Sandy • Abby Smith drove with her father from Dallas to her new home after she learned she was moving to Utah. The first stop she made when she got here was Rio Tinto Stadium.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Smith, the Utah Royals goalkeeper, later would say. “You go to Portland and you go to Orlando and you see the environment and the culture there. That’s what we want to bring here.”
It remains to be seen how many fans the newest National Women’s Soccer League franchise will bring to the 20,000-seat stadium in its inaugural season. Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen and his team believe they have laid the groundwork for longterm success.
In the short term, however, Hansen said he will lose money bringing the women’s soccer club to Utah, building a squad, a brand and a fanbase in what team officials believe is the “tightest window in major league sports ever.”
“We’ll lose … quite a bit of money,” Hansen said. “With the locker room and everything, we’ll lose $2 million just launching the team.”
For Hansen, it was a matter of when — not if — he would bring a women’s team to the state. He envisioned them taking the field in the spring of 2020.
That timeline changed when Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns, called Hansen on Nov. 1. The NWSL had one failing franchise (the Boston Breakers) and another in need of a new owner (FC Kansas City).
Hansen flew to Portland to meet with Paulson. On the flight back, Hansen and his team already were trying to come up with a name. Hansen’s growing soccer empire already included Real Salt Lake and the Salt Lake Monarchs. His new team had to sound regal, too.
“I thought the Little Princesses doesn’t work,” he said. “That would be kind of derogatory.”
Hansen was flying to New York to finalize his purchase of Kansas City FC by Nov. 12, and the clock was running to get the Utah Royals ready for their season.
“If you would have taken a rational vote, we would’ve said no,” Hansen said.
RSL hadn’t yet finished launching its youth academy in Herriman, and it just was gearing up for the start of another Major League Soccer season. Adding another project would complicate things.
Royals executives say they already have reason to believe they made the right choice. Hansen rushed the purchase of the club so that his team could pitch the Royals to advertisers before the start of 2018. A number of RSL’s biggest partners, including Zions Bank and Mountain America Credit Union, quickly signed on. But the team still has a number of deals pending as sponsors wait to see how fans will respond to the team.
“Hopefully this weekend will validate us for people who still have doubt in their minds,” vice president of broadcast Trey Fitz-Gerald said.
There had been some initial concern about buying a team from Kansas City and naming it the Royals. Major League Baseball’s Royals have been playing in Kansas City since 1972.
“We’re going to make a logo. Sue us,” Hansen recalls telling his attorneys during a conference call. ”... Right until then we couldn’t print anything, we couldn’t make a logo. Everybody was just slowing us down.”
Nike expedited its creative process for the new uniforms, creating the Royals’ lion logo and gold jerseys in a matter of weeks, a look that leaned on RSL’s brand while trying to create a unique aesthetic for the Royals.
“There are a lot of guys at the Thorns games and they’re wearing Thorns jerseys,” Real Salt Lake chief business officer Andy Carroll said. “We wanted a logo that was unisex, that anyone would feel good about and would feel proud to wear. I think we knocked it out of the park.”
RSL officials believe the Royals won’t “cannibalize” Utah’s soccer fanbase, estimating only about a 25-percent overlap. The Royals specifically have targeted youth and girls’ soccer organizations in hopes of drawing larger crowds to Rio Tinto Stadium.
RSL owns a 5,000-seat stadium at its training facility in Herriman, where the minor league Monarchs play. But team officials said they believe the Royals should be playing at Rio Tinto.
Royals officials are happy with the television numbers the’ve had so far. More than 25,000 people streamed the team’s first game of the season. More than 33,000 people were watching on KMYU in the second half of that game.
The Royals aim to sell out Saturday’s home opener (about 17,000 tickets had been sold as of midweek) and are shooting for 8,000 season ticket-holders for the team’s inaugural campaign. So far they have sold more than 5,000.
“I love it that they put that out there and they trust us with that big stadium,” midfielder Gunny Jonsdottir said. “They’re advertising us just as well as the men, and I’d rather take the risk of playing there and trying to fill that than playing in a smaller stadium.”
After a whirlwind journey to build the new club’s brand, officials believe they’ve laid a solid foundation with room to grow. And the ultimate goal is a big one.
Hansen “wants this to be the No. 1 professional women’s sports team in the world,” Carroll said. “That’s it. That’s the vision.”