Real Salt Lake for the past few seasons has operated on something of a shoestring budget. When a coach or general manager opening would present itself, the club opted to promote from within rather than bring in someone more expensive from the outside.
On the field, RSL relied heavily on its academy and the Real Monarchs to promote players to the first team. Sure, the organization brought players from other clubs or from overseas — i.e. Damir Kreilach, Everton Luiz, Anderson Julio and others — and they’ve been very productive and effective. But none of those players demanded the price tags commensurate with talented international players that could’ve filled some roster holes for RSL over the years.
But that might change now with David Blitzer and Ryan Smith owning the franchise. The two businessmen, along with Arctos Sports Partners as a limited partner, agreed on Wednesday to buy RSL and everything associated with it, including the Monarchs, the academy, the two stadiums and the training facility in Herriman.
Soccer analyst Brian Dunseth, a former RSL and Major League Soccer player who commentates on the team’s live broadcasts, said having Blitzer and Smith leading the way “changes everything” simply because of how much more financial resources they can put into the club compared to Dell Loy Hansen’s previous ownership.
“You’re talking about Monopoly money,” Dunseth told The Salt Lake Tribune. “With this type of backing, this type of ownership group, it completely changes what this club [has] been operating in financially, both in discretionary spend on the roster [and], just as importantly, the continued growth of the infrastructure.”
Blitzer, Smith and MLS Commissioner Don Garber appeared together Thursday afternoon to take questions about RSL’s new ownership. The first topic addressed was the new owners’ plans for investing money on the field.
“The reality is Ryan and I are extremely competitive individuals and we want to see Real Salt Lake win the MLS Cup,” Blitzer said. “That’s abundantly clear.”
Blitzer’s comment alone might have move the needle for fans who have been frustrated that Hansen, a billionaire, also indicated he wanted to win championships but was repeatedly hesitant to spend the money it might take to do so. But Smith later may have given fans a real reason for optimism.
Smith mentioned that the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers — NBA teams Smith and Blitzer own, respectively — are among the highest spending in professional basketball.
“If you look at both the Jazz and the Sixers, we’re fifth and sixth maybe in payroll in the NBA and people still criticize us for not spending enough,” Smith said. “So I think our track records are pretty good here.”
RSL managed to sign players like Anderson, Rubio Rubin, Bobby Wood and Toni Datković despite not having any extra money its coffers to spend on improving the roster in 2021. The club also signed Pablo Mastroeni to a multi-year deal to be the team’s permanent head coach and did so without new ownership in place. Those moves alone speak to how general manager Elliot Fall and the rest of the front office wanted to operate as though nothing had changed.
Experts in sports business that spoke with The Tribune, though, are cautious about how Blitzer and Smith will affect the future of RSL from a financial standpoint.
Blitzer has money tied up all over the global sports landscape. He owns teams in the NBA and NHL, and has investments in several European soccer teams. He also has a financial state in an NFL team, and is reportedly close to buying a big chunk of an MLB team. And now he’s bought into MLS.
It’s a situation that has Andrew Zimbalist, a sports business expert and professor of economics at Smith College, wondering just how much bandwidth Blitzer will have for RSL.
“It’s a little bit unnerving that he’s got one franchise in Philadelphia, another one in northern New Jersey and another one now in Salt Lake,” Zimbalist said, adding that owners of sports franchises having more direct involvement helps improve community engagement. “In terms of his own involvement and connection to the community, I think it gets spread a little more thinly than you would like.”
Some fans might balk at the fact that Blitzer will not be a quote-unquote local owner. But that’s presumably where Smith comes in — a Utah native who just bought the biggest sports franchise in the state, and has attempted to improve the community while doing so.
When asked if he had always anticipated finding a local partner to invest in RSL with him, Blitzer said, “100%.”
But Stefan Szymanski, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan, doesn’t find it the local connection to RSL’s ownership all that meaningful.
“The local knowledge is all largely irrelevant because, frankly, that’s what you pay your managers to do,” Szymanski said. “Maybe you hire local people to run your community engagement programs and all of that. But they could do all that stuff without making sure you’re connected to the local environment.”
Of concern to some experts is who among the new RSL owners will have the final say in decisions. Yes, Smith is the person connected with the state and thus may have more of an emotional investment in the club and the community. But when push comes to shove, financial decisions could rest with Blitzer and what he feels is best investment — and that may not jibe with what fans want.
“I’m not trying to say that having local owners is not a good thing. It’s been a tried and true tactic for years and years, said Gil Fried, a lawyer and a professor emeritus at the University of New Haven. “But you have to look at the underlying deal. Are they going to be equal partners? Is one going to be a 51% partner, which means that they have the overriding ability to change what’s going on? If they own 51% and they farm out the other 49%, they still make all the decisions.”
Blitzer addressed this somewhat on Thursday. He said he believes in empowering people do their jobs and that he has “excellent people” at RSL.
“I think on key decisions, of course Ryan and I are going to be talking amongst ourselves and with our partners and with our management teams on those,” Blitzer said. “But kind of on that gritty day-to-day, I let the management teams do their jobs.”
The Jazz this year are one of the best teams in the NBA with what many basketball analysts think is at least a solid opportunity to win a championship. Blitzer’s teams have had varying levels of success.
While win-loss records of those teams may not portend much as it relates to RSL, one recent situation may. Ricardo Pepi, who formerly played with FC Dallas and has appeared with the U.S. Men’s National Team, was sold for a reported $20 million to FC Augsburg of the Bundesliga. Blitzer is a minority owner of and investor in FC Augsburg and is thought to have pushed that deal through.
“If it’s the right team, that’s a pretty good sign that he’s not afraid to spend money because that was a record transfer for Pepi,” said Victor Matheson, a sports business expert at College of the Holy Cross. Matheson added that fans shouldn’t expect exorbitant spending from Blitzer as that is not his track record, but they also shouldn’t expect him to pinch pennies.
“Don’t count on Messi retiring to Utah here after he gets done in Europe, or Ronaldo,” Matheson said. “But you also don’t expect this to be a group of BYU club players who are playing for the league minimum in order to just shelve money and not put a product on the field.”
Nevertheless, Dunseth was practically beaming at the potential that Blitzer and Smith could bring to his former club.
“I can’t think of a better outcome for the fan base and for the club that for the last year and a half has been sitting and waiting and trying to understand what the future could hold,” Dunseth said.