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How Real Salt Lake went from Dave Checketts to Dell Loy Hansen

The transition of power between Checketts and Hansen is a tale of ownership and style.

Chivas USA v Real Salt Lake Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

In July 2004, SCP Worldwide, with chairman Dave Checketts, bought a Major League Soccer franchise and established a team in Utah.

Real Salt Lake, which began play in April 2005, was in the league's smallest market some distance behind Columbus, but Checketts stated that he wanted to build the in place where he grew up.

While Real Salt Lake originally played matches in Rice-Eccles Stadium, efforts began almost immediately to build a soccer specific stadium for the team. On Aug. 15, 2006, the Salt Lake County Council approved a letter of intent to spend $40 million of hotel taxes to help build a soccer-specific stadium for the team in Sandy, Utah. As part of the agreement, Sandy City agreed to contribute $15 million of redevelopment funds and RSL agreed to provide $27.5 million in cash and in-kind contributions, along with a $7.5 million donation toward a youth soccer complex in northwest Salt Lake City.

However, funding for the stadium was still hard to come by. Another vote in early 2006 struck down a funding proposal for the stadium. Although Dave Checketts was threatening to move the team, Tom Dolan, the mayor of Sandy, stepped in and said that he would not give up on his fight to approve the proposal in Sandy. The funding plan was revised, but was once again struck down later in 2006 over continued disagreements in the appropriation of hotel tax dollars for a financially unproven sports franchise. The proposal for Sandy was declared "dead" by Checketts at that point, putting the team's future in doubt. Dave Checketts finally set a date to move the team if a proposal was not put forward by August 12, 2006.

Although groups from Rochester, New York, and St. Louis, Missouri, expressed interest in purchasing the franchise and moving it, a tacit agreement between Checketts, Sandy City, and Salt Lake County was finally put in place on the day before the Aug. 12 deadline.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Aug. 12, 2006, in connection with a XanGo Cup match between Real Salt Lake and Real Madrid later that same night. On August 15, the deal was officially approved by the Salt Lake County Council.

The stadium plan encountered further difficulties on January 26, 2007, when the Debt Review Committee of Salt Lake County voted against the stadium proposal 4–0 citing what they saw as Real Salt Lake's financial inviability as the reasoning behind the lack of support. The county mayor concurred with the committee, and the stadium plan was effectively killed once again on Jan. 29, 2007. In response, Checketts once again announced the team would be sold and likely move out of the Salt Lake area after the 2007 season.

In addition, RSL approached Utah state government to divert 15% of the hotel-taxes collected in Salt Lake County for the ten years between July 2007 and July 2017. This was expected to be about $2 million a year. After some discussion, and public support from the governor, funding was passed by both the Utah House and Utah Senate.

Construction began on the $110 million stadium in the spring of 2007 and continued through almost the entire 2008 MLS season. Just as it began to approach completion, Lehman Brothers, a major financial backer declared bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008, in the largest case of its kind at the time.

On Sept. 28, 2008, it was announced that Rio Tinto had purchased the naming rights to the stadium in a 15-year deal worth between $1.5 and $2 million a year. Finally, in the 29th week of the season on Oct. 9, 2008, Rio Tinto Stadium opened with a match between Real Salt Lake and New York Red Bulls.

Dell Loy Hansen speaks to reporters at a Real Salt Lake press conference.
Matt Montgomery, RSL Soapbox

Dell Loy Hansen buys into Real Salt Lake ownership

Dell Loy Hansen attended his second ever soccer match on Sept. 5, 2009, for an international match between the United States and El Salvador. He attended as part of an effort to help raise campaign funds for Sandy mayor Tom Dolan, but by his own admission, he was quickly swept up by the experience of the fans and atmosphere, the star-studded national guest list, and the chicken cacciatore in the owner's box.

While in the owner's box, he listened as Dave Checketts pitched former Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner on a chance to invest in RSL. Intrigued Hansen expressed his own interest, although, later as he pored over the team's finances, he hesitated. In their efforts to create a team from scratch and build a new soccer stadium, Checketts and RSL were "hopelessly behind on their bills," Hansen said in a 2013 Salt Lake Tribune article. "And they put a mortgage on [Rio Tinto Stadium] that was a death mortgage. It could never be met. They had defaulted nine times in 14 months."

Checketts had apparently reached a financial limit. Between RSL's inception and his first meeting with Hansen, Checketts and his partners had spent $72 million on Real Salt Lake. But he remained committed to excellence. Checketts was later quoted as saying:

We took all of the risk. We did everything in our power to build a great stadium and ... a great franchise that the people of Utah could be proud of for many years. I will never get that money back, but I'm not sorry about anything I did. We did all of that in the middle of the most difficult economic period of our lives at least.

Salt Lake Tribune, March 18, 2013

Only after Checketts managed to reduce the stadium's mortgage in October 2009 did Hansen reconsider and invest enough to obtain a 49 percent interest. Even then, he said, another thought motivated him: "Utah will never see a major league team here in this century if we lose this." His first game as part of the ownership group was the home finale against the Colorado Rapids on October 24, 2009, where RSL won the Rocky Mountain Cup and qualified for the MLS playoffs with a losing record. Hansen went down to the field and had his first on-field celebration.

