franchise."
The agreement also included a mechanism that would allow either party to buy out the other after three years. In late 2012, Hansen said he wanted full control or none at all.
Hansen said Checketts brought a proposal to the league to buy Hansen out that ultimately was rejected. Checketts, however, disputes Hansen's version of events.
In December, MLS commission Don Garber presided over a sealed auction, Checketts said. Checketts won the bid and on Dec. 11 deposited the $33 million needed to buy his partner out, Checketts said. At that point, he had until Jan. 15 to close on the deal.
"I had a lot of sleepless nights in early 2013 thinking about what I wanted," he said. "Do I want to continue? Can I continue?
"I woke up and told my wife we were going to sell."
Checketts said he is satisfied that he left a franchise that was on solid ground and capable of continued on-field success.
Hansen agrees, and he thinks he can help take RSL to another level.
"If there's one takeaway from this," he said, "what I do think I will bring to this team is the resources to be more competitive."
Hansen's ownership evolves
Sept. 5, 2009 •Dell Loy Hansen attends a political fundraiser during a World Cup qualifying match at Rio Tinto Stadium. In the owner's box, he expresses interest in investing in Real Salt Lake.
Nov. 18, 2009 • After initially balking at investing, Hansen is announced as the team's new co-owner. He holds 49 percent of the club.
Nov. 22, 2009 •Real Salt Lake beats the Los Angeles Galaxy to win the MLS Cup.
Dec. 11, 2012 • Dave Checketts deposits the $33 million needed to buy out Hansen's share of RSL, but said he later decided to sell.
Jan. 24, 2013 •Hansen and Checketts hold a news conference announcing Hansen as the sole owner of Real Salt Lake.