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Andy Larsen: In first interview, new Real Salt Lake owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith give fans reason to believe

In an interview, the men in charge of RSL discuss culture, player spending, and the future of soccer in Utah

(Courtesy Real Salt Lake) New Real Salt Lake owners Ryan Smith, left, and David Blitzer, right, pose with Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber. On Wednesday, Blitzer and Smith were announced as the MLS franchise's new owners.

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Can Real Salt Lake’s new ownership lead the club’s rebirth?

Let me establish my bona fides in asking, and trying to answer, the critical question of the day for RSL fans everywhere.

For starters, I’m one of you.

Rio Tinto Stadium opened on Oct. 8, 2008. Five months later, I bought season tickets. Since then, I’ve gone to the overwhelming majority of home games from my spot in the stadium’s south goal. I’ve traveled by bus and plane to several away matches. I tailgate before matches and kick a soccer ball around with friends, and during the contest itself, I stand all game long, singing the songs and chants. I’ve even raised inappropriate fingers and shouted curses at a poor referee who dared cross my team a time or two. Or twelve.

Oh, and probably more critically, I spoke with the team’s new owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith, along with MLS commissioner Don Garber, in order to find out about what new ownership has planned.

Who owns RSL now, and why?

What are the details of RSL’s ownership?

Blitzer is now RSL’s majority owner. Blitzer first earned substantial money as an executive of The Blackstone Group, an investment firm that invests in private equity and real estate.

In addition, Blitzer is a partner in two different existing sports entities: Harris Blitzer Sports Entertainment, in which he and Josh Harris own the largest stakes of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. He also is a partner in Bolt Football Holdings, which owns partially or outright Crystal Palace FC in England, FC Augsburg in Germany, Waasland-Beveren in Belgium, and ADO Den Haag in the Netherlands.

However, RSL won’t be folded into either of those groups, I’m told, instead existing just as a partnership under Blitzer, the Smith Entertainment Group, and investors Arctos Sports Partners. But it will be Blitzer’s personnel who generally oversees the day-to-day soccer operations of the team, with minority owners in the Smith Entertainment Group, watching and helping from nearby.

“I would really think about it as a together partnership,” Blitzer told me Wednesday night after news of the purchase became official. “I think the reality will be we (Blitzer’s management) will probably spend a lot of time thinking about a lot of those soccer-oriented items, just given the other teams and the sort of business that we’ve been in for a long time. But that said, any major decisions, I envision it’s going to be Ryan and I sitting in a room, making those together.”

Smith Entertainment Group, by the way, is not just controlled by Smith, the Qualtrics founder. Tech investor Ryan Sweeney is a major part of the group, and high-profile minority owner and All-NBA guard Dwyane Wade also owns a stake in the operation. Yes, this purchase makes Wade a part-owner of RSL.

But Smith’s involvement isn’t so much of a surprise, thanks to his citizenship in Utah. But what about Blitzer? Why did RSL appeal to him? It’s a long answer, but it’s worth understanding Blitzer’s perspective.

“I kind of view it in concentric circles. I start with soccer. Soccer is an amazing sport and it is incredibly global, right? If you really think about the most global sports, you’re thinking about soccer and you’re thinking about basketball.

“Now, OK, take it to the U.S. If you think about the growth in US soccer, both that has occurred, but is also occurring as we speak and will continue. Then, thinking about the World Cup in 2026 and what’s that going to do in terms of even a greater growth rate, a step function in some ways in terms of the consciousness of this country around the sport.

“Then you get really excited about RSL. Because RSL’s academy, its fan base, its history here. It’s incredible, right? I mean, this is one of the finest academies beyond just the MLS in this country. I mean, this is amazing. And the talent levels just keep growing. So great market, great team, great fan base.

“And then for me personally, then to add on to all of that, then to be able to come in here and do this with Ryan and SEG, it’s just perfect. So yeah, that’s why I was excited.”

Garber, from his point of view, loves the transaction. There’s no doubt that having RSL in limbo was a pain point for him.

“This team is very close to my heart. You may not know that the first expansion team that I brought into MLS in 2005 was Real Salt Lake (along with Chivas USA, it must be noted) and I spent a lot of time in helping to get that stadium built,” Garber said.

“I have been trying to get David to invest in Major League Soccer for 10 plus years. I didn’t know that it would be in Salt Lake. And the fact that he chose Salt Lake, I think, is a great statement for RSL fans and for this market.

“From where we were to where we are now, this is a dream ownership group,” he says.

What does ownership have in store?

So now that the club’s under new control, what comes next?

First on the list is the on-field product. As bright as the playoff run this season was, it was a whisker away from never happening: the team needed a stoppage-time goal to qualify for the playoffs, and the form all season long was, well, inconsistent. Former scout Andy Williams, in interviews after former owner Dell Loy Hansen’s racism allegations were published, dished that team personnel would line up quality signings for Hansen’s signature, only to be dashed by Hansen’s concern for his wallet. The owner shied away from investing seven digits in players that would later be worth eight digits on the open market.

(Julio Cortez | AP) David Blitzer, center, co-owner of the New Jersey Devils, in 2017.

But how will Blitzer and Smith approach player spending?

“I think it’s pretty obvious in the sense that Ryan and I want to have — we have this fantastic team which has this incredible fan base, and they deserve a very high-quality product on the field and a very high-quality product as fans,” Blitzer said.

There’s reason to believe that Blitzer will invest — maybe not wildly, but more than Hansen. The Sixers rank eighth on the list of NBA teams that spend most on the salaries of their players, the Jazz rank sixth. The NHL’s Devils signed on this NHL’s offseason’s biggest contract, signing Dougie Hamilton to a $63 million deal over seven seasons. Crystal Palace’s payroll ranks a solid 10th in the English Premier League.

