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Tiffany Rodrock isn’t afraid to admit it. She has ugly cried in front of Laura Harvey. The Utah Royals manager from 2018- 2019 was at the Real Salt Lake home opener just before the Royals kicked off their debut season, and Rodrock approached her. She was a coach too, she wanted her to know. She had been coaching her daughters since pre-school and she was just so thankful, so thankful, that they were here. That these women could display their grace and power in front of her own daughter, and that they could be the role models that young girls need in order to dream big. That she, as a coach, had someone that she could connect to, which felt like a small miracle. All of this came out in a hurried, excited stream of words and tears. Harvey, according to Rodrock was at the same time unnerved, but excited for Rodrock’s enthusiasm.
This type of interaction was not uncommon between Royals players and fans. In the Royals’ two full seasons in Utah, the club forged meaningful connections with the local community and its supporters. But as of earlier this week, those connections are just a little weaker. On Monday morning, the club confirmed what had already spread across Twitter over the weekend. The Utah Royals were gone. The clubs’ rights had been sold to an ownership group in Kansas City after a tumultuous year that saw Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen put the team up for sale.
The loss was sudden and immense for supporters. But through it all, many Royals fans are finding renewed purpose, stronger bonds and more motivation to support the players and the sport they love.
The Royals’ debut season came in 2018, after the NWSL folded it’s Kansas City franchise, FC Kansas City, and transferred all contracts and rights over to the newly-formed Utah club, which was owned by Hansen’s Utah Soccer LLC, which also owned MLS side Real Salt Lake and USL side Real Monarchs.
With stars like Becky Sauerbrunn, Amy Rodriguez and Kelley O’Hara, the team was an immediate success within the community, attracting fans in droves. They finished second in attendance in both 2018 and 2019, behind only the Portland Thorns.
“I’m proud of those numbers,” said Aaron Kirkham, director of The Court, a Utah Royals supporters group. “I mean, we showed up. I think that was something that was very cool just overall, that there was just people that were invested.”
With those numbers came profound bonds between players and fans.
“Attendance is just numbers until you’re there,” said Spencer Smith, a member of The Court. “Then when you can feel it, that's what makes the team different. Whenever you went, you could feel it and you could see it.”
After every match, players would greet fans, taking the time to sign every autograph , take every picture, talk with every fan possible.
“When I went to my first women’s game, the players all stayed out there for probably an hour after the game, talking to fans,” Smith said. “It wasn’t like they came over, signed something and left. They talked to you about the game, they were making jokes with you, they were taking pictures and discussing stuff. I remember looking at a security guard and asking, ‘Do we have to leave?’ and he said, ‘No, we stay open as long as they stay out.’ It was just so cool to see that, because they players were invested in the fans and the fans were invested int he players. I haven’t found that in any other sports team I’ve seen, especially men’s teams.”
For Rodrock, who is also a member of The Court, the opportunity for her daughter to see these elite women up close was a dream come true.
“Not having it growing up, and now seeing that my daughter could watch it, it’s amazing. You hear all the time that representation matters, and I was so excited for her.”
But the Royals’ reached extended beyond that.
Allison Tidwell, another member of The Court, is a member of the LGBTQ community, and has found a deep connection with many Royal players.
“You talk about these players being ambassadors for young kids, I also see them as ambassadors for the queer community. I mean, Gunny [Jónsdóttir.] is an ambassador for Athlete Ally. That’s something I really look up to. I’m not a little girl, I’m old enough to be some of these ladies’ mother, but I still really look up to them. It’s awesome to see women that are strong, that are doing amazing things with their life, and that’s something I really look up to.”
“I think what I really like about the overall culture of, of the Royals is that, everybody is in an Evangelical role, in a sense. We’re all preaching the gospel of women’s soccer, and a large part of the culture really evolved from the connection with the players,” said Kirkham.
The bonds are special. Which is what has made the past few months so hard.
Earlier this year, as social unrest erupted around the country, Hansen made controversial comments on a radio show opposing Real Salt Lake players’ decision to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Those comments set off a chain of events which included reports of a history of racist comments by Hansen, triggering investigations by MLS and the NWSL. Soon after, Hansen put all three of his clubs, RSL, the Royals and the Monarchs up for sale, but found no serious local buyers. While fans knew that this uncertainty was not good, no one really expected the Royals to be the first casualty.
“There was always talk, but I think we all just kind of made the assumption that someone would buy the whole package, RSL, the Monarchs, Utah Royals. I mean just because it's such a cohesive product on all fronts,” said Kirkham.
“Knowing that the women’s team was growing, and understanding that this is real and people are listening and want it, it was terrifying to think that the women would be the first one to be lost. I honestly thought the Monarchs would be first because that’s an easier one to offload,” said Rodrock.
But on Monday, the club confirmed the rights to the club had been sold to an ownership group in Kansas City, which had plans to move the team back to KC.
“I just sat there and cried,” said Rodrock. “I was like, ‘I know, like I get it, I get it. It get that it needed to happen. But I just, no, this is not okay.”
But there are too many beautiful things about what was created in Utah for it to disappear any time soon.
Even in this short amount of time, the span of only a few days, fans have found renewed motivation to support their players and their community.
“This hurts so much,” said Tidwell. “But I just read Amy Rodriguez’ post to the fans on Instagram. I bawled, and then I pulled myself together and I just realized, that woman is amazing, and the idea of not cheering for that woman? Get out of town. I will always cheer for that woman, these players, this team. I don’t care if they’re wearing a Royals jersey or a Kansas City jersey. I will always support these players.”
One of Kirkham’s main priorities now is to keep momentum for The Court going by finding other avenues for support, including the areas’ WPSL, UWS and college teams.
“We’ve all really come together, realizing that we want to maintain this culture,” Kirkham said. “So the next step we’ve all determined is that we’re going to support more local soccer. I think that the Royals were a very convenient way for us to support. Now that it’s gone, we realized that we love that and that we want to maintain that. So I’m actually very excited for the next step, because it’s going to be a very evolutionary process for all of our fan base to not only say that we love the big stuff, but the reality is the big stuff is created from grassroots.”
An NWSL club in Utah could be reborn no earlier than 2023, according to the terms of the deal. In the meantime, some supporters are planning a future road trip to Kansas City, to celebrate the players they love with the fans who will also now get to call them their own, while some will focus on continuing the legacy that the club built.
“I have some friends in Kansas City who are experiencing the complete opposite emotions of what we’re feeling now,” Smith said. “They’re so excited. So for me, it’s hard to see the team go, but you’ve got to be happy that the players can still pursue the game.”
“I think that this thing is hard,” said Kirkham. “But it only increases the commitment from all of us. Because we realize now that we have to prove that it’s worth it for the next owner. We realize that now the next opportunity is for us to create more opportunity. We’re so excited for the players, that their opportunity can continue rather than end. At the same rate, we're so excited that we can prove that we're going to get our club back.”