The summer of 2004 proved momentous for MLS. For the first time since 1998, just two and a half years removed from the league’s near-demise and the contraction of both its Florida teams, the league was expanding.
One of Mexico’s best-known soccer brands, Deportivo Guadalajara (better known by its goat-inspired Chivas nickname), was bringing a franchise named Chivas USA to Los Angeles to start play in the 2005 season.
But the league also announced a second expansion franchise around the same time—in what some considered a surprising choice, Salt Lake City. For that, potential fans could thank then-owner Dave Checketts, whose biggest prior claim to sports fame was becoming president and general manager of the Utah Jazz at age 27.
Checketts felt Utah was ready for a soccer team. And though the franchise was announced without an official name, he already had designs on a name that was trendsetting, inspired, and confounding all at once: Real Salt Lake.
“He wanted a name that was authentically soccer,” says Trey Fitz-Gerald, who left MLS’s PR office in the fall of 2004 for his current post, as RSL’s vice president of broadcast and communications. A few names were circulating around the time of the announcement from prior Utah soccer franchises, including the Golden Spikers and the Blitzz (with, as Fitz-Gerald noted, “the dreaded double Z”).
But Checketts, who’d traveled Europe extensively during his time heading up NBA International and marketing basketball around the world, grew to admire Real Madrid. It helped, too, that the Spanish club was both a basketball as well as a soccer powerhouse.
“Early on, that was my favorite name,” Checketts says of Real Salt Lake. “I had been such a fan of Real Madrid and the way that they run everything and their philosophy. I’d spent some time with them as I entered MLS, and built a relationship with them.”
The team conducted a public poll, which showed support for Pioneers and Highlanders. Highlanders, in fact, generated enough votes for Checketts to ponder that possibility.
But Real Salt Lake did narrowly prevail in the public poll, and emboldened by that knowledge, there was just one more step that Checketts made to move forward with his vision. He had to ask Real Madrid for permission to use the name.
Fitz-Gerald notes that over 40 teams around the world use Real in their names, and jokes that “there was no monarchy in Utah to bestow the name on us.” But Checketts felt asking Real Madrid was the prudent thing to do. And according to him, they responded, “You’re going to be our sister team; go with our blessing.”
They did an official launch with the new name in October 2004 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The University of Utah football stadium would serve as the team’s first home while Checketts sought the needed financial support to construct a permanent, soccer-specific stadium.
Checketts admits he envisioned conversations in which one confused family member would pronounce it “real” (as in “real butter”) and another family member would correct it. But the team worked hard with media to communicate that the Spanish pronunciation was the correct one.
The team’s then-owner also made another crucial branding decision for the launch: incorporating both red and blue into the team’s jerseys. Salt Lake City served as ground zero for an intense college football rivalry, between the University of Utah (red) and Brigham Young University (blue), culminating in an annual game known as the Holy War.
The team colors sought to bridge that divide and make RSL everyone’s team. However, it did also have the inadvertent affect of cloaking Real Madrid’s sister team in the home colors of its FC Barcelona rivals.
“I thought about it,” Checketts says, laughing. “But we had so much educating to do, that if someone came up to me and asked, ‘Why’d you use the Real name with Barcelona colors,’ I would have said, ‘I’m so happy you know that.’”
The name helped shape a distinctive identity for the expansion team–one noticed in particular by a Kansas City Wizards front office, who would soon rebrand with a similarly eyebrow-raising, European-inspired name. And yet, RSL’s early history in Salt Lake City was dominated by challenging negotiations to land a permanent home. In fact, had the team not been able to secure its new stadium, RSL might today be shorthand for Real St. Louis.
In came Real Madrid, who proved pivotal in Checketts’ efforts to build a stadium. The relationship Checketts had forged with the Spanish team developed to the point where they traveled to Utah for a Real vs. Real exhibition match on August 12, 2006.
In the weeks leading up to the match, county officials resisted approval for hotel tax money, already approved and earmarked by the state legislature, to help fund the new stadium. Checketts announced the exhibition game date would the absolute, drop-dead deadline for a stadium deal.
In fact, the day before the match, county officials voted against the stadium funding. But Checketts decided to act boldly. He asked Real Madrid club officials and players to take part in an impromptu press event to announce a stadium that the county officials were still actively resisting–and they accepted.
“Literally overnight,” Fitz-Gerald recalls, “we mowed this hayfield that had lain fallow in the middle of Sandy, Utah, for 40 years, and put together a ceremonial groundbreaking. It was the biggest leap of faith.”
Checketts remembers a whirlwind 24 hours in which the team managed to set up a stage, a microphone, gold shovels, and hard hats bearing the Real logo. “We even had a marching band out there,” he says. Utah Governor Jon Huntsman–who would be instrumental in bringing the deal to a close–also attended on short notice, as part of a crowd of 1500 who found their way to this historical moment.
“I knew that that picture of [then Real Madrid player] David Beckham with the shovel would be all over the world,” Checketts says. “I knew that would put a lot of pressure on the county government. It was me playing some mischief, but it really worked. The news story was everywhere.”
Rio Tinto Stadium would open just prior to the close of the 2008 season, effectively previewing it for a 2009 season in which that leap of faith would be rewarded with the ultimate prize. RSL would go go on to defeat a favored Galaxy team in the MLS Cup, 5-4 on penalty kicks, in front of a Seattle crowd who adopted RSL as their own.
And of course, the disappointed Galaxy squad included a certain former Real Madrid player--David Beckham--whose participation in a certain press event helped Salt Lake City keep its team.