Utah Royals fans anguished over team’s sudden move to Kansas City

Some blame allegations of sexism and racism that dogged Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photos) Utah Royals fans fans dance to the music during soccer action between Utah Royals FC and Portland Thorns FC, at Rio Tinto Stadium, Saturday, April 28, 2018. Royals fans are heartbroken over the team's reported move to Kansas City.

Update: The sale of Utah Royals FC is now official. Read more here.

Riggs Eyre has been a Utah Royals FC fan since before he was born.

Since 2018, his mother, Shanae Eyre, has made the 2½-hour drive northeast from Delta to Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy to watch the professional women’s soccer team play. She never missed a home game while she was pregnant with Riggs and missed only one game in three seasons, to celebrate his second birthday in September.

Members of the Eyre family saw U.S. Women’s National Team star Christen Press come to the Royals. They saw the birth of the Viking clap. They were part of a fan base that averaged the second highest attendance in the National Women’s Soccer League behind the Portland Thorns.

But they also saw Press leave. They saw Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara get traded. They saw Laura Harvey leave and Craig Harrington get hired, then fired. They saw the team fail to make the playoffs in 2018 and 2019, and struggle in the two 2020 tournaments. They saw allegations surface about how team owner Dell Loy Hansen and chief business officer Andy Carroll created a toxic workplace culture.

And then they saw what no sports fans want to see in their community. The Royals will leave Utah and move to Kansas City in a sale that is yet to be finalized but is expected to get done in the coming days.

“We loved having the Royals here and are completely heartbroken they’re leaving,” Shanae Eyre told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Once the news of the impending sale broke Saturday evening, fans turned to social media to express their dismay, disgust and disappointment. Some blamed Hansen. Others pointed to the perceived lack of local interest in buying the team.

Others who spoke with The Tribune gave voice to their grief.

“I’ve been crying intermittently since I heard the news yesterday, and I didn’t sleep last night,” Carrie Nielsen said Sunday.

The Royals have been the primary source of entertainment for Pete Busche and his wife, Jessica Hercules. They recently bought a house in Sandy close to Rio Tinto Stadium. Busche called the news “devastating.”

The pending move hit fans with children particularly hard. Nic Shellabarger has three daughters; the eldest is 14 and hasn’t missed a Royals game. He said he still hasn’t worked up the courage to break the news that her favorite team is leaving.

All of Stephen Purser’s children are girls, and he wasn’t sure if they’d take to sports like he has in his life. But they embraced the Royals.

“The Royals games gave me an opportunity to share that with them,” Purser said. “I am absolutely gutted with this loss.”

The Royals came to Utah in 2018 after Hansen bought the contracts of the players from FC Kansas City, which folded after an untenable ownership situation. The return to Kansas City brings with it an ownership group that includes Chris and Angie Long, of Palmer Square Capital Management, who emerged as potential buyers late last month. The new ownership group also reportedly includes former professional soccer player Brittany Matthews.

When Hansen brought the Royals to Utah, he vowed they would be as equal as possible to Real Salt Lake, his Major League Soccer team. He installed an impressive locker room that cost $1 million and brought players to tears when they first saw it. While they didn’t have their own stadium, Rio Tinto was just a mile away from America First Field, where they held the majority of their practices. All signs pointed to Hansen making good on his promise.

But allegations of racist and sexist behavior against Hansen prompted an outcry from fans and various athletes, including Royals players, who later expressed unwavering support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Peggy De Veny, who has been a Royals season ticket holder since the team’s first year, said the move to Kansas City is a “huge loss for Utah” because of the attention it brought to social movements.

“This squad helped spark discussion on so many important issues often overlooked in Utah,” De Veny said. “I’m devastated to lose this here.”

Hansen eventually chose to sell Utah Soccer, which consists of RSL, the Royals and Real Monarchs. Hansen has until Jan. 8 to sell RSL before MLS takes control of the process.

Nielsen is upset that the revelations about Hansen led to the loss of the Royals.

“I am angry that [Hansen] created and ran a toxic organization,” Nielsen said. “He promised equality for the Royals, but it was lip service. The culture of racism and misogyny negated all of the great things he was trying to do. I hate that bringing his gross behavior to light resulted in losing the Royals.”

Hansen and Carroll are currently under investigation by MLS and the National Women’s Soccer League. In late August, Hansen issued a public apology for “offending and being insensitive to the plight of others” in past remarks, and Carroll has previously stated he would participate fully with the investigation and looked forward to “the complete set of facts” coming to light.

The Royals did not comment on the team’s planned move to Kansas City.

Now there’s a locker room with no occupant and a practice field with no players. Royals fan Kelly Kurtz said losing the team is a waste of facilities and fan base for the owners. But there also could be a bigger consequence.

“As a female,” Kurtz said, she sees it as “a setback for women’s sports in a community.”

The Royals are not the first professional women’s sports team to leave Utah. The Utah Starzz of the WNBA were one of the league’s eight original teams, and the sister team of the Jazz. The team relocated to San Antonio in 2003.

For Royals fans, many of their fond memories involved the players taking pictures with them after games. Electrifying goals scored by Amy Rodriguez and Rachel Corsie were mentioned. And, of course, the Viking clap — the Icelandic chant in which Royals fans form a V with their upstretched arms and in between claps shout “Utah … Royals … FC.”

But Eyre’s most cherished moments are of Vero Boquete, who after every game, win or lose, would hold her son Riggs for a few minutes or simply make sure to say hello. Her boy had his very own “Go Vero” chant.

Eyre hopes that with the existing fans and facilities in Utah, another NWSL team can return to the market “in a few years.”

Until then, the Royals will be missed and live only in memories.