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How Utah became the site for a pro sports league to return to play during pandemic

Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy is pictured on Friday, April 24, 2020.
Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy is pictured on Friday, April 24, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In November 2017 when it was announced that a National Women’s Soccer League team would be coming to Utah, its owner, Real Salt Lake’s Dell Loy Hansen, made it clear that he wanted the franchise to be a “rallying point” in the state and “the very best women’s sports organization in America.”

Two-and-a-half years later as sports leagues around the country have been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic and have had complex negotiations about how to resume play, Hansen, Utah Royals FC and the state of Utah have become key figures in bringing at least one back to action.

Funded essentially all by Hansen, the 25-game NWSL Challenge Cup will become the first competition held by a pro sports league in the United States since they all shut down in March when it is played from June 27-July 26 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.

In truth, the tournament has been in the works almost since the day the NWSL shut down on March 12. League commissioner Lisa Baird, who had assumed her role just two days before that, went to work to try to formulate a plan for resuming play at some point in some fashion. She met with team owners to discuss a number of scenarios and put together a medical task force of 15 physicians.

Soon, four markets emerged as locations where the league could potentially resume play, with Salt Lake City being one of them. As measures the state of Utah put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus were proving to be successful, it became a more and more attractive place for the league to hunker down in.

“Early on, the state of Utah kind of caught our eye because of how well the pandemic challenges were being handled by the state and the public health officials,” Baird said on a conference call after the tournament was announced.

From there, Hansen submitted a formal bid that would see the Zions Bank Real Academy in Herriman with its dormitories and numerous practice fields, an Embassy Suites hotel Hansen has equity ownership in and all other RSL club facilities form a sort of “village” for the league’s nine teams, including not only players and coaching staffs but other support staff as well.

Although Hansen was very much front and center in making it happen, he was quick to mention numerous other state leaders and members of the community who helped make the vision a reality, including Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the University of Utah (which will provide infectious disease specialists as needed), ARUP Laboratories and Utah Sports Commission CEO Jeff Robbins.

“Utah just had a lot going for it and a government that believed that we can manage ourselves well, follow deep protocols and reengage our lives appropriately according to CDC guidelines,” Hansen said on the conference call. “I’m just proud of my state. It’s a great state that’s really all about cooperating, helping, and at every corner, the moniker was, ‘How can we help?’”

Of course, player safety is of paramount concern. To that end, everyone who comes to Utah to participate in the tournament will be expected to follow “village guidelines” during their stay, but will have resources available to them so they won’t have to leave the village.

“We want them to stay in the environment, but we want the environment not to feel like a restriction,” Baird said. “We want it to feel like a welcoming village where they can focus on what they’re there to do without worrying about other things.”

Hansen added that “we just kind of opened the checkbook” to provide whatever people will need, from food to training equipment to leisure activities within the village. That will also include care for children whose mothers will be involved in the tournament.

“The village concept is not just about isolation or very restrictive tactics,” he said. “The people will be able to stay in their team group and have a very robust social movement and still be able to stay in that group. ... we think of it as a very, very energized environment when the players are there, not just hiding from COVID.”

Dr. Daryl Osbahr, who is based in Orlando and on the medical task force, noted on the conference call that it will be a “shared responsibility” to keep people safe. That said, he realizes there’s at least a fair chance that some could contract the coronavirus, which all involved in the tournament will be tested for frequently.

“The way we want to look back upon the whole process is that we made sure we did everything we could to avoid it, and then when we identify, we do everything we can to protect it, but certainly all of us do realize that there could be multiple positives, but our protocols will help us deal with them in the safest possible manner,” he said.

Osbahr declined to speculate on the number of positive tests it might take for the tournament to be shut down. Rather, he said, “We’re hoping that we’ll have a successful tournament, the women that participate in our league will have a very successful experience and we’re going to be very optimistic that that’s the environment we’re creating.”

URFC general manager Stephanie Lee, whom head coach Craig Harrington said has “worked her socks off” to help everything come together, said all protocols have followed state guidelines, and key figures such as Herbert and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson are on board.

Everything has been done in consultation with the NWSL medical task force, and the league even joined in the conversations President Donald Trump has had with commissioners about how to bring sports back to the United States.

“In terms of approval process, it’s been pretty easy,” Lee said on a Zoom call after the tournament was announced. “Everyone’s been on board, but we’ve not been asking for anything crazy. We’ve been following what the state and government has been putting out.”

URFC captain Amy Rodriguez, a mother of two young boys, said on the Zoom call that she recognizes some players may still have questions they feel haven’t been addressed yet, but she’s personally excited to have the chance to play again.

“There have been things noted of concern, and I think that our players association, our board of directors, the medical staff, everyone has really taken all those things into consideration,” she said, “and at least for me personally, I feel I’m at a place where I feel very good about how this is going to be organized and I’m just really looking forward to it.”