The group does believe in creating a long-term financially viable product, though, so overspending may not be in the cards. But Smith envisions opportunities available to ownership now that the Jazz and RSL will be officially friends, not enemies competing for the local sporting dollar.

“There’s got to be a lot of synergy here that has never really been possible because the organizations weren’t tied together,” Smith says. “It doesn’t take a whole lot to look and say, ‘Hey, how can we leverage a combined Utah sporting experience?’”

Meanwhile, they also see a chance to collaborate with the international clubs in Blitzer’s portfolio:

“The RSL market just expanded by multiples with the connection and the tie to the European teams that are owned here,” Smith said.

Speaking of other clubs, there could be another one coming to Utah — though it’ll be a familiar face.

Thanks to the two-headed scandal of Hansen’s behavior and verbally abusive remarks from the team’s final head coach, Craig Harrington, the National Women’s Soccer League’s Utah Royals were sold to a couple based in Kansas City. However, a contractual stipulation with the league allowed new RSL ownership the option of re-establishing an expansion franchise with the Utah Royals name in 2023.

And great news for local soccer fans: Blitzer says that the Royals will be coming back.

”We do have an option to bring the Royals back to Utah and back to this marketplace. And I think the best way to say is that from our perspective, that’s a function of when, not if. We’re at day one, but this has been an important item that Ryan and I have talked about a lot, and we’re very excited to bring in NWSL team back to this marketplace. They did incredibly well here. The fanbase loves it. The market is growing. The athletes are incredible. Women’s soccer is continuing to grow dramatically and this is a perfect place to have this team.”

Repairing a culture

The return of the Royals will be an important step in rejuvenating the fan base, but it’s not the only step. Indeed, Blitzer and Smith will need to be owners the community can be proud of.

RSL, from 2008 to 2013, were about as joyous as a fan experience can be. The winning was brilliant — at one point, RSL didn’t lose at home for 25 straight games. The triumvirate of the uber-strong yet gliding Jamison Olave, the cerebral and directive Nat Borchers, and the miniature athletic fast-twitch freak that is Nick Rimando in goal allowed just 20 goals all season long, setting a record for MLS’s best ever defense that still stands today. Kyle Beckerman washed away opponents with his competitive fire. And, God, the things that Javier Morales could do with a soccer ball at his foot still make it into my dreams today.

But most importantly, the vibes were immaculate. New manager Jason Kreis, going from club’s striker one day to manager the next, instituted a team culture that mattered. Audentis Fortuna Juvat — Latin for “Fortune favors the bold” — was hung outside the team’s locker room, referencing a line in the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem written before the birth of Christ.

In 2009, in defeating Landon Donovan and David Beckham for the MLS Cup, they boldly went where no extant major Utah professional franchise had gone before. Kreis, not satisfied with one slogan, added “The Team Is The Star” to the mix: while RSL might not have an international superstar, together, they could outplay anyone.

Fans filled the stadium. Loud and proud, as they say. The latter part of that cliche requires there to be something to be proud of — and with RSL, there was.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake fans cheer in the stands as Real Salt Lake faces CF Monterrey at RioTinto Stadium Wednesday, April 27, 2011.

Then, Hansen bought the club. He botched negotiations with Kreis, allowing him to go to New York City. He infuriated Garth Lagerwey, MLS’s most successful general manager then and since, leading to his departure to club rival Seattle. MLS executive of the year Bill Manning left for greener pastures than under Hansen’s thumb.

Oh, and he used wildly racist language throughout his regime: he threatened to “lynch” an opponent’s player, called one of his own players a “thug”, and even used the n-word in a conversation with the team’s training staff, according to reporting from The Athletic.

It’s not a coincidence that RSL’s on-field success suffered. So too did fan morale: Rio Tinto Stadium rarely sold out, and the chants that once rang throughout the stadium were limited to a few sections. Who could blame them — us — for tepidly supporting the team run by that man? Who wants to buy a jersey or tickets when the proceeds line his pocket? Nor do I think it’s random happenstance that RSL’s brightest moment since 2014 — the team unexpectedly reaching the Western Conference Final this season — happened after Hansen was removed from day-to-day operations.

It’s worth noting that Blitzer’s history isn’t perfect: the Blackstone Group’s real estate purchases in the wake of the late ‘00s subprime crisis often had negative consequences for those communities, for one. On the other hand, he’s on the board of major institutions of hospitals and schools in Pennsylvania and founded the Blitzer Family Foundation to help inner-city kids there. In general, impressions on Blitzer, the man, are relatively positive.

And Blitzer and Smith pledge to be good “stewards” of the franchise in the community.

“We both care a ton about culture in our organizations. ... We’re both hugely involved in our communities,” Blitzer said. “So I just think we think very similarly around all those important items. And, you know, we’re going to run a great franchise.”

“Hopefully we can create a culture, an environment, that brings people together and brings the community together, and help shine on everything that we stand for,” Smith said. “I think that’s exciting.”

So what happens now that the culture of ownership has turned from positive, to a negative, to nothing, to presumably a positive again?

Well, for me? It’s hope. I’m not naive enough to think that RSL’s renaissance is a sure thing — words are always easier than actions. And yet, Blitzer and Smith have the tools, and the outlook, to represent RSL’s best opportunity for meaningful change and growth, a path forward to the new good ’ol days.

So yes, I’ve been standing on my feet, shouting it loud: “Reál.”

But goodness, will it feel good to actually believe.

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