Checketts' importance to MLS can't be overstated

By Paul Kennedy

After Lamar Hunt and Philip Anschutz, Real Salt Lake founder Dave Checketts may be the most important investor in MLS history.

MLS was down to 10 teams and three investors -- Hunt, Anschutz and Robert Kraft -- when Checketts took the plunge and invested in an expansion team, his hometown Real Salt Lake. Jorge Vergara also came along in 2004 with Chivas USA, but Checketts' investment was more significant.

Checketts was a major figure in the American sports business -- the youngest president in the history of the NBA (Utah Jazz) and the president of Madison Square Garden (owner of the New York Knicks and Rangers) -- and his investment sent a signal to the American sports business community that it was OK to invest in MLS,

Nine years later, MLS is up to 19 teams and it has attracted a diverse ownership group.

On Thursday, Checketts announced he had sold Real Salt Lake to its minority owner, Dell Loy Hansen.

"We created something from nothing," Checketts said. "There was no RSL. There was no shield. We created something from nothing. And we created something [I have to now] turn over to a very capable local owner."

Checketts said he believed RSL had achieved something really great.

"We’ve done it together," he said, "and we’ve accomplished something that everybody can take pride in and take a part of."

RSL was the first MLS team to sell a jersey sponsorship with XanGo on the front of our jersey. It opened Rio Tinto Stadium in 2008. And its president, Bill Manning, won 2012 MLS executive of the year as the club sold out 11 of 20 home games.

On the field, RSL won MLS Cup 2009, it has the longest active playoff streak at five years and has three straight seasons of winning 15 games. And it remains the only MLS team to reach the Concacaf Champions League final.

Perhaps Checketts' greatest accomplishment was to get the Rio Tinto Stadium project off the ground. He thought it was dead when the Salt Lake County council voted down the stadium proposal for a fourth time.

"I was walking into a dinner with the president of Real Madrid," he recalled of the night before Real Salt Lake was to play Real Madrid with David Beckham. "We were at a restaurant in Salt Lake and as I was walking into the dinner and my 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth -- who is here today and is now 20 -- asked me, ‘So, how did the vote go, exactly?’ And I said, ‘We got voted down again, I think we’ve reached the end.’ She burst out in tears and that is why the stadium got built. That night sitting with Eric Gelfan from our office in New York and others, I said, 'Let’s just have a groundbreaking in the morning. As long as Real Madrid’s here, let’s have a groundbreaking and that’ll put everybody on notice that we’re going to build a stadium and that’s what we did.' So Elizabeth, thank you very much for your role in me never wanting to disappoint you and that’s what made us build something that I will remember forever.”

The sale of Checketts' SCP Worldwide sports properties in Utah to Hansen allows him to get back to his day job  -- a position he took a year ago -- as the the chairman and CEO of Legends Hospitality Management, a concessions, merchandising and ticketing company.
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