By the time of the his second game as an owner against Columbus in the first stage of the playoffs, Hansen had "learned" by observation that to be a true MLS owner he needed to own a black trench coat, as all the owners he saw wore black trench coats. In his third game, against Chicago, whose owner wore a black trench coat, RSL won the Eastern Conference championship trophy and he again went out on the field to celebrate with the team. For the MLS Cup game against the LA Galaxy he wore his new black trench coat, but when he went out on the field with his family following the shoot out victory he wound up being censured by MLS.

"We won the Cup in 2009," Checketts later said.

We had the best club in the entire league. We had a huge number of sellouts. Even as the team struggled to meet its obligations — and once I got to the $72 million I really didn't have any more to put in — we never let any of these struggles impact the team. We had the best players, the best coaches and the finest stadium. You can fault me for a lot of things, but we didn't let it impact a great franchise.

Beginning with the 2010 season, RSL went on a string of 27-straight home victories at Rio Tinto while Hansen, who knew very little about soccer, focused on sponsorships and ticket sales. "I went out, being a Utah businessman, and networked," he said. "If I've done business with you, I'm inviting you to be a part of it." RSL brought in $2.8 million in sponsorships in 2009. By the 2013 season, the club brought in $8.5 million, and went above the $10 million mark with a new jersey-front sponsorship deal in 2014.

"You have to acknowledge first and foremost how much Dave Checketts did for this club," center back Nat Borchers said in the Tribune article. "He built it from the ground up. This club was his idea. He put in a lot of time, effort and money into creating this whole idea of Real Salt Lake. We're all indebted for life to Dave Checketts for doing that."

But by the fall 2012, Hansen had increased his ownership to 62 percent of RSL. Their original partnership agreement had been set up so that Hansen could acquire more equity if Checketts could not meet the capital calls, but Checketts would continue to act as the managing partner. "Literally for the those three years, whenever ... we'd do the capital call and he'd try but couldn't get them to fund it," Hansen said.

"I would call the shots," Checketts said. "The coaches, players, front office would continue to report to me. As long as that was the case, I frankly didn't care if I owned 10 or 90 percent. I wanted to build a great franchise."

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Dell Loy Hansen Acquires Full Ownership

During those three years Hansen continued to work behind the scenes while Checketts remained the public face of the team. Checketts knew his players' names, and the names of their wives or girlfriends. He commanded a room. Borchers recalled his pregame speech before a playoff game against Seattle. "He referenced Winston Churchill and never giving up," Nat Borchers said in 2013. "When Dave gets in front of a group of people and speaks, you're moved."

The agreement also included a mechanism that would allow either party to buy out the other after three years. In late 2012, Hansen finally said he wanted full control or none at all. Hansen believes Checketts took a proposal to the league to buy Hansen out that ultimately was rejected, but Checketts disputed Hansen's version of events.

Checketts’ version of the events had MLS commissioner Don Garber presiding over a sealed auction in December of 2012, where Checketts submitted the winning bid. On Dec. 11 he states that he deposited the $33 million needed to buy his partner out. At that point, he had until Jan. 15 to close on the deal. Then indecision set in. "I had a lot of sleepless nights in early 2013 thinking about what I wanted," Checketts said. "Do I want to continue? Can I continue? Finally I woke up and told my wife we were going to sell."

On Jan. 24, 2013, it was publicly announced that Dell Loy Hansen acquired complete ownership of RSL and the club’s Utah sports properties, including Rio Tinto Stadium.

“The last eight years have been a labor of love,” Checketts, who brought a 12th MLS team to Utah in 2004, said in the statement issued by Real Salt Lake.

When we started I made a promise to build something of meaning; something that people in my home state of Utah could be proud of. Real Salt Lake has become much more than a soccer team, and Rio Tinto Stadium much more than a venue. Each has become integrally woven into the fabric of this community and become beloved assets to the people here. It is a legacy that I will forever take pride in, and I am happy to leave it in local hands. I know that Dell Loy will be a tremendous caretaker for the Team, the Stadium and all that both represent.

Hansen was also quoted in the statement.

Just over three years ago, I was very proud to join Dave Checketts in the world of Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer. Today, the chance to further deepen my participation in the growth of professional soccer in North America is incredibly exciting. My enthusiasm for this sport started long ago with my family, and now I am proud that our investment now includes the entire Real Salt Lake family – starting with our incredible fan base – as we work together representing the great State of Utah.

Since that time, Dell Loy Hansen has remained true to course, successfully focusing on improving the business aspects of the team while at times displaying a lack of public persona in the media and with players and staff. He has continued to tinker with administrative staff, coaches and players, and he received a reported $150,000 fine from the league for statements about free agency during contractual bargaining agreement negotiations between MLS and the MLS Players Union. However, it remains to be seen if 2017 leads to a more public favor with greater success on the pitch and in the clubhouse.