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Visionary? Bully? Depends on who you ask about RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen

He made significant investments in the team, but last year’s ugly revelations about how he ran the club could be what defines the Utah soccer franchise’s former owner.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Dell Loy Hansen in 2017.

The famous story goes that Dell Loy Hansen in September 2009 overheard a pitch that Dave Checketts made for former Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner to buy into Real Salt Lake and thought to himself, “Why not me?”

At the time, the RSL organization consisted of just the one Major League Soccer team that didn’t even play in its own stadium. But over the next 11-plus years, Hansen took the seed of RSL and sprouted it into a multifaceted organization consisting of three professional teams, a soccer-specific stadium and a state-of-the-art training facility.

But in August, Hansen decided to sell all of his soccer holdings after allegations of racist behavior, front office sexism and a toxic work environment. The Royals have since been sold and moved to Kansas City. MLS took over the sale of RSL last month after Hansen failed to find a buyer ahead of a January deadline.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said recently that there is “lots of interest in buying” RSL and he’s “optimistic” the league will find new ownership. He says the league is committed to keeping the franchise in Utah. John Kimball, one of RSL’s founding executives, is currently running the team and reporting directly to the league. And Ryan Smith, who recently bought a controlling interest in the Utah Jazz, is rumored to be interested in buying the team.

Hansen’s soccer empire in Utah was defined first by success and exceptional management, and now by mediocrity and controversy. And he contributed — at times directly — to its erosion. It makes the question of his legacy a difficult one to answer.

“He was a bad owner,” said Grant Wahl, a prominent soccer journalist known for his work with Sports Illustrated. “I think he drove away talented, championship-winning people. He created and perpetuated a culture inside that organization that had aspects of racism, misogyny — really ugly stuff.”

But not everyone agrees.

“If you look at the body of work, you have to say he’s a good owner,” Fitz-Gerald said. “He deeply cared about the club and the community. And I think it may have taken some time, as it does for any new owner, but eventually he grew to view the stewardship of RSL as simply a temporary management of a community asset.”

The answer might lie in the details.

Investments and enhancements

Hansen, a wealthy real estate developer with assets all over the Utah and other states, bought 49% of the franchise in November of 2009. He was a partner with Checketts, a man who had decades of sports management experience, including running the Utah Jazz and Madison Square Garden, where the New York Knicks and New York Rangers play their home games. The duo made several investments.

When Hansen came in as minority owner, for example, the club was still in growth mode. At the time, Trey Fitz-Gerald, RSL’s vice president of communications until late 2018, lobbied Hansen to invest in broadcasting RSL games in high definition, promising it would pay off. Fitz-Gerald said Hansen was supportive of the idea and it eventually got done.

“That’s where having the vision of Dave Checketts combined with the resources of Dell Loy Hansen really helped us continue down the very aggressive path of growth” Fitz-Gerald said.

The improvements didn’t stop there. Hansen became sole owner in January 2013, a few years after Rio Tinto Stadium opened in Sandy. He made several additions in an effort to enhance the fan experience — the Audi Club and 100 Lions Club for well-heeled supporters, and a giant video board on the south end of the stadium. He also installed solar panels in one of the stadium parking lots, which provide about 75% of the power the stadium needs, and added charging stations for electric vehicles. Altogether, those investments helped turn Rio Tinto into what, at that time, was one of the top soccer venues in MLS.

“I believe overall it was very positive when he came in,” said Kris Nicholl, a senior member of the Sandy City council. “He managed to grow the franchise like no one else could.”

Fitz-Gerald said that at one point, RSL had among the highest number of season ticket holders in the league and was among the top in TV ratings despite playing in Salt Lake City — one of the smaller media markets in MLS, and one that was already dominated by the Utah Jazz, Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. At its peak in 2015, the number of season ticket holders was around 16,000, Fitz-Gerald said.

From an attendance standpoint, fans at RSL games declined slightly between 2014 and 2019. In 2014, the average attendance at Rio Tinto Stadium was 20,351, while it was 18,121 in 2019. Last season, the coronavirus pandemic largely prohibited fans in stadiums all over MLS.

