Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Utah Royals FC goalkeeper Abby Smith (1) and defender Becky Sauerbrunn (4) take to the field before the match against the Chicago Red Stars at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, April 14, 2018.

“I teared up during the welcome. Remember, even in my life I started competitive soccer in a boys’ league.”

That was the text I received from my daughter as Utah Royals FC kicked off their inaugural home opener. More than 19,000 fans, including 5,000 season ticket holders, filled Rio Tinto Stadium to support professional women’s soccer. The day not only made Utah sports history, it gave thousands of young women in our state the opportunity to dream big. I predict this historic inflection point will live on for generations.

My daughter’s sentiments matched my own. I too felt moisture in my eyes as I looked over a sold-out stadium excited to honor a team of tenacious and talented athletes. This was a big moment, including an enthusiastic crowd, a helicopter fly-over, fireworks and a national anthem sung by a prominent recording artist. Even better, hundreds of men and young boys wore the “victory gold” jerseys emblazoned with a lioness. Together, men and women celebrated the joy of sport regardless of gender.

Sports in the Beehive State, and the benefits society receives, will never be quite the same. Perhaps that’s why Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke tweeted, “I keep hearing ‘what a great day for women’s sports’ and I totally agree. But I believe it is much more. I say, ‘what a great day for SPORTS as a whole.’"

I started playing soccer the first year Utah had a women’s league. I was 13 at the time, and it started a 25-year playing career. American soccer was in its infancy then, but I instantly fell in love with the world’s game. I loved the beautiful passing, required fitness, international relevance and striking athleticism.

Even more, I recognized then, and see it even more clearly now, what sports was doing for my future. It honed my team-building skills, helped me develop self-awareness and confidence, built my leadership profile and taught me about human nature. My participation in women’s sports made me a better working professional, a finer wife and mother and a stronger contributor to the community.

Unfortunately, as active as my participation in sports was, my opportunities for growth were extremely limited. My dreams were shunted. I couldn’t comprehend how to dream big.

I couldn’t play for my high school soccer team because we didn’t have one. I couldn’t play Division I soccer for my college because we didn’t have a team. I played club ball for the University of Utah instead. I couldn’t dream of representing my country in a World Cup match; the U.S. Women’s National Team came later. All I could do with my talent was watch men play and do my best to cultivate some semblance of a dream for myself. Looking back, it’s deeply unsatisfying. My lioness jersey was nowhere to be found.

I’ve often explained to people the difference between men and women in a professional setting, and it’s reflected in sports as well. Men benefit from a tailwind and women face a headwind. The opposition builds character in women, but it also detracts from the good we can do for society. I believe the Utah Royals turn a headwind into a tailwind for young women athletes. This change will pay dividends to society over the long term.

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Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen deserves a huge shout-out. Hansen invested in professional women’s soccer out of a belief that we owe equal admiration to female athletes. He told me, “I have a sincere belief that as a society we have treated half of our labor pool as an underclass. For some reason we treat men’s sports differently than women’s even though women’s sports are more beautiful, graceful and full of finesse.” Hansen told me the female warrior is just as enjoyable to watch as the male warrior and arguably spends less time laying on the field crying. On behalf of our state, I wish to publicly thank Dell Loy Hansen.

The inaugural game of Utah Royals FC was history in the making. It’s time for female athletes to live their dream.