Jeremy Johnson and the rest of the faithful Real Salt Lake fans in the supporter group Salt City United had an unmistakable presence at Rio Tinto Stadium.
In the south end of the stadium, where most of RSL’s supporter groups join together to cheer on the team, Salt City United members wore black, sport tattoos. They jeered opponents. They waved black flags, one flashing a skull and crossbones with a soccer ball on the forehead and a phrase that reads “wreck everything” in all capital letters.
But for the entire 2021 season, RSL’s home stadium has been without the all-black attire, the tattoos, the rambunctious cheering. The reason: Members of the supporter group decided en masse to cancel their season tickets after damning allegations were brought last year against the organization’s owner, Dell Loy Hansen.
“We miss the team,” Johnson said. “We stand with the front office. We stand with the players. We miss them. We miss everything about the stadium. It’s just, it’s almost hypocritical to sit there and go to the game and put money in a man’s pocket who we are obviously completely against.”
It’s been a year since Hansen decided to sell the franchise and its facilities after allegations of racism, sexism and contributing to a toxic workplace emerged. During that time, the Utah Royals moved from Salt Lake City to Kansas City, RSL missed the playoffs, MLS took over the sale of the organization, the organization released The RSL Way, new players arrived, on-field results have been lacking, and coach Freddy Juarez quit. All of this amid a COVID-19 pandemic that hasn’t let up.
“This last year has felt like five years to me,” interim president John Kimball said recently.
The last year has affected all parts of the organization and fan base. And with no owner, the future of the team remains in state of flux — with no official end in sight.
The shadow of no ownership
Calls for Hansen to sell the franchise came after he made comments on his own radio show expressing disappointment that RSL players chose not to play against LAFC as a form of protest against the police shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin.
On that same day, Aug. 27, 2020, multiple sports figures decried Hansen’s comments. Days later, a report from The Athletic cited former RSL employees who made allegations of ongoing racist behavior by Hansen. Major League Soccer launched an investigation into the issues at RSL and Hansen soon after announced he would sell the club.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, names that have emerged as having interest in buying the team are Utah Jazz majority owner Ryan Smith, NFL player JJ Watt, Toronto FC player Jozy Altidore, owners of Powdr Corp., and sports executive David Blitzer.
At the midway point of the season, RSL is still above the playoff line at seventh place in the Western Conference.
But fans remain anxious about the fact that no one has yet emerged to buy RSL and steer it in the right direction.
“I feel like this is all some kind of purgatory stage until ownership changes,” said Cody Egan, an RSL fan for more than a decade. “The team floundering, culture eroding, important people leaving, the Royals situation — all this stagnation will continue until good leadership is installed. Better days are likely ahead, but it’s tough to just wait.”
The general feeling was when MLS took over the sale from Hansen in January, the process would be much faster. League Commissioner Don Garber said in April that he was optimistic the sale would get done by the end of 2021.
When asked recently, Kimball agreed with Garber’s timeline for a sale.
Garber and Kimball have both said in the past that the team will not move out of Utah. Garber said it during a news conference in December when he indicated there were “no plans whatsoever” to move RSL out of Salt Lake City. Kimball reiterated that in April, saying all the groups interested in the buying the team have no intentions of moving it. There is no current indication that that sentiment has changed.
Sources with knowledge of the situation who spoke to The Tribune under the condition of anonymity to discuss a private sales process said a “handful” of groups are interested in buying the team and its facilities.
But the pandemic has thrown a wrench into the process. One source said the groups interested in the team have been cautious of travel to Utah to meet and tour facilities. But after relying on video conferencing early in conversations, most of the interested groups have made visits in recent months.
One of the groups, though, has not yet had its full contingent make a visit to Utah due to the pandemic, a source said. The same source added that while MLS took over the process in January, it didn’t start in earnest until March.
Two other MLS franchises have sold in the past year: Orlando City SC and the Houston Dynamo. The sale of both organizations included National Women’s Soccer League-affiliated teams in the Orlando Pride and the Houston Dash.
Included in the sale of the RSL franchise is the Major League Soccer team, the Real Monarchs of the United Soccer League, the stadium, the training complex in Herriman and the RSL Academy High School.
Recently, sports business publication Sportico released a list that valued RSL at $420 million. Houston and Orlando both reportedly sold for around $400 million to 450 million. Those figures give at least some indication of where the final price for RSL could end up.