Fitz-Gerald remembers Hansen not only upgrading the team store at the stadium, but also opening a second location downtown in a high-rise he owned. And he used video billboards outside that Broadway Media Building and Wells Fargo tower — which he also owns — to promote the various clubs.

“Certainly he was a magician, I think, in leveraging his other business interests for the benefit of Real Salt Lake,” Fitz-Gerald said.

Hansen, who declined to be interviewed for this story, also increased soccer’s footprint in Utah.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Dave Checketts, left, and Dell Loy Hansen in 2009.

More soccer in Utah and beyond

Hansen added the minor league Monarchs under the RSL umbrella in November of 2014 and tried to get the new team its own stadium at the Utah State Fairpark. When that plan fell through, he built and opened the sprawling Zions Bank Real Academy in Herriman that included a training facility, a high school and a 5,000-seat stadium.

Hansen spent nearly $80 million on that facility, which is used by RSL, the Monarchs, and the organization’s youth academy. It’s considered one of if not the best of its kind in the United States. The teenage academy players attend RSL Academy High School, which sits adjacent to the training facility.

“He certainly put a lot of money into soccer infrastructure — from the training facility to the other stadium — and I think set the stage so that the sport was in a much more established state in Utah as a result,” Wahl said.

Clint Smith, a member of the Herriman city council, said officials knew the training facility would give the fast-growing city some “name recognition.” In the facility’s short history, Smith says he has seen people start to consider Herriman as a place for entertainment, with the Monarchs now firmly anchored there as the home team.

And despite the sordid events of last year, Smith said the city will continue to focus on the good aspects of the partnership.

“It was 3,000 acres of undeveloped land not too long ago and now to see this really synergistic effect that is taking place out there — really spawned by some early planning but really by the decision of Dell Loy to locate that academy there — there’s a tremendous amount of positives that come to our community as a result of it,” Smith said.

Hansen planned to open a total of eight regional soccer centers across Utah and Arizona. One opened in North Logan in 2017, the Herriman location is another. The others in Utah were slated for St. George, Orem, the Taylorsville area and Ogden. In Arizona, the locations were in Phoenix and Tucson. In 2015, Hansen contributed $7.5 million to help build the Salt Lake City Regional Athletic Complex — a promise Checketts made to secure public funding for Rio Tinto.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) RSL Academy in Herriman is integral to the organization and what people involved in it say would be the impact of losing it in an ownership change.

Then came Utah Royals FC. Hansen had long been interested in the NWSL and jumped at the opportunity to bring a team to Utah once it became clear — ironically now — that the franchise in Kansas City was folding. With an assist from Portland Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, Hansen unveiled the Royals in 2017 and the team started play just four months later. Hansen said at the time that he would lose about $2 million getting the team up and running.

But the impact of the Royals was significant. In 2018 and 2019, they averaged more than 10,000 fans per game — second in the NWSL. They featured well-known U.S. Women’s National Team players like Christen Press, Kelley O’Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn — all of whom were presented keys to the city after the U.S. won the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

During their time in Utah, several Royals players praised Hansen for building the team a spacious, state-of-the-art locker room at Rio Tinto, which brought some of them to tears when they first saw it. Hansen also provided many players with free cars and apartments to make their off-field situations more comfortable. The average NWSL player hardly makes enough money to make ends meet, and many play overseas or run training clinics in the offseason to generate extra income.

“What he did with the Royals was absolutely incredible,” soccer analyst Brian Dunseth said.

Garber in 2019 called RSL a “model club” for any city looking to add a soccer team primarily because, at the time, the organization was the only one in the country that had all four components — an MLS team, an NWSL team, a USL team and an academy.

Questionable personnel decisions

When Checketts sold the remainder of RSL to Hansen, the team was still a perennial contender for trophies, and in fact made it to the MLS championship game again in 2013, where it lost to Sporting Kansas City. It was still regarded as one of the best-run clubs in MLS. And Checketts felt for that success to continue, Hansen would need to keep coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey in the fold.

Checketts declined to speak to The Salt Lake Tribune for this story, but he did recently talk at length, with Kreis, on the podcast “Reality Check,” hosted by his son, local sports radio host Spence Checketts.

