The fall was as swift as it was inevitable. From the moment Dell Loy Hansen took to the airwaves (his own) last Thursday morning, his days as an MLS, USL and NWSL owner were numbered. When he blasted Real Salt Lake players for peacefully protesting, threatened other Utah Soccer Holdings employees and questioned his own commitment to continue funding the MLS side, his mandate and legitimacy as a steward of three U.S. soccer teams was damaged at its foundation.
Hours later, it was annihilated. His initial comments were so damning and self-destructive, they emboldened others with more ruinous information to come forward. Hansen already had a reputation for being a bully and a loose cannon. But the racist comments, epithets and behavior described by former players and employees in subsequent articles published by The Athletic and Salt Lake City’s KSTU Fox 13 lifted him into the owners’ hall of infamy alongside the likes of Donald Sterling and Marge Schott.
By Thursday evening, MLS was expressing its “deep concern,” promising “zero tolerance” and an immediate investigation. Fewer than 48 hours later, word came down that Hansen was putting all three teams, plus Rio Tinto Stadium and the organization’s training facility, up for sale.
“After deep consideration and soul searching, my wife Julie and I agree that the best way forward for the Real Salt Lake family is to assume new ownership and a refreshed vision,” Hansen said.
There was plenty more to Hansen’s statement, but let’s focus on the adjectives describing his ideal successor: “new” and “refreshed.” He’s been wrong about a ton, but he’s on to something there. New and refreshed, instead of outdated and dusty. New and refreshed, rather than archaic and regressive. Perhaps no qualities are more important in a hands-on U.S. soccer owner than these. And it appears that there’s no league in which those attributes matter more than MLS.
All major men’s leagues are confronting these perplexing, often polarizing times (the NWSL and WNBA are well ahead on multiple fronts). There’s inevitably some strain as they try to satisfy competing traditions and constituencies, from billionaire owners to players and paying customers who reflect a fractured electorate. In the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, the relationships between those elements are really complex, whether it’s because of lingering sporting stereotypes, the league’s broader appeal, a lack of minority representation among one or more of those cohorts, financial pressure or some other reason. In MLS, which is in its 25th season and therefore much younger than the others, the fault lines aren’t so wide. Compared with the rest, not to mention major college sports, MLS is a progressive league.
The reasons are part of U.S. soccer’s DNA. Soccer is the global game, and so following it, playing it, or even running a club necessitates a global perspective. With that, an appreciation for (or at least an acceptance of) diversity should follow. In a country that’s increasingly composed of so many people with foreign roots, soccer represents both a connection to a prior home and a path toward a common bond with new neighbors. And because it lagged behind the other four major men’s team sports for so long, U.S. soccer assumed a counterculture veneer. It was underground, contrarian and tribal—perhaps even hipster. People drawn to that sort of pastime might be more likely to be open-minded, or less outdated and dusty.
The evidence is everywhere. It’s not a coincidence that MLS was the first of the five men's leagues to have an active, openly gay athlete—Robbie Rogers in 2013—or that it’s featured more than the other four circuits combined (two players to one in the NBA). It’s a league that employs players from around the world, who speak different languages and hail from different ethnic backgrounds. Last season’s MLS Cup final included men from 18 countries. And those men are eager to speak up. This season, in response to the nationwide protests and conversation concerning systemic racism, select MLS players formed Black Players for Change, an association with which league owners already have promised to meet. Last year, former U.S. national team midfielder and Philadelphia Union captain Alejandro Bedoya yelled, “Hey, Congress, do something now! End gun violence,” into a field-side microphone in Washington, D.C. He not only wasn’t sanctioned, he was named the league’s player of the week.
And if you think the employees are unlikely to stay silent, wait until you get a load of the fans. Rainbow flags fly in the supporters' sections even when it’s not Pride night, as do banners welcoming and celebrating foreign players and immigrants. It says something that progressive, inclusive or antifascist symbols and slogans are common sights at MLS stadiums. It says something more that several clubs have joined in (the captains of the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers traded pennants reading “Anti-fascist” and “Anti-racist” before a match last season), and it’s downright astonishing that after prohibiting the “Iron Front” icon as part of its ban on political statements in the stands, the league backed down last fall and agreed to permit the symbol.
There certainly are exceptions to this, both on the field and off it (ask Reggie Cannon). There’s diversity among MLS players and fans as well. But generally, when compared with the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, there’s a lot that goes on in MLS—because it’s soccer, because its fans are younger and because its player pool is so diverse and well-traveled—that’s tough to imagine happening in more established men’s leagues. On average, MLS is a bit more radical and a bit more tolerant. Most clubs understand this, whether it was D.C. United working with the Barra Brava in the late 1990s to aid in the cash resale of match-day tickets, or Orlando City installing a rainbow-colored section of 49 seats to honor the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. The conversation and constituencies in MLS are just a bit different.
Hansen’s problem, among others, was that he didn’t understand that. He never grasped what it means to relate to these employees or customers. The old ways of looking at the world, and the old ways of expressing yourself, don’t necessarily connect to the newer America that plays in and watches MLS. Owning an MLS club, and agreeing to be part of that new America or to at least trying do business with that new America, means you should respect it.
There are two ways of doing that.
It remains a significant irony that Rogers, the first active gay athlete in major U.S. men’s team sports, played for a club owned by someone who’s well-known for donating money to charities and organizations with anti-LGBTQ sentiments. Phil Anschutz’s political and religious beliefs veer hard to the right and probably wouldn’t be too welcome inside a lot of MLS locker rooms or supporters’ groups. Yet Rogers felt comfortable enough at the LA Galaxy to come out and continue to play. It’s a sign that the Galaxy, although owned by Anschutz, were free to operate independent of his personal views and in a manner aligned more closely with much of American soccer’s.
In a boardroom full of billionaires, there are going to be staunch conservatives. And it’s not difficult to find MLS owners who’ve given money to conservative politicians. But by and large, those owners seem to be willing to permit their teams, and the league at large, to take their cues from their constituencies rather than ownership. If you’re not going to pick up a flag and lead from the front (that’s one way), it’s best to stand to the side and do what’s best for your business (that’s the other way). Hansen had no respect for Black people or for the rights and humanity of his employees. He just couldn’t manage it.
Now Real Salt Lake, the NWSL’s Utah Royals, the USL’s Real Monarchs and all the associated infrastructure and real estate are up for sale. Whoever’s interested in buying them surely will do their due diligence on the three teams and all that comes with them. But they should know that’s not all they’re purchasing. Hansen’s downfall makes clear that buying into MLS—into U.S. soccer—means embracing or at least quietly tolerating the progressive culture that comes with it.