Former Utah Jazz exec John Kimball providing RSL with stability as search for new owner continues

Kimball has focused on repairing the internal culture of the club and letting other executives do their jobs.

(Photo courtesy of the Utah Jazz) | John Kimball speaks at a previous Tour of Utah event. Kimball is now the interim president of Real Salt Lake, helping the club through an ownership transition.

When Dell Loy Hansen announced his intention to sell Utah Soccer LLC and all its properties, he called John Kimball asking if he could help steer the organization back in the right direction. Kimball agreed, but at the time thought it would be a short-term gig.

“When Dell Loy called me originally, I was just actually helping a friend,” Kimball told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Six months later, Kimball is still the interim president of Real Salt Lake, which has been searching for a new owner since late August. Major League Soccer in early January took over the sales process, and the team on Monday officially started preseason.

Kimball’s been charged with running the day-to-day operations of the club. When he came on last September, he made sure things were running smoothly so the team could get through the season, have games and follow all the COVID-19 protocols.

As RSL has tried to navigate life without an owner, the front office has still been making decisions on roster spots, coaches and other technical staff. While Kimball has been interim president, the team signed Rubio Rubin, brought on coaches like Pablo Mastroeni and Ignacio Hernandez, and hired Kurt Schmid as technical director and Luke Mulholland into the scouting department.

Kimball said he runs ideas and strategies through the league and is in contact with them practically on a daily basis. But for the most part, he has tried to just let people do their jobs.

“On the team side, we’ve got some great employees and great people that are working and want to see this club succeed,” Kimball said. “And part of what I’ve been doing is just let them run with their great ideas and let them be accountable. If they want to stick their necks out and make some decisions, what I’m there [for] is to hear why they’re doing it, what their strategy is, what their tactics are. And then I can say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense to me.’”

For instance, Kimball said he’s not involved in conversations that go on between general manager Elliot Fall, assistant GM Tony Beltran and Vice President of Soccer Operations Rob Zarkos. He comes into the picture, though, when he’s presented with their thinking about what direction they want to go with an on-field decision.

Kimball praised the front office for how it has managed the team’s financial situation and conveyed that he trusts Fall, Beltran and Zarkos are making the right decisions.

“I fully trust what they’re doing is going to put the very best team on the field for us,” Kimball said.

One way the league’s input benefited RSL was when the team had to put together its overall budget for this year. After each department carefully laid theirs out and the league looked them over, it was determined that the team could make an adjustment so it could travel to Arizona for preseason, Kimball said.

One of Kimball’s biggest tasks has been to repair the team’s internal culture. In the days before his arrival, several stories surfaced about the toxic nature of RSL and how Hansen and former Chief Business Officer Andy Carroll contributed to and perpetuated it.

The club publishing The RSL Way document earlier this year was a step in that direction. But before that, Kimball met with several employees and listened to their concerns.

“I felt like we needed to make sure that we were hearing the employees,” Kimball said. “I just wanted to hear what was going on. I wanted to hear what we needed to do to heal and to move forward and to really get them through an uncertain time.”

Kimball said he worked with MLS and its Diversity and Inclusion Group for guidance and how to move forward. He has also implemented something akin to a speaker series during weekly all-staff meetings. Former RSL player Robbie Russell and Rancid drummer Branden Steineckert are two examples Kimball mentioned. Russell talked about winning the MLS Cup in 2009, and Steineckert, who wrote the team anthem, shared the story of how he became an RSL fan.

Kimball is one of the founding executives of RSL and worked with the team from 2003-2013 before joining the Larry H. Miller group. When he decided to help RSL through the ownership transition, he took a temporary leave of absence from his role as president of Vivint Arena.

That temporary leave has turned permanent, Kimball said, making RSL his sole focus. When comparing his first stint with the club to his current role, he said the passion of the fans and people within the organization hasn’t changed.

That leads Kimball to believe RSL can recapture the glory it once had.

“I know we have the ability to win an MLS championship again because we have that passion,” Kimball said. “We have players — like the Jazz and other teams here — we play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder because we’ve got something to prove. And we definitely have something to prove.

“I know that we have great employees, we have a great team and we have a community that loves this team and we really want to get back to a place where we’re defining what happens in the MLS because of who we are. So that’s part of the RSL Way. That’s what we’re trying to say is that’s our ultimate goal. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I truly believe we can get there because we’ve done it before.”