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What if Michael Eisner invested in Real Salt Lake instead of Dell Loy Hansen?

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Let’s go back to 2009. If Dell Loy Hansen had missed one political fundraiser, would RSL be in different hands?

Portsmouth v Northampton Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

The story often goes that Dave Checketts is the man that brought Major League Soccer to Utah, and Dell Loy Hansen is the man that kept it there.

Now, there’s a whole lot of nuance there we should talk about. But maybe we should start at the beginning.

In 2001 or 2002, Dave Checketts founded SCP Worldwide. It was through that company that he became an investor in Major League Soccer, and it was through that investment that he was given the license to operate a team in Utah, birthing what would eventually become Real Salt Lake.

Things continued apace — I mean, there’s a whole lot of story there, but it’s not the story we’re telling today — until 2009, when Checketts, then-chairman of SCP Worldwide, agreed to sell 49 percent of ownership of the company to Hansen.

There was speculation at the time that the sale was because Checketts was interested in purchasing the St. Louis Rams.

From a 2010 article by James Edward on the RSL beat at the Deseret News:

(SCP Worldwide spokesperson) Gelfand said Checketts’ interest in selling a portion of Real Salt Lake has nothing to do with increasing his cash flow in an effort to purchase the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.

That, of course, never happened. Those same Rams now reside in Los Angeles, according to my very brief research on Wikipedia.

In fact, it seems local ownership was something of a plan for Checketts.

Selling a minority interest to a local owner is something with which Checketts has experience. When he bought the NHL’s St. Louis Blues in 2006, Checketts immediately sought out a local owner. He eventually sold a minority stake to Tom Stillman, and Checketts believes that helped strengthen the local ties for the Blues franchise. And he’s hoping for similar results in Utah.

“We thought we’d try to work off of that template here,” Gelfand said. “If (the deal) happens, it will work out pretty much the same way.”

Although this is where things go a bit topsy-turvy, because here’s something Checketts said about seeking a co-owner of the franchise, again from the Deseret News in 2009. This time, it’s from Michael Black.

It all began when Hansen was invited to a political fundraiser for Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan at the U.S. World Cup Qualifying game against El Salvador in September at Rio Tinto Stadium. Checketts was looking for a new partner and was discussing the issue with another guest, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

“I was talking to Eisner to see if he was interested in spending a lot more time here (Utah), and Dell Loy said, ‘Well, what about me?’ And I said, ‘You want to talk about it? We’ll talk about it,’ “ said Checketts. “It actually turned out better because he is a local guy. He’s the perfect partner. … It is not easy to find somebody to be a partner in this state that understands it, so I think he will be a great partner.”

As fate would have it, Hansen ended up involved and not Eisner. Eisner, nearly a decade on from that meeting, would go on to purchase Portsmouth F.C., who had been in dire financial straits.

So that brings us back around to the question you saw in the headline: What if Michael Eisner had invested in Real Salt Lake instead of Dell Loy Hansen on that fateful day? What if Hansen had stayed home instead of going to that fundraiser? Is that the event that kicked off this reality we now exist in?

We know that Dave Checketts was looking for someone to buy a portion of Real Salt Lake.

We also know that apparently Eisner was at a political fundraiser for then-Sandy mayor Tom Dolan. It’s quite weird, reality. Google hasn’t been able to tell me how those two know each other, and while I concede that it’s not particularly important, please, tell me if you know.

Here’s a Salt Lake Tribune report by Michael C. Lewis from the time, which outlines my final fact for consideration:

“You really can’t treat me like chopped liver,” Hansen recalled thinking. “I’m sitting right by this conversation! So they lean over and say, ‘Maybe you’d like a piece.’ I says, ‘Yeah, I think I would.’ And over the next eight weeks, I was just a little quicker to the punch than Michael Eisner.”

So if we’re to evaluate the question, we’ll need to look at what Eisner has been up to since 2009. And, you know what, before. Let’s talk about before, because we’ve gotta if we’re imagining a new universe.

Before 2009

Eisner rose to prominence through his time as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, but he was a senior vice president at ABC before he started lobbying for that position. He served over the acquisitions of ABC and ESPN by Disney, which certainly helped cement them as one of the global superpowers of the entertainment industry.

It was not all smooth, of course. He was the subject of a “Save Disney” campaign by Roy E. Disney which led to his eventual ouster in 2005, and he was accused of running a “soul-less” company.

Undoubtedly he helped make Disney a powerful force, but one wonders at what cost that came, and with this question, one further wonders whether RSL would be well-off under his leadership.

2009–forward

It took quite a while, but Eisner’s interest in soccer continued: Through Tornante Company, which he led, he bought Portsmouth F.C. in 2017. Everything points to him being a good steadying force for the organization.

2018, New York Times:

Instead, he started with a 25-minute presentation — “The sort I have done all my life,” Eisner said. He laid out his vision for what Portsmouth F.C. would be under the aegis of the Tornante Company, his investment firm. “We did not promise to spend hundreds of millions of pounds, to build up debt,” Eisner said. “I said, ‘If that’s what you want, I’m not the guy.’” Instead, he preached caution, continuity: “Slow and steady.”

(That article also indicates he was considered deals for both Real Salt Lake and Houston Dynamo. Fascinating.)

Interestingly, Portsmouth apparently cost him just $7.1 million — and while I’m not sure it’s public knowledge what Hansen paid for 49 percent of Real Salt Lake, I would imagine it was a bit more than that.

He’s now planning to get Portsmouth back into the Premier League inside this decade, which would be some feat without splashing some cash. But he’s also had some interesting things to say about sports on broadcast TV — and, for me, it’s a sign that he sort of gets it.

So, what if?

I don’t know. Let’s make some weird and wild predictions:

  • Real Salt Lake would be a billionaire’s plaything (uh)
  • The organization would not be focused so closely on real estate. While a residential academy was in some ways likely, it may not have been Eisner’s focus. Additionally, the development of land around Sandy would have gone quite differently.
  • Live streaming quality would almost certainly be better, and might have been a focus much earlier.
  • A greater presence nationally for Major League Soccer, with an executive in its ranks who had gobs of experience in the entertainment industry.
  • Aurelien Collin would have been sent off in 2013. (Why? Because he deserved to be sent off. That’s why.)

But I also think we’d see some other quite different paths for Real Salt Lake beyond Eisner specifically:

  • Dave Checketts may still be involved in Real Salt Lake in some capacity, as there would be no blind bid for complete ownership of the club heading into 2013
  • Jason Kreis may not have left for New York City FC at the end of 2013
  • Garth Lagerwey may not have left for Seattle Sounders at the end of 2014

Would those three things have spelled success for Real Salt Lake in the long run? I don’t know. We have no way of knowing. We can see that Lagerwey has had real, prolonged success in Seattle; Kreis, on the other hand, has struggled.

It’s hard to imagine all the different paths this club could have gone under Eisner. One thing is certain, though: Things would be very, very different.