The NWSL is heading back to Utah with the announcement Saturday that the Utah Royals will begin play in 2024 as the league’s newest expansion team.
The team is owned by David Blitzer and Ryan Smith, who also own Major League Soccer side Real Salt Lake. Sources confirmed to ESPN a Wall Street Journal report that the expansion fee is between $2 million and $5 million. A previous incarnation of the Royals in the NWSL existed from 2018-20.
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For both individuals, the acquisition of the Royals is the latest addition to their respective sports portfolios. Blitzer owns stakes in Premier League side Crystal Palace, Augsburg FC of the German Bundesliga, Portuguese side GD Estoril Praia and Waasland-Beveren of the Belgian top flight. The latter three teams fall under Blitzer’s Global Football Holdings umbrella, as does RSL and the Royals.
Blitzer is also part owner of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. Smith is the owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz.
Philadelphia 76ers executive Daryl Morey and Kraft Analytics Group CEO Jessica Gelman are also investors in the new ownership group.
Running the day-to-day operations will be team president Michelle Hyncik, a former collegiate soccer player at Harvard University who has had stints as general counsel with both RSL and the MLS league office.
“It’s a sliding door moment, where we had this window of opportunity, and for [Blitzer and Smith] it was all about the community, right?” said Hyncik in an interview with ESPN.
“Ryan doesn’t look at this as some private equity like investment. They are not looking at this as like some type of money maker. For them, it’s just all about the community. The importance of women’s for young women here and young girls just can’t be emphasized enough.”
We are back. pic.twitter.com/4Z9ZONritT
— Utah Royals (@UtahRoyalsFC) March 12, 2023
Yet Blitzer and Smith acquired the team at a hefty discount. Sources confirmed to ESPN that expansion teams in Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area are requiring initial outlays of $50m, at least 10 times what Blitzer and Smith are paying.
The opportunity for Blitzer and Smith was the result of the forced sale of both the Royals and RSL due to racist remarks and a toxic workplace culture by previous owner Dell Loy Hansen. That wasn’t the full extent of the abusive behavior either. Former Royals manager Craig Harrington was cited in the joint NWSL/NWSL Players Association investigation as having been verbally abusive and making sexual advances to some Royals players.
Hansen sold the Royals to Chris and Angie Long in late 2020, who then moved the team to Kansas City. Blitzer and Smith acquired RSL in early 2022, and included in that purchase was an option to acquire an NWSL expansion team which has now morphed into the reconstituted Royals.
Hyncik stated that in a bid to ensure that the toxicity of the Hansen era isn’t repeated, the Royals organization has reached out to former players, including current adidas marketing manager Mandy Laddish and Sydney Miramotez, who now works for the NWSLPA.
The NWSLPA as a whole has also been engaged in providing advice in terms of creating a healthy environment for players and staff. The team has also undergone a rebranding effort, including a new logo, in order to make a cleaner break with the past.
“We’re one family, so making sure that all clubs within Utah soccer are building and supporting each other has always been a top priority,” said Hyncik. “And articulating those guiding principles of inclusion and community, making sure that it’s a safe space is something that we’re prioritizing in this launch.”
The team will play its games at America First Field, and will train at the similarly named training facility, which is less than a mile from the stadium. Hyncik indicated that the organization is still considering where the team’s investments in infrastructure will be best served.
Hyncik added that the organization has already begun bringing on staff. Caterina De Bacco, who in addition to having a PhD in statistical physics, has done extensive work in soccer analytics, has been retained to head up the team’s recruitment efforts. Chris Anderson, who fills a similar role with Global Football Holdings, will also help with the team’s scouting and recruitment. Sarah Henderson, formerly of Amazon, has been hired to be the chief of staff.
In terms of a GM and manager, Hyncik said that the search to fill those positions is already underway, though finding a GM need not come first.
“For us, I think we’re looking for the right candidate and the right person to lead this organization,” she said. “So if that’s the head coach, then we’re hiring that head coach. I would say it’s fluid and while recognizing what the traditional kind of pathway is, we want to hire the right person.”
For all of the toxicity off the field, the Royals were a success at the gate. The 2019 season, the last before COVID, saw the team draw over 10,000 fans a game, which would have been third-best in the league last season. For that reason, some institutional knowledge will be retained, with the organization reaching out to fans of the previous team.
“We just want to re-engage, and they have never given up and we’re so thankful to them for, for not giving up,” said Hyncik. “In addition to some of the institutional knowledge, we know that women’s soccer will be successful here because we have that engaged fan base.”
The Royals will also benefit from having a much longer runway. The first incarnation had just over four months from the time of its announcement to its first game. The current version will have about a year, one that includes a World Cup, with plenty of watch parties providing another way to engage with current and potential fans.
Hyncik said: “I couldn’t think of a better time to have the opportunity to bring a women’s soccer team back here when you are seeing this new era of the league, and the levels that owners are investing and the new leadership at the league.”