Loss and Hope Combine as Utah Royals Fans Mourn their Team’s Move

Fans React to the Utah Royals’ Move to Kansas City

By Preston Bradsher | December 11, 2020
Source: Instagram

The biggest news in the NWSL for the past few weeks has been the uncertainty surrounding the fate of the Utah Royals after owner Dell Loy Hansen was asked to sell his soccer holdings in Utah following racist and sexist comments that came to light earlier this year. That question was finally answered last Saturday when the club announced that Utah Royals FC would relocate to Kansas City as an expansion team. 

It’s a strangely full-circle moment, since Kansas City used to have an NWSL team itself. FC Kansas City was one of the original eight franchises of the league, winning back-to-back league championships in 2014 and 2015 before the team folded in 2017. That was the beginning of the Utah Royals as we know it, as those players were allocated to the new club after Hansen bought out the rights to the KC team.

Now the move is going in the other direction, with the players, draft picks, and other assets of the Utah Royals heading to Kansas City under a new ownership group led by husband and wife team Angie and Chris Long. Huw Williams, former GM of FC Kansas City has been tapped for head coach, and the new Kansas City team is set to begin play in 2021.

Since Kansas City is technically entering the league as an expansion team, there is hope that the Utah Royals could return. The club has maintained the rights to reestablish Utah Royals FC in 2023 and play at Rio Tinto Stadium should new ownership be found by then. They are wise to leave that option open, as the Royals have amassed one of the biggest fan bases in the NWSL in their short time in Utah, with the second-highest attendance numbers in the league and a deeply committed fan culture.

These are not your average fans. The Royals fans, and their official supporter group called The Court, have a reputation for expecting the best from their beloved club. Early in the Royals’ time in Utah they pressured Hansen to televise all the women’s games just as he did for the men. They’ve encouraged and expected a high level of community involvement, helping to integrate the team into the Salt Lake City community through volunteer work and advocacy. And of course, when Hansen’s toxic comments came to light, they were determined to hold him accountable. 

Talk to any of these fans and it will be perfectly clear that their first priority is the wellbeing of the players. They love the club dearly, but they also want the players to be safe and happy in their playing environment. The fact that the NWSL doesn’t have the money to buy out the Royals until an owner can be found–which is what the MLS is expected to do for Real Salt Lake–is a tough reality the fans have been asked to face in recent weeks. Of course they want the team to stay in Utah, but they also want the players to be paid and treated fairly, and right now this is a sacrifice that must be made. 

Those contradicting feelings–loving the Royals and wanting them to stay in Utah more than anything, but also wanting the best for the players at any cost, all mixed up with frustration that the lack of investment in women’s soccer is what’s led us here in the first place–is the common thread in any conversation with a Royals fan right now. These fans have been pulled in all directions in the past few months and they have stayed loyal through and through. It seems only fair to take a moment to hear how they’re feeling about this moment in their own words. To that end, She Plays spoke with three die-hard Royals fans about their response to this news and their hopes for the future. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

What is your connection to the Utah Royals? Describe how you feel about the Royals, the fan culture in Salt Lake City, or anything else about the club you’d like to express.

Aaron Kirkham:  [I am the] Director of The Court, the official supporter’s group of the URFC.

I am very inspired by the impact that the Royals have had in our community. There has been a great spirit of inclusion across all beliefs, types, and sects. I was always amazed at games how you would see fans sitting next to each other that would never associate outside of the stadium had not the Royals changed our lives. The soccer culture has improved since the Royals came. I know of several soccer businesses with female leadership that have started, more children interested in soccer, and more adult involvement.

Allison Tidwell: I’m just a die-hard fan. I grew up in Utah and I’ve followed RSL since 2010. I live near Zions Bank Stadium so I’ve followed the Monarchs for a couple of years also. I’m new to women’s soccer since the Royals came to Utah in 2018. I know I’m late to the party. I mean, you had to be living under a rock if you missed hearing about the 99ers, but I never really followed women’s soccer until now.

