Inside the Royal wedding: How Utah's NWSL team came together in 15 days
On Nov. 16, 2017, two frantic weeks of preparation and negotiating brought a new ownership group into the National Women’s Soccer League. Roughly 24 hours after officially signing its franchise’s paperwork in New York, the management for Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake announced its intention to join the country’s top women’s league, effectively taking over the spot vacated by a disbanding FC Kansas City.
At that announcement, owner Dell Loy Hansen seemed to visibly exhale, relaxing after a 15-day press that started with a phone call from a fellow MLS owner and ended with about 500 people in attendance to celebrate the birth of a new club.
In the words of three of Salt Lake’s highest ranking executives – Hansen, chief business officer Andy Carroll, and vice president of soccer administration Rob Zarkos – here is how a Nov. 1 phone call became the impetus for the Utah Royals.
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
With the NWSL facing troubling situations with its Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City franchises, Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson places a call to Hansen, whose team had previously espoused interest in starting a women’s club.
We feel like we have similar markets. In a lot of regards, they’re similar, right? An MLS team and an NBA team, and a lot soccer aficionados, an affinity for soccer.
HANSEN: Merritt called, told me about it. I made contact with the league, lightly. I think it was [NWSL managing director of operations] Amanda Duffy and [U.S. Soccer secretary general/CEO] Dan Flynn. They kind of pitched how they would love to work with us on a couple of teams that needed new energization, I call it. Recapitalization may be another word.
We looked at both of those, Kansas City and Boston and studied their rosters, then I called Merritt and suggested we come up and just take our management team up and meet with him.
That meeting was still more than a week away. In the interim, Hansen got Real Salt Lake’s main principles involved, telling Carroll, Zarkos, and RSL general manager Craig Waibel that their NWSL timeline was being accelerated.
CARROLL: I think anytime Dell Loy broaches a subject, you have to think that is a possibility. I talked to him on Wednesday, after he talked to Merritt, and that’s when I knew it was coming.
ZARKOS: [Craig Waibel and I] interview all of our Targeted Allocation Money and Designated Players [for Real Salt Lake] before making an offer, so we were in Europe, doing that … We were in Denmark and in England.
Craig was on the plane, and he was like, ‘Hey, by the way, looks like we’re getting a women’s team.’ We just laughed and said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is so much work.’ But the more we thought about it, it was awesome. It’s a great opportunity.
HANSEN: Andy swallowed hard at first, then he said, you know, this is something good, for us. Let’s do it.
CARROLL: Things heated up really, really quickly, which I wasn’t surprised about.
We’d talked about it before. We knew this was a great community for it. We knew that Portland had done an exceptional job at it. And we had a lot of respect for Merritt and [Portland president of business] Mike Golub. They do an amazing job.
We feel like we have similar markets. In a lot of regards, they’re similar, right? An MLS team and an NBA team, and a lot soccer aficionados, an affinity for soccer. We’ve got lots of Division I [college] teams, lots of high school teams that are very good. You know that Utah is a hotbed for women’s soccer, so we always knew it was on the radar.
Thursday, November 2, 2017 and Friday, November 3, 2017
With Waibel and Zarkos not due back from Europe for a week, much of the early-stage planning fell to Carroll, who was already meeting with Real Salt Lake’s partners to plan the 2018 season. It was during one of those meetings, early on in the Royals’ formation process, that a need to move quickly emerged.
I want somebody to bet against me, that I won’t have 20,000 people sitting in the stands in yellow shirts on April 14, our first game. I want somebody to put money on it so I can make a good chunk of money on this bet.
CARROLL: I had one discussion with one partner at one point during that timeframe. This is initially what stimulated my thought process … I said, ‘oh, by the way, this is highly confidential, but this is a conversation we might be having as well, and what do you think about this?’
They were super-excited about. I was having a conversation [about another initiative], and they’re more interest in [the women’s team] than what I’m talking about, which is a little bit of a surprise to me.
It comes down to budgeting. If you talk to people after their budgets get set … the world we live in is set on budgets in a big way. If in the end, when you get there, you’re a day late, you’re a dollar short. We couldn’t launch the team successfully that way.
Beyond the business meetings, Carroll continued pushing forward with Portland, as well as U.S. Soccer.
CARROLL: Thursday, Mike [Golub] and I caught up on a call. He sent some information, and we talked about it.
Friday, Dell Loy and I were on a call with Dan Flynn from U.S. Soccer. A lot of things that occurred in between that point, but we moved very, very quickly. We knew that we had a sense of urgency. We knew that U.S. Soccer had a sense of urgency.
At that point, I knew that we were going to do it. Unless there was something super negative that we find out, this is something we need to do.
ZARKOS: We kind of had a dry run with the [USL’s Real] Monarchs on it. We’ve launched a team before, and it was in four months, just like this one. To be fair, it was a second team, but we kind of had institutional knowledge, which is great.
Saturday, November 4, 2017 through Tuesday, November 7, 2017
With Waibel and Zarkos still in Europe, the process was largely in a holding pattern. Hansen and Carroll had gotten the information they needed, preliminarily, from Paulson, Duffy and Flynn, and they’d braced the Real Salt Lake organization for the next steps. But until that organization was all back on the ground in Utah, those next steps had to wait.
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Come Wednesday, though, it was time to take those next steps. Hansen had cleared everybody’s schedules and booked a plane for Portland.
HANSEN: Craig Waibel had left and thought [an NWSL team] was two years away … He goes, ‘I thought I had a little time on this.’ I go, ‘Nope. No time. We gotta move.’ We always tell people Rome wasn’t built in a day, but nobody hired us to be the contractors. So don’t blame us.
ZARKOS: Dell Loy was interested and said, ‘Hey, let’s fly out and pick their brain. We’ll see where they’re at. We can put together preliminary budget, have them beat it up, and then talk to them about best practices and issues that came up that if they were doing it again, that they’d change.’ ”
The need to act with urgency, however, was never far from Carroll’s mind, knowing the team needed to formally announce its intentions if it was to get a piece of their partners’ sponsorship budgets.
CARROLL: One of the things that everybody got tired of me talking about with U.S. Soccer is that we have a very short runway. We wanted to put ourselves in the best position to be successful and have a plan for success with a short runway.