Crazy two-week chase lands Utah a women’s pro soccer franchise

Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen announces he has purchased a National Women’s Soccer League team, with play beginning in April<br>

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen announces that the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) will field a team in Utah for the 2018 season. He was joined by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, right.

Sandy • Two weeks ago, Real Salt general manager Craig Waibel got a call from team owner Dell Loy Hansen, who told him he was going to try to bring in a National Women’s Soccer League team to the Salt Lake Valley. In time for the start of the 2018 season.

Waibel’s reaction? Shock.

“I thought this was two or three years away,” he said.

Hansen told Waibel when he hired him as GM in 2015 that he had a five-to-six year plan to land a NWSL franchise. But a recent conversation between the RSL owner and Portland Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson ginned up the timeline. Paulsen told Hansen there was an opportunity to nab a women’s team sooner rather than later.

On Thursday, that two-week chase culminated with Hansen announcing to a packed press conference at Rio Tinto Stadium that a Utah-based NWSL franchise would begin play in April of next year.

“The speed with which Dell Loy operates is the differentiating factor in why he’s so successful,” RSL Chief Business Officer Andy Carroll said. “He wants everything done yesterday.”

What led to the NWSL franchise opportunity?

The soccer website FourFourTwo has reported and The Salt Lake Tribune has confirmed that FC Kansas City will cease operations for next season, though it is unclear what will become of that team’s players. Presumably, at least some of them will be Utah-bound.

NWSL Managing Director of operations Amanda Duffy would not confirm the demise of the Kansas City franchise, but did say that the league will remain in its current 10-team configuration next season.

“We’re in ongoing conversations with FC Kansas City right now about their status and plans for the future,” she said.

Salt Lake’s new NWSL team, which will be owned and operated by RSL, will play its home games at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Hansen’s bid for an NWSL team really began in earnest when Paulson reached out to him, he said.

“He really felt that we could add true value,” Hansen said of the Portland owner. “A situation developed that he thought, [with] our skill to move quickly, could be something he could help us do.”

RSL officials flew to Portland to meet with Paulson and his team. Hansen said they spent seven hours discussing how RSL could launch a NWSL team.

The Thorns have been a huge success in soccer-mad Portland. Their average attendance of 17,678 per home game more than doubled the league’s second best attendance draw, the Orlando Pride (6,187 per home match). The league average was 5,061 in 2017.

“We’re going to do better than Portland,” Hansen predicted.

Duffy, too, said she saw similarities between Portland and Salt Lake.

“I certainly see that they’re going to approach it the same way and throw all the resources at the women’s team. One of the most important aspects of what Portland does — and Houston, Orlando, North Carolina, organizations that have a men’s professional team as well — they treat the women on-par with their men’s pro team.”

If RSL’s NWSL team — which will announce its nickname at a later date — wants to compete with Portland, however, it will have to move as quickly in assembling its NWSL technical staff as it did acquiring the team.

Waibel said he will be in charge of forming the team, but RSL plans to hire a managing director, who will essentially function as an assistant general manager for the NWSL club. RSL expects some overlap between the women’s and men’s sides, but the club will also add new positions to operate the new team. Real Salt Lake is already set to interview a candidate for the club’s head coaching position in the next few days, Waibel said.

The NWSL college draft is scheduled for January, and the regular season begins in April.

“We’re a very good organization,” Hansen said. “We have deep business skills. We didn’t miss anything, the agreements are well done. We probably spent 30 or 40 legal hours. We just worked straight through. We didn’t waste time.”