While it’s been a year since Hansen’s announcement and Garber’s hopeful timeline looms, there isn’t a deadline for getting a deal done. The pandemic has given rise to a situation where RSL will sell, as one source put it, when the “right price, right buyer, right time” presents itself.
Entering the 2021 season, many who pay close attention to MLS predicted that RSL would finish either close to or right at the bottom of the Western Conference. The club returned many of the core players who missed the postseason in 2020, and life would be difficult on the field if money couldn’t be spent for significant upgrades.
But RSL currently sits above the playoff line at seventh place in the Western Conference. The front office added former U.S. National Team players Rubio Rubin and Bobby Wood, wingers Anderson Julio and Jonathan Menéndez, and center back Toni Datković. The offense has looked more dangerous, although the defense has given up leads and conceded second-half goals several times throughout the season.
“For us to be competitive for a playoff spot right now is phenomenal,” Kimball said. “I mean, it’s flat-out phenomenal.”
The front office had to get creative with signings due to not having any discretionary money to acquire players, RSL assistant general manager Tony Beltran told The Tribune. The club was able to get Rubin, Wood and Datković because of their contract situations. With Julio, trading Corey Baird brought the finances and international roster spot to acquire the Ecuadorian.
It should be noted that MLS runs myriad aspects of the club, including the team’s budget, and RSL’s front office is in constant communication and consultation with the league.
But even off the field, RSL has given a concerted effort to change the culture at all levels of the organization. Kimball said one of his main priorities when he stepped in last September was solidifying the club’s partnerships. He views the deals signed with Coca-Cola and the University of Utah Health as major wins in that department.
The club participated in the RISE Program, a national nonprofit that teaches sports communities to eliminate racial discrimination, improve race relations and advocate for social justice.
“I’ve been at RSL for a long time, for almost 14 years, and it was one of the most worthwhile things we’ve ever done,” Beltran said.
The club also recently implemented the RSL Family Initiative, which allows any staffer to shepherd a community initiative important to them and receive help and resources from the organization to bring it to fruition. Beltran, who wrote the initiative, said much of reasoning behind it came from the club’s work with RISE and its desire to positively engage with not just every employee, but the community as well.
Beltran said even changes as simple as tweaking company policies and being conscientious about the outside lives of employees — shifts Kimball has implemented — have gone a long way in the organization’s attempt to treat people better and turn around a “poisoned” culture.
“If you look back over the last year, I honestly think we’ve made more steps forward as an organization than we have in the past five, six years combined,” Beltran said. “It’s incredible what we’ve been able to do in such limited parameters with such limited resources.”
Reasons for hope
The past year at RSL hasn’t only been complicated for fans and the front office. Players have also had to navigate an uncertain organizational future while trying their best to focus on just playing soccer and winning games.
“The right word is probably ‘weird,’” RSL captain Albert Rusnák said of the past year. “I’ve never been part of a club that hasn’t had an owner for this long.”
But Rusnák knows players can’t control who becomes the franchise’s new owner and when. He also understands the pandemic would make it difficult for anyone to make an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars.
So in the meantime, RSL is looking for ways to move forward until a new owner signs on the dotted line. Beltran pointed to the current state of the roster as one way the club is doing just that.
“I really do think our roster is very sustainable and it’s in a very good place,” Beltran said. “It’s such an opportunity for a new owner to come in and make a little bit of top-level — consistent with the rest of MLS — investment in one or two players. And then all of a sudden we’re going to see us possibly be an elite team in this league.”
While fans have been frustrated by the team’s record and the ambiguity of the club’s future, some remain hopeful. RSL supporter Eric Walker called the past 12 months “a mixed bag,” but expressed optimism at what new ownership could bring in regard to investment in the organization.
“As frustrating as it’s been, the anticipation of how good this team could potentially be with the right ownership and the right hire of a new head coach is still very exciting,” Walker said. “Maybe all this limbo will be worth it.”
Kimball envisions a future in which the club sells out Rio Tinto Stadium and puts a perennial playoff team on the field. But moreover, he wants RSL to be “one of the best-run clubs in the country.”
“On my watch, that’s what we’re going to do,” Kimball said. “We’re going to focus on being one of the best-run clubs in the country. And when ownership comes in, they’re going to go, ‘Wow, you guys are real buttoned-up.’”
The day new ownership comes can’t arrive soon enough for Johnson and his band of merry Salt City United compatriots.
“The moment they sell,” Johnson said, “we’re all renewing that day, if not the next day.”