SALT LAKE CITY — The 50-minute pep rally disguised as a press conference had almost wound down, the governor, owner and league having taken turns calling one another “visionary” and “amazing.” The National Women’s Soccer League had verified that Salt Lake checked all the right boxes.
It was go-time for women’s professional soccer in Utah.
“Failure,” said chief business officer Andy Carroll, “is not an option. Success is inevitable.”
Or as the old "Star Trek" line goes, “Resistance is futile.”
Soccer is taking over the universe.
The sport’s latest interplanetary stop arrived Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium, which will be home to the yet-to-be-named team. The women’s professional version will be treated equal to Real Salt Lake. The official announcement came at an 11 a.m. press conference that included about 15 local media and a few hundred business and community leaders, soccer fans and Real Salt Lake employees. There were even local competition soccer teams on hand.
The takeaway is that Utah wants to be not only a sports capital in America, but a women’s sports capital. Team owner Dell Loy Hansen even suggested the NWSL move its headquarters to Utah.
For now, having another pro team in town is enough. It took Hansen just 15 days to make it happen. FC Kansas City is pulling up stakes and moving west.
“The governor always says we punch above our weight class,” Hansen said, “and we’re punching way above our weight.”
“We have always been somewhat ambitious,” said Gov. Gary Herbert.
Which leaves just one question: Will anyone care?
The history of women’s professional sports in Utah is short and unremarkable. Rush Salt Lake City played in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, but only lasted a season before closing shop. In the mid 1990s, the Utah Predators volleyball team played 10-game regular seasons. The Predators made the playoff finals in 1995, losing in the championship match. But the following was small.
The WNBA’s Utah Starzz performed in the Delta Center from 1997 to 2002, never finishing higher than third. Announced attendance was usually around 6,000. Eventually the team moved to San Antonio, and later to Las Vegas.
Whether women’s professional soccer works in Utah is an intriguing question. Previous teams didn’t have anything like Real’s soccer academy as an attraction. With RSL’s visibility, and the number of girls playing youth soccer, the appeal factor is significant. There are six Div. I women’s soccer programs in Utah.
Meanwhile, Hansen said ticket prices will be affordable because salaries aren’t astronomical.
Some, including former Salt Lake Community College athletics director Norma Carr — have expressed disappointment in Utahns support of certain women’s sports, including basketball. Local college teams don’t draw large crowds. Attendance at Utah’s only regular-season home game this year was 1,659. BYU drew 972 to its first game.
The Ute volleyball team is 19-8, including wins over No. 13 UCLA and No. 9 Washington. Utah is currently ranked No. 17 nationally in the coaches’ poll, averaging 1,953 per home match. BYU, 25-2 and ranked No. 9, averages 2,257 fans.
Carr, who served as SLCC athletics director for 25 years, said in a phone interview on Thursday, “I think soccer would be a women’s sport that probably has a chance to get an audience.”
While Utah’s gymnastics team fills the 15,000-seat Huntsman Center, Carr and others maintain there are certain women’s sports that are perceived as more appealing to the public, adding that men’s and women’s basketball are “really two different games.”
The men’s game, she notes, is played at altitude.
Women’s basketball and volleyball have pockets of large fan bases nationwide. But none are more popular than national and international soccer. The appeal of stars such as Hope Solo and Alex Morgan is obvious.
Women’s soccer, said Carr, is “a game of purity, so I think people will embrace it.”
At first look, NWSL could do well. Numerous national members have played in the league, including Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe. Each is recognizable to millions. When the USWNT team played in Sandy in 2012, 16,805 fans showed up, mostly teen and pre-teen soccer kids.
Equally telling was that about 2,000 fans arrived seeking autographs at a Friday training session.
Across the NWSL, results widely vary. Portland led the league this year, averaging 17,653. But the numbers steeply fall off after that. The next highest was Orlando (6,186), while Kansas City (1,788) was lowest.
Hansen and others say they intend to draw as many fans to women’s games as to RSL’s (18,781).
“I think soccer is socially accepted on a national and international level, and those players have been heroes,” Carr said. “I think the women’s national team is more visible than the males, and more successful. So I think it has a real chance to be successful as an audience sport in Utah.”
If not, it won’t be for lack of promotion.