Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel walked through the door of his house late last Wednesday, feeling the weight of the culmination of two weeks of travel.
He and his team had been tasked with the seemingly impossible — finalizing a contract with the National Women’s Soccer League in 14 days — but it wasn’t until his 7-year-old daughter greeted him that he fully realized the enormity of what they had achieved.
“She was speechless,” he said of his daughter’s reaction to the news that RSL was launching an NWSL team. “And I could see it in her eyes — she gets new heroes.”
Waibel choked up as he told the story the next day to over 200 people gathered to hear the official NWSL announcement, a crowd that impressed NWSL representative Amanda Duffy. And that interest is what RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen is counting on to make the new top-tier women’s team a success.
Hansen told The Tribune that he expects the NWSL team’s attendance to average at least 12,000 per game — an ambitious number, given that the league average this past season was 5,061, with only Portland and Orlando drawing more than 6,000 per game.
2017 AVERAGE NWSL ATTENDANCE BY CLUB
Portland Thorns • 17,678
Orlando Pride • 6,187
North Carolina Courage • 4,389
Houston Dash • 4,329
Seattle Reign FC • 4,037
Washington Spirit • 3,491
Chicago Red Stars • 3,198
Boston Breakers • 2,896
Sky Blue FC • 2,613
FC Kansas City • 1,788
League total • 5,061
To help boost interest in the team, the plan is to keep ticket prices low. Ticket prices will be able to stay low because of the large pay gap between the NWSL and MLS. The minimum salary in the NWSL roughly doubled between 2016 and 2017, but it still increased to only $15,000. The maximum salary budget charge to a team’s salary cap was $41,700.
While the price ranges have yet to be announced, a team spokesperson told The Tribune that the club hopes to have individual game tickets start around $15 and season tickets cost an average of $10 per game. The cheapest individual game tickets for Real Salt Lake games cost about twice as much; BYU charges between $6 and $11 for individual game tickets, and Utah charges $5.
Women’s college soccer in the state has proved to have a reliable fan base. All six of the state of Utah’s NCAA Division I schools have women’s programs; BYU led Division I in average attendance this season at 3,006, and the University of Utah ranked 13th overall at 1,229. When the Utes played at the Cougars this season, attendance was 5,367; BYU drew even more for its home game against UCLA (5,735).
“I know the interest is there,” Utes soccer coach Rich Manning said.
The interest is not only at the college level. The state of Utah’s raw participation numbers in high school girls’ soccer, even when adjusted for the size of the state in the most recent U.S. census, does not crack the top 20. But according to research conducted by the NCAA, Utah has the highest percentage of girls’ soccer players recruited by a Division I school (5.8 percent) in the country.
“We have a fantastic pool of talented boys and girls players,” Manning said. “And now for the girls players to be able to have these world-class players, the best league in the world for women, interacting with them, being able to watch them, is going to make the youth game — I think — even better here.”
Given the accelerated process in bringing a team to Utah from Kansas City for the upcoming season, all of that may not have been completely taken into account: “We made a decision in about 15 days, so that was the market research,” RSL chief business officer Andy Carroll said at the introductory news conference. “Dell Loy has a tendency to lean very, very heavily on his gut.”
Gut instincts aside, Hansen has talked about bringing an NWSL team to Utah for years. While the team does not have an official name, it will announce the head coach of the team on Monday, and season-ticket orders are already being taken with an eye toward developing the same kind of loyalty to the NWSL team as the state’s major pro and college teams.
“If you’re a male you can go watch the Utes play football, or BYU, or you can go to a lot of things — drag races,” Hansen said. “But I think among women this will be their epicenter, and I don’t think that takes a lot of deep research to look around Utah and think we need that rallying point.”