NWSL adds Utah Royals as newest expansion team

Jeff CarlisleAmerican football correspondent4 minute reading

The NWSL returns 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 Real Salt Lake of Major League Soccer. Sources confirmed to ESPN a The Wall Street Journal the expansion fee is reported to be between $2 million and $5 million. The previous incarnation of the Royals in the NWSL existed from 2018 to ’20.

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For both individuals, the acquisition of the Royals is the latest addition to their sports portfolios. Blitzer owns shares in the Premier League Crystal Palace, Augsburg FC in the German Bundesliga, Portuguese side GD Estoril Praia and Waasland-Beveren in the Belgian Premier League. The latter three teams fall under Blitzer’s Global Football Holdings, as do 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 Utah Jazz NBA club.

Philadelphia 76ers CEO Daryl Morey and Kraft Analytics Group CEO Jessica Gelman are also investors in the new ownership group.

Day-to-day operations will be led by team president Michelle Hyncik, a former college soccer player at Harvard University who served as general counsel for both RSL and the MLS league office.

“It’s a sliding door moment, where we had the opportunity to [Blitzer and Smith] it was all about the community, right?” Hyncik said in an interview with ESPN.

“Ryan doesn’t look at this as a private equity investment. They don’t look at this as some kind of money maker. It’s all about community for them. The importance of women’s soccer to young women here and young girls just can’t be emphasized enough.”

Still, Blitzer and Smith bought the team at a deep discount. Sources confirmed to ESPN that expansion teams in Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area are demanding an initial outlay of $50 million, at least 10 times what Blitzer and Smith are being paid.

The opportunity for Blitzer and Smith was the result of the forced sale of both the Royals and RSL due to a toxic workplace culture and racist remarks by previous owner Dell Loy Hansen. That wasn’t the full extent of the abusive behavior either. It was former Royals manager Craig Harrington stated in a joint NWSL/NWSL Players Association investigation for verbally abusing and sexually courting 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 purchased RSL in early 2022, and included in that purchase was an option to purchase the NWSL expansion team that has now become the reconstituted Royals.

Hyncik said that in an effort to ensure the toxicity of the Hansen era is not repeated, the Royals organization has reached out to former players, including current Adidas marketing manager Mandy Laddish and Sydney Miramontez, who now works for the NWSLPA.

The NWSLPA as a whole is also involved in providing advice in terms of creating a healthy environment for players and staff. The team also underwent a rebranding, including a new logo, to make a cleaner break with the past.

“We are one family, so making sure all clubs within Utah Soccer build and support each other has always been a top priority,” Hyncik said. “And articulating those guiding principles of inclusion and community, making sure it’s a safe space is something we’re prioritizing in this launch.”

The team will play its games at America First Field, and will train at the training facility of the same name, which is less than a mile from the stadium. Hyncik indicated that the organization is still considering where the team’s infrastructure investments will be best used.

Hyncik added that the organization has already started hiring staff. Caterina De Bacco, who in addition to having a Ph.D. in statistical physics has done extensive work in football analytics, was retained to lead the team’s recruiting efforts. Chris Anderson, who has a similar role at Global Football Holdings, will also help with scouting and recruiting for the team. Sarah Henderson, a former Amazon, has been hired as chief of staff.

As for GMs and managers, Hyncik said the search to fill those positions is already underway, though finding a GM doesn’t have to 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 it’s a head coach, then we hire that head coach. I would say it’s fluid and while we recognize what the traditional kind of path is, we want to hire the right person.”

For all the toxicity off the field, the Royals were successful at the gate. In the 2019 season, the last before COVID, the team drew more than 10,000 fans per game, which would have been the third best in the league last season. For this reason, some institutional knowledge will be retained, and the organization will become closer to the fans of the previous team.

“We just want to re-engage, and they never gave up and we’re very grateful to them for not giving up,” Hyncik said. “In addition to some institutional knowledge, we know women’s soccer will be successful here because we have that engaged fan base.”

The Royals will also benefit from a much longer runway. The first incarnation had a little over four months from the moment of announcement to the first game. The current version will be about a year old, the one that includes the World Cup, with lots of parties that provide another way to interact 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 see this new era of the league, the levels that the owners are investing in and the new leadership of the league.”

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