“I told [Hansen] at the time, I said, ‘You’ve got to re-sign these guys, you’ve got to treat them right and treat them well because they are really special — both of them,’” Checketts said.

Instead, Hansen let them walk. Kreis said on the podcast that negotiations with Hansen were difficult and he felt “disrespected and bullied” by the owner. After he left, Lagerwey and Bill Manning, the team president, soon followed, marking the beginning of the end of the club culture they helped create.

“From a pure soccer perspective, if I were an RSL fan, I would be pretty unhappy with what Dell Loy Hansen did to a championship team and made it very clearly not a championship team,” Wahl said.

While RSL under Hansen’s stewardship did an admirable job of steadily developing young players — defenders Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera are regular starters, while others have appeared in multiple games — he was largely reluctant to spend money on so-called “difference makers” that could have risen the team to another level. One of the many examples, former scout Andy Williams said last August, was Krzysztof Piątek, a forward who instead went to AC Milan and scored 16 goals in two Series A seasons.

RSL UNDER DELL LOY HANSEN

Wins-Losses-Draws (postseason result)

2013: 16-10-8 (Lost MLS Cup final)

2014: 15-8-11 (Lost in conference semifinals)

2015: 11-15-8 (Did not make playoffs)

2016: 12-12-10 (Eliminated in knockout round)

2017: 13-15-6 (Did not make playoffs)

2018: 14-13-7 (Lost in conference semifinals)

2019: 16-13-5 (Lost in conference semifinals)

2020: 2-1-4 (At time of sale announcement)

In addition to struggling in the MLS standings, RSL hasn’t enjoyed much continuity on the coaching front for the last eight years. Since Hansen became sole owner in January 2013, the team has had four head coaches: Kreis, Jeff Cassar, Mike Peke and Freddy Juarez. That’s in addition to two general managers — Craig Waibel and Elliot Fall — in just the last six years.

Petke was fired after he used a Spanish-language homophobic slur toward a referee after a Leagues Cup game in the summer of 2019. Waibel left a few months after that when it was revealed in a lawsuit Petke filed against the club that the former general manager had criticized Hansen for getting caught on video saying he was considering firing Petke over the incident. Juarez and Fall replaced them.

But none of that compared to what happened next.

The swift downfall

The start of the 2020 season was filled with intrigue. The Monarchs had just won their first-ever USL title, and both RSL and the Royals had new coaches and high expectations. The coronavirus pandemic dampened much of that, but the explosive allegations about Hansen and former Chief Business Officer Andy Carroll that surfaced in August were the death knell.

It started when RSL and LAFC were getting ready to play in Salt Lake’s first home game with fans since the pandemic hit Utah last March. But the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, upended the sports world and resulted in players across multiple professional sports refusing to play games in the following days.

RSL and LAFC were among those teams. Hansen was enraged by the decision, and went on a radio show at a Hansen-owned station the next morning to complain that the players showed “disrespect” by not playing. He also intimated that he would no longer invest financially in the team to keep it competitive.

The backlash was fierce. The social media hashtag #DLHout emerged. Fans and prominent athletes demanded Hansen sell the team. Within days, allegations of racist and sexist behavior going back years surfaced. It became clear Hansen, at the very least, enabled a toxic workplace culture within RSL. He and Carroll were investigated by MLS and the NWSL, and Carroll has since left the organization.

“Given how he treated people and the culture that he created there, I think people are glad — and rightfully so — that he’s no longer going to be involved with soccer because he is the Donald Sterling of MLS, the Donald Sterling of American soccer,” Wahl said.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Dell Loy Hansen with then-Gov. Gary Herbert, right, in 2017.

At this point, it could be months or even years until the full scope of Hansen’s tenure as the owner of RSL is fully understood. MLS says its investigation into Hansen and Carroll’s stewardship of the club is complete, but it is unclear if it will ever be released publicly.

“Only time is going to tell ultimately how this all plays out because as we all know, legacies are a complicated thing,” soccer analyst Dunseth said. “Legacies are always in the eye of the beholder.”

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