SANDY — On the eve of handing out the MLS Cup trophy following a strange, disjointed 2020 season played amid the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber had a message for Real Salt Lake fans.
The team isn't going anywhere.
Speaking via conference call during his annual State of the League address Tuesday in advance of Saturday's MLS Cup final between the Seattle Sounders and Columbus Crew, Garber addressed a number of topics, including the sale of Dell Loy Hansen's team and the other soccer properties in Utah under Utah Soccer LLC, which now include the second-division Real Monarchs and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.
With billions of dollars poured into the franchise on the Wasatch Front, including an $80 million training facility and academy in Herriman that Garber once championed as a pillar of the league, MLS will do everything it can to keep the Salt Lake in Real Salt Lake.
"I think Salt Lake has been a great market for Major League Soccer," Garber said. "It's been a great market for the Monarchs and for the Royals, as well. It started with Dave Checketts and the building of a great stadium at Rio Tinto, a passionate fan base; they've had on-field success, and continue to have that success over time in a small market."
The news should come as a relief to fans, who watched Monday as Utah Royals FC was sold to a Kansas City-based ownership group that included Brittany Matthews, a former college and professional soccer player who is the fiancee of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The sale included an option for a new ownership group to restart the Royals' franchise as soon as 2023.
But even as the Royals navigate to Kansas City — the bulk of the players under contract with the club came to Utah three years ago after spending time with the now-defunct FC Kansas City — the same thing is highly unlikely to happen to RSL.
Garber didn't use the word "impossible," but his words carried a similar feeling, if nothing else.
"So there is absolutely no plan whatsoever to move that team," Garber said. "There are interested parties in discussion with us about buying Dell Loy Hansen's interest in the club and in the Monarchs. The Royals have already been sold, but there is nothing further to announce on that. But discussions continue to be ongoing, and frankly, productive."
Garber said the league will likely take over the sell of the club in the next 30 days and could run the operation remotely for up to a year while a suitable buyer is found. The Athletic reported that Hansen and RSL have until Jan. 8 to find a buyer before the club falls under MLS operations, and among those potential buyers is Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith.
Smith recently purchased a majority interest in the Utah Jazz for a sale price reportedly topping $1.6 billion, though the tech billionaire is valued around $8 billion after selling the Provo-based software company to SAP.
In a year unlike any other, the league plans to crown a champion Saturday night. That's a significant achievement, after the pandemic shuttered MLS operations in March after less than three weeks of competition before restarting the league via the MLS is Back tournament near Orlando in July, and resuming in markets with largely spectator-free crowds a month later.
There have been plenty of challenges, of course. Garber said that the league that derives plenty of its annual revenue from ticket sales has lost around $1 billion, which triggered the "traumatic" layoffs of 20% of the league's staff, additional layoffs among individual clubs, and a 5% pay cut across the board for players.
Even as a COVID-19 vaccine begins to roll out in some parts of the world, it still remains unclear how "normal" the league can play in 2021. Garber said it was too soon to determine whether the league's three Canadian teams in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver could return to their home stadiums for next season, or if they would continue to relocate within the United States in 2021 because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The league continues to target a mid-March start for the next season, though.
"Although we have one game left to play, the preparations for the 2021 MLS season are ongoing," Garber said. "While some uncertainty remains as the pandemic continues, we are reviewing different models and timeframes for the start of the season.
"As of today, we continue to target early-to-mid March to open the season."
Contributing: The Associated Press