NWSL adds Utah Royals as latest expansion team

Jeff CarlisleUS soccer correspondent4 minutes read

The NWSL returns to Utah with Saturday’s announcement 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 club 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 Royals’ acquisition is the latest addition to their respective sports portfolios. Blitzer owns stakes in Premier League club Crystal Palace, Augsburg FC of the German Bundesliga, Portuguese club GD Estoril Praia and Waasland-Beveren of the Belgian top flight. The latter three teams belong to Blitzers Global Football Holdings, as do RSL and the Royals.

Blitzer is also a 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 chairman Daryl Morey and Kraft Analytics Group CEO Jessica Gelman are also investors in the new ownership group.

Day-to-day operations are managed by team president Michelle Hyncik, a former Harvard college soccer player who has served as general counsel at both RSL and the MLS league office.

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

“Ryan doesn’t see this as some kind of private equity-like investment. They don’t see this as some kind of money maker. For them, it’s all about the community. The importance of women to young women here and young girls just can’t be overstated.”

But 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 will require an initial outlay of $50 million, at least 10 times what Blitzer and Smith are paying.

The opportunity for Blitzer and Smith came as a result of the forced sale of the Royals and the RSL due to racist language and a toxic work 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 for verbally abusing some Royals players and making sexual advances.

Hansen sold the Royals to Chris and Angie Long in late 2020, who then relocated the team to Kansas City. Blitzer and Smith acquired RSL in early 2022, and included with that purchase was an option to acquire an NWSL expansion team, which has now morphed into the restored Royals.

Hyncik explained that the Royals’ organization has reached out to former players to ensure the toxicity of the Hansen era is not repeated, including current adidas marketing manager Mandy Laddish and Sydney Miramotez, who now works for the NWSLPA.

The NWSLPA as a whole is also committed to providing advice on creating a healthy environment for players and staff. The team has also undergone a rebrand, including a new logo, for a cleaner break with the past.

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

The team will play their games at America First Field and practice at the eponymous training facility, less than a mile from the stadium. Hyncik pointed out that the organization is still considering where to best leverage the team’s infrastructure investments.

Hyncik added that the organization has already started hiring staff. Caterina De Bacco, who not only has a PhD in statistical physics but has also done extensive work in football analysis, has been tasked with leading the team’s recruitment efforts. Chris Anderson, who fills a similar role at Global Football Holdings, will also help with scouting and recruiting for the team. Sarah Henderson, formerly of Amazon, has been hired as chief of staff.

Regarding a GM and manager, Hyncik said the search to fill those positions is already underway, although finding a GM need not be a priority.

“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 hire that head coach. I’d say it’s fluid and while we recognize what the traditional type of path is, we want to hire the right person.”

For all the toxicity off the field, the Royals were a success on goal. In the 2019 season, the last before COVID, the team drew over 10,000 fans in what would have been the league’s third-best game last season. For this reason, a certain institutional knowledge is retained, with the organization reaching out to the fans of the previous team.

“We just want to get involved again and they never gave up and we’re so grateful to them for not giving up,” Hyncik said. “In addition to some institutional knowledge, we know women’s football will thrive here because we have a dedicated fanbase.”

The royals will also benefit from a much longer runway. The first incarnation had just over four months from announcement to first game. The current release will last about a year, including a World Cup, with many watch parties providing another way to connect with current and potential fans.

Hyncik said: “I couldn’t think of a better time to have the opportunity to bring a women’s football team back here when you see this new era of the league, the level that the owners are investing and the new leadership in the league.”


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