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Why NWSL heading back to Kansas City from Utah is not it

The Athletic reported of a potential move to Kansas City for Utah Royals FC. Some concerns.

Portland Thorns FC v Utah Royals FC Photo by Rob Gray/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Like you, I was surprised of what I was reading: “Potential Utah Royals buyers looking to bring team back to Kansas City, sources say” (The Athletic). Say what?

If you’ve been following the league before Utah had an NWSL team, you probably had mixed feelings to the reports. The NWSL in Kansas City has a complicated history. From a team/club success, FC Kansas City won back-to-back NWSL Championships in 2014 and 2015. Names like Vlatko Andonovski, Becky Sauerbrunn, Lauren Holiday, Nicole Barnhart, Amy Rodriguez, Heather O’Reilly, Jen Buczkowski, Leigh Ann Robinson, Becca Moros, and Amy LePeilbet made the team one of the most successful NWSL teams in its history.

Off-the-field, from an organizational history, FC Kansas City was one of the most mismanaged teams in the league. Its first owners, Chris Likens and his sons Brad and Greg Likens, sent sexually demeaning emails regarding players, which prompted a league investigation and the team to be put up for sale. Its second owner, Elam Baer, based out of Minnesota, kept the team in Kansas City, but his mismanagement and absentee ownership led to Andonovski’s departure, and the team ceased operations in November 2017. Additionally, the team played at Swope Soccer Village (which resembles more of a high school stadium than a professional setting) and was not fully marketed and supported in the city that considers itself to be the “Soccer Capital of America.”

The club folding in 2017 and being relocated to Utah when Dell Loy Hansen assumed ownership of players’ contracts was the best outcome for the team. Less than three years later, though, racist and sexist remarks from Hansen came to light; he agreed to sell Utah Soccer Holdings, LLC, the parent company that owns Real Salt Lake, Real Monarchs and Utah Royals FC.

But as the organization remains to be sold, there is uncertainty on what happens to Utah Royals FC if Hansen does not sell by the deadline of January 8th. Major League Soccer will take over the process for RSL, but it could also put the NWSL and USL in a position to scramble to find new owners. The NWSL certainly does not have the resources MLS has to step in and take control of the team to keep them in Utah. A new ownership will be needed by then.

The Athletic reported yesterday that “according to multiple sources, a bid is in the works to bring the team back to Kansas City, led by Angie and Chris Long. The Long family is based in Kansas City. Chris Long is the chairman, CEO and a portfolio manager of Palmer Square Capital Management; Angie Long is the chief investment officer and a portfolio manager as well.”

Though admirable that there is interest to bring back an NWSL team to Kansas City, I have several concerns, and this is coming from someone who supported FC Kansas City and attended games and covered the team in its last season in 2017. My ties to that club and city are the reason I am the Utah Royals FC editor for RSL Soapbox, after all.

The team cannot return to Swope Soccer Village

It’s great for youth leagues and high school games, but not acceptable for a women’s professional team. Imagine as a player going from Rio Tinto Stadium to a soccer complex with 3,500 bleachers to play your professional games.

Per The Athletic report: “Children’s Mercy Park, Sporting Kansas City’s home, is the most obvious candidate for a NWSL team, but sources said Sporting is not interested in sharing their stadium with another team. One MLS source said no official request had yet been made on any potential stadium rental agreement, however others with knowledge of the NWSL plans indicated the interest from the Long group was communicated to Sporting KC.”

To that I will say, shame on you, SKC. I don’t ever want to see you promote how great Children’s Mercy Park is for U.S. Women National Team games when you cannot even support a women’s professional team playing in your stadium.

Fan support

I cannot, unless there’s extensive marketing, imagine this new KC team having the support from the KC community that the Royals have had in Salt Lake City and the state of Utah. In 2019, URFC averaged 10,774 fans per home game, second in the league. In 2017, FC Kansas City’s average attendance was 1,788.

To be fair for a bit, when FCKC played their home opener against Sky Blue FC at Sporting Park in 2015, 8,489 fans attended the game. So there is potential for great fan support should the KC team use Children’s Mercy Park as a permanent home stadium. The Kansas City market has also had leading viewership for USWNT games and NWSL games recently. Maybe that’ a good sign.

Timing

But it feels too soon. Sure, it’s been three years, and Kansas City does have a rich soccer history with a highly-successful MLS team (Sorry, RLS fans) and its former NWSL championship-winning club. But taking a Utah team back to KC just does not feel right. The team and the fans should not have to suffer for the sins of its owner. I’m hopeful an owner who is willing to keep the team in Utah will come along. They have until January 8th.

But also, it would show again how fragile this league still is. It has made incredible progress with increasing its fanbase, viewership, and sponsors, especially in 2020 in the middle of pandemic. Perhaps one year KC deserves another go at the NWSL, but this isn’t it.