After the most tumultuous 24-hour period in franchise history, the next era in Real Salt Lake history could be coming.
Team owner Dell Loy Hansen was the focus of the sporting world Thursday after he went on a local radio show and castigated RSL players for not playing Wednesday’s match against LAFC, a protest of police violence that echoed through the NBA, WNBA, MLB and MLS. However, it was a bombshell report from The Athletic that caused the biggest problems for Hansen.
RSL scout Andy Williams, currently on furlough from the club, told the publication that Hansen had joked about “lynching” an opposing team’s player after he scored a goal against RSL. Williams also alleged that the owner used the n-word twice in a conversation with RSL training staff. Both events had witnesses that corroborated Williams’ version of events, The Athletic reported. Hansen also reportedly said RSL defender Aaron Maund “looked like a thug” in an elevator conversation.
The fallout was swift. By Thursday night, Major League Soccer announced it would conduct an investigation into the RSL owner’s alleged conduct. The MLS players association called for Hansen’s immediate suspension, and demanded that the league force him to sell the team, if the allegations are substantiated. And on Friday afternoon, Utah Soccer announced that Hansen would take a “leave of absence” while MLS and NWSL complete their investigation.
Can the league force an owner to relinquish a franchise?
Yes. The MLS Constitution provides a way.
Section 14, Part D states the league’s board of governors can terminate an owner’s interest in a team if 75% of the owners vote to do so. They would need to find that “the team operator or any owner has failed to act in the best interest of the league.” If that 75% threshold is met, an owner would have six months to sell the team.
If those six months pass without a sale, the league could then sell the team itself to a buyer approved by the board of governors “at such price and on such terms as the commissioner deems reasonable and appropriate.”
MLS has given no indication that such a move is in the offing. However, there is some precedent for the league stepping in to change an ownership situation: in 2014, MLS bought Chivas USA back from owner Jorge Vergara. The club then folded before the following season, and a second Los Angeles-area expansion club, LAFC, was started in 2018.
In Real Salt Lake’s case, the league itself would be unlikely to purchase the club. That’s because sources tell The Salt Lake Tribune that several local buyers have expressed interest.
First, there’s the behemoth. Larry H. Miller Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the Utah Jazz and the Salt Lake Bees, has previously expressed a willingness to take on RSL, according to sources within the company, who asked for anonymity to talk about internal business considerations.
The Miller group has shown an interest in expanding its portfolio before. In 2005, they purchased the Salt Lake Bees from the Drammis family, taking over operations at the stadium then known as Franklin Covey Field. In 2015, they bought the G-League Idaho Stampede, moving them to Utah to work more closely as the farm team with the Utah Jazz.
If MLS needs a temporary local operator, LHM Sports & Entertainment could take that role. That potentially could then turn into a purchase agreement, as a sale unfolds in accordance to terms set out in the MLS constitution.
There may also be another party at play. Ryan Smith, the co-founder and CEO of Qualtrics, has publicly expressed an interest in buying the franchise. When Donovan Mitchell tweeted his support of the RSL players’ boycott — and his dismay at Hansen’s disapproval — fans asked if Smith would be willing to buy the franchise. Smith responded “I’m in... they got my number.”
Smith and his family sold Qualtrics to industry giant SAP in 2018 for $8 billion, so presumably he’d have the financial wherewithal to make such a purchase.
Finally, Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore also said he was involved in a group that was ready to purchase the team. It’s unclear what group he’s affiliated with, or what their plans for the club would be.
Forbes estimated Real Salt Lake’s value to be at $235 million in 2019, though that estimate doesn’t include any of Hansen’s real estate or stadiums. Presumably, Rio Tinto Stadium and the Zions Bank Real Academy would be transferred in any purchase, which would increase the price. That being said, the pandemic and uncertainty surrounding fans in stadiums has probably had an impact on the value of any sports franchise in 2020.
The Athletic’s story was released hours after Hansen said he felt “profound disappointment” that RSL and LAFC decided not to play Wednesday in solidarity with other sports teams protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Hansen also lamented that the club’s preparation to welcome 5,000 fans to Rio Tinto Stadium for the first time since March had basically been for naught. He said he felt disrespected by the players’ decision and even suggested he was going to lay off employees and possibly no longer invest financially into the team.
Outrage soon poured out from the sports world, most notably from United States women’s national team player Megan Rapinoe and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. Both players called on Hansen to sell the team.
Hansen later walked back his comments, but the report of racial slurs used raised the immediacy of the conversation. After that, the MLS Players Association released its statement demanding an investigation and that Hansen be forced to sell the team if the allegations were true.
Hansen’s wife, Julie, defended her husband in the form of text messages sent to news station KUTV on Friday. In those messages, which were published by the station on Twitter, she says Hansen “does not have a racist bone in his body” and went on to describe the owner’s philanthropy and his bringing the Utah Royals FC team into the market.
Julie Hansen said her husband showed his support for the Black Lives Matter movement by reading and giving out the book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. She also said Hansen donated $150,000 to a small village in Malawi, Africa, “all to lift mankind (all black).”
“No one supports equality more than this man,” part of Julie Hansen’s text said.
Williams, a former RSL player who worked as head scout before being furloughed in April, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he believes Hansen should sell the team.
“I don’t think he wants a team to win,” Williams said. “I want somebody that wants to win here for these fans, for the state of Utah. I want somebody that’s willing to put money in, to put the work in, and say, ’Alright we’re going to build a championship team. We’re going to do whatever it takes and that’s all I want.’”
Hansen himself may be wearying of professional sports ownership.
On Thursday he said, “It’s taken a lot of wind out of my sails, what effort I want to put into recruiting players and building a great team. It just seems that’s not a very good path to take.”