Maria Lindsay: I am one those crazy-ass, loud, cowbell fans in the stands always making noise, never missing a game, stays after matches for the team Viking clap, and I am super, super proud of our Royals! I have stickers on my car, a hat in the dash, and a few scarves draped on the seats. I’d have put a wrap on my car if they let me! When we first got the NWSL team, I could hardly believe it! I was going to have those USWNT players in my backyard playing!!!! Those Olympic players!!!! My excitement was so beyond that by the time the inaugural game day came, I felt like a nervous mother. I was very, very proud, even tearful at times, and had to pinch myself that it was really happening! 

That first match had almost 20k in attendance. We have a ginormous soccer culture here, a lot it is because of RSL and people like Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman who do so much in the community. Our Royals got involved in many ways with our community also—visiting schools, holding soccer clinics, getting involved with a domestic violence advocacy group (just to name a few). 

Can you describe how you’re feeling in this moment in light of the Royals’ transition to Kansas City? How has the turmoil of the club in recent weeks affected you as a fan?

Aaron Kirkham: UGH! How do you one describe your passion, hope, and inspiration being taken away? It is pretty rough. We are glad for the players that they will still have opportunities to grow and play. It is hard to think that the former ownership, who did so much to build the female game in Utah, focused so heavily on the financials and would allow us to lose our club.

Maria Lindsay: My feelings run the gambit. I’m very sad, extremely pissed, so disappointed, heartbroken. I feel lost and cheated, like I’ve lost a best friend. It’s as if I’m in mourning. I planned my life around The Royals schedule. 

Allison Tidwell: Since Saturday I’ve hit about every emotion you can imagine. For the first 48 hours I was just in tears. I had to call out dead to work on Sunday. I just lost my favorite thing in the entire world. Okay, nobody died, calm down, but an entire team, staff, and coaches that I’ve grown to love over the last three years is just leaving me. 

I don’t know Dell Loy Hansen personally. I think a lot of people will call him a sexist, racist asshole. I don’t know if that is true but even the hint of these allegations is unacceptable. I think he is an old guy who doesn’t understand that we are in the middle of social justice change that is long overdue. He is not on board with this and he does not belong in a leadership position. Yes, this change absolutely needed to happen. I am just really devastated my favorite team is leaving in the process. 

What are your hopes for the future of the Utah Royals? 

Maria Lindsay: To have them back in two years! We’re already talking and planning what we need to do. We aren’t the kind of fans that are just going to shut up and go away! We are passionate, determined, loud, and full of piss & vinegar.

Allison Tidwell: We had the second highest attendance in the league. The fandom is here. We exist. We did it once, we can do it again. Next time, it will be with a person more in line with the values of the NWSL/MLS/USL at the helm.

Aaron Kirkham: The Royals will return! We have already started the process of pivoting our focus to organizing as a fan base to communicate to the community, potential owners and investors, and future players that the NWSL will return to Utah. We are joining with local grassroots teams in the UWS, WPSL, and universities to support them. We are still accepting membership into the Court. Our conviction has only strengthened. 

How do you plan to be involved this season with the Royals not playing in Utah?

Maria Lindsay: Well, I’d love to say that I’ll be watching every match on TV, but 1.) Who knows if the matches will be televised, and 2.) Will we get that channel in Salt Lake City? 

Aaron Kirkham: I will still be cheering on the players, regardless of the team…expect Portland, JK. I plan on going to the KC home opener with some other Court members. We will also be hosting/attending watch parties, attending local UWS, WPSL, and NCAA soccer games.

Allison Tidwell: For a second this weekend I was ready to swear off all sports. That saying that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all is just bullshit. This just hurts too much.

 But then I realized that my team is not folding. The players that I love so much will continue to amaze us on the field, just in a different jersey. So fine, I’m a Kansas City fan now. I mean, you’ll never see me cheering for Sporting Kansas City. I’m still heartbroken over the 2013 MLS Cup loss, but I can handle the Kansas City team. Do they even have a name?! Who cares! I’m cheering for Amy, Gunny, LaBonta, King, Abby, Corsie, Gaby, The Destroyer, Maemone, you get the idea. They gave so much to my community and I will support them forever. 

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