Dell Loy Hansen is a smart man who has stacks of cash, billions of them, but he still has much to learn.
Sports team ownership is different in key respects than business ownership in, say, real estate holdings. The right amount of money has to be thrown at both, but in sports it must be properly shepherded by specialized experts, unimpeded by an inexperienced owner, hired and set free and valued to do their jobs properly, people who have a high degree of acumen in their specific realm.
There’s rarely any competitive lucking out by way of meddling and mediocrity in pro sports, by rich men and women who have little authentic understanding of the world into which they’ve bought their way.
Real Salt Lake recently has been blessed with decent amounts of money from ownership, and some nice, visionary investments are being made, but it has not been properly shepherded in any consistent manner. Evidence of that has been apparent since Hansen bought the team in its entirety from Dave Checketts a few years after RSL won its MLS Cup on a tight budget, with hardly a dollar to spare.
Checketts knew the basics and the nuances, knew how to own a franchise, knew how to hire the right people, how and when to sign them up, how and when to re-sign them and when to let them go. He knew to treat staff and players well that he needed to treat well. He just didn’t have enough cash to keep the enterprise afloat.
Hansen has the money. He is a crafty businessman in his own space, in his own endeavors outside of sports, but sports — soccer — is not that space. He is aware of some things, but he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. And the effects of that self-blinded condition can be seen by those with open eyes.
The club has done OK in a limited sort of way since he took over, but it has not maintained the excellence that was built out of practically nothing in the years before he fully arrived.
I’ve written that before, and was banned from covering RSL games for expressing that opinion. The revoking of my press credential — and an ignorant accusation of some sort of bias on my part — created national attention, with reporters and columnists and commentators from around the country contacting me in an effort to make sense of the whole ordeal.
The ban was short-lived after The Tribune protested and Major League Soccer stepped in to knock some sense into those running Real Salt Lake. But that was just one example of a severe lack of awareness on the part of club leadership.
The guys who built RSL into the remarkable success story it had become, people such as coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey and team president Bill Manning, among other executives, were one by one sent packing or walked away. It wasn’t just that RSL wouldn’t pay them what they wanted, or wouldn’t give them the license they sought, the team figuring it could get equally competent replacements on advantageous terms, it was that some of those leaders wanted nothing to do with working for Hansen. A couple of them, in no uncertain terms, in rather colorful ones, told me that.
On the pitch, the team suffered. It was bound for a partial rebuild, anyway, but based on what the previous management had accomplished, it’s not a reach to believe they knew how to do it again here in this exact market, especially in collective form and force.
It was not to be because ownership did not want it to be, would not allow it to be, did not create an environment in which it could be.
Amid a bad coaching hire — Jeff Cassar — and a good one that turned bad — Mike Petke — RSL brought in Craig Waibel five years back as its general manager. He was essentially let go a week ago, a victim of the rough chop behind the Petke firing, a termination prompted at least in part by Petke’s angry use of a slur aimed at an official after a difficult loss.
Petke responded to his dismissal with a lawsuit, which among other things asserted that Waibel had little respect for Hansen, having expressed uncomplimentary things about the team environment stirred by the owner. That lawsuit asserts that the former coach is owed some $700,000 by the club on account of its technical bumbling of his dismissal.
Petke did Waibel no favors — or did he do him a large one? — with his revelation, which included a text message from the GM to the former coach that indicated, among other things, that he was intending to quit at the end of this season and that the work atmosphere at RSL was the toughest in MLS “without a doubt.”
Hansen has done some good things, including building a sweet soccer academy and stadium for the Real Monarchs, establishing the Utah Royals FC, and bringing some upgrades to Rio Tinto Stadium. Despite the distractions this season and the overall dysfunction, Real currently sits in fifth place in the West, having clinched a playoff spot.
But something isn’t right within the organization.
That something may not sit wholly at the top, but that’s from where it germinates and festers. It is felt inside the club, although, out of fear, many of the gifted, capable employees who work or have worked for Real only whisper about it. But those whispers, which have grown louder, are bound to keep some talented staff and players from coming to work and to play here.
It can be fixed, as long as Hansen humbles himself and learns to hire and keep and value and listen to the right people, to leadership that fully understands soccer and people in ways that he and some of his lieutenants do not. The best sports franchises in darn near every pro league in this country are, in fact, held by owners who do know what they know and do know what they don’t know, and act accordingly.
There are examples of great sports team ownership and leadership right here in this market. Unfortunately, Real Salt Lake is not one of them. That’s not bias, it’s just fact.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.