Jeff CarlisleAmerican football correspondent5 minute read
The NWSL returns to Utah with the announcement on 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 have 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 Crystal Palace, German Bundesliga side Augsburg FC, Portuguese side GD Estoril Praia and Belgian top flight Waasland-Beveren. The latter three teams fall under Blitzer’s Global Football Holdings umbrella, as do RSL and the Royals.
Blitzer is also a co-owner of the New Jersey Devils of the NHL and the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA. 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.
Team president Michelle Hyncik, a former Harvard University college football player who served as general counsel at the RSL and MLS league office, will lead day-to-day operations.
“It’s a sliding door moment, where we had this window of opportunity, and for [Blitzer and Smith] it was about the community, right?” Hyncik said in an interview with ESPN.
“Ryan doesn’t see it as a private equity type investment. They don’t see it as any kind of income stream. For them it’s all about the community. The importance of women’s football for young women here and young girls just can’t be emphasized enough.”
Still, Blitzer and Smith acquired the team at a steep discount. Sources confirmed to ESPN that the expansion teams in Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area require initial outlays of $50 million, at least 10 times what Blitzer and Smith are paying.
The opportunity for Blitzer and Smith was the result of the Royals and RSL being forced-sold due to a toxic work culture and racist remarks from former owner Dell Loy Hansen. Nor was that the full extent of the abusive behavior. Former Royals manager Craig Harrington was cited in the joint NWSL/NWSL Players Association investigation as having been verbally abusive and making sexual advances towards 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 expansion NWSL team that has now morphed into 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 director Mandy Laddish and Sydney Miramontez , who now works for the NWSLPA.
The NWSLPA as a whole is also committed to providing guidance in terms of creating a healthy environment for players and staff. The team also undertook a rebranding effort, including a new logo, to make a sharper break with the past.
“We are one family, so making sure all Utah football clubs 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 train at the training center of the same name, located less than a mile from the stadium. Hyncik said the organization is still considering where the team’s investments in infrastructure will be best served.
Hyncik added that the organization has already started recruiting staff. Caterina De Bacco, who in addition to having a doctorate. in Statistical Physics has done extensive work in football analysis, was retained to lead 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, was hired to be the chief of staff.
In terms of general manager and manager, Hyncik said the search to fill those positions was already underway, although the search for a general manager was not 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 it’s the head coach, then we hire that head coach. I would say it’s fluid and while acknowledging the traditional type of path, we want to hire the right person.”
Despite all the toxicity off the pitch, the Royals were a success on the doorstep. The 2019 season, the last before COVID, saw the team attract over 10,000 fans per game, which would have been third best in the league last season. For this reason, some institutional knowledge will be retained, with the organization addressing fans of the previous team.
“We just want to recommit, and they never gave up and we’re so grateful that they didn’t give up,” Hyncik said. “In addition to certain institutional knowledge, we know that women’s football will be successful here because we have this committed fan base.”
The Royals will also benefit from a much longer track. The first incarnation was just over four months from the time of its announcement to its first game. The current version will be around a year old, 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 football team back here when you see this new era of the league, and the levels the owners are investing in and the new leadership in the league. league.”