This is when the Utah Royals soccer team could return to Rio Tinto and the NWSL

NWSL commissioner confirmed expansion plans, but would not say whether Utah was a lock

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Royals FC midfielder Lo'eau LaBonta (9) kicks the ball as Portland Thorns FC midfielder Rocky Rodr’guez (11) defends, in soccer action between Utah Royals FC and Portland Thorns FC at Rio Tinto Stadium, on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020.

Real Salt Lake president John Kimball sat in a chair during a question-and-answer session at Silicon Slopes earlier this month and answered a question about the status of negotiations for things like namings rights or jersey logos. And in doing so, he said something women’s soccer fans in Utah would be excited about.

“We are hopeful to bring back a women’s team to the state of Utah,” Kimball said. “We’re working on that. That’s a priority of our ownership group to see if we can make that happen.”

Well, it looks like it that will indeed happen.

Utah Royals FC is expected to return to Utah in 2024, according to a new ESPN report.

RSL officials have yet to confirm when the Royals might return to the state but said they are working toward that end goal.

“Real Salt Lake is actively exploring the opportunity to bring the NWSL back to Utah,” Kimball reiterated in a statement Thursday. “As we have said since January, we expect this to be a matter of when — not if — the Royals return. Our ownership and executives are engaged in various processes to continue these discussions.”

The Royals played in the National Women’s Soccer League from 2018-20. When then-owner Dell Loy Hansen became embroiled in allegations of racism and contributing to a toxic workplace environment, Hansen’s teams were put up for sale and the Royals’ assets were transferred to an expansion team in Kansas City.

When news of the sale broke in December 2020, fans of the Royals voiced their anguish over the club’s departure. The Royals averaged 10,120 fans at Rio Tinto Stadium in 2018 and 2019, per data from Soccer Stadium Digest. The team saw the second-most attendance in the NWSL in those two seasons.

With the sale of the team came the option that whoever bought Utah Soccer LLC could bring the team back. Although, that option was limited to the year 2023, a league source told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time. Furthermore, the new owners would still need to pay an expansion fee to reenter the league.

The notion that 2024 would also be an option seems to have materialized due to what’s been going on in the NWSL for the last 18 months. Lisa Baird left as commissioner, and Jessica Berman took over. Several teams have been embroiled in scandal. Angel City FC and the San Diego Wave entered the league. Team valuations have ballooned. The players earned their first-ever collective bargaining agreement.

With Utah specifically, the option to bring the Royals back was negotiated when Baird was still commissioner and while Hansen still owned the Royals and Real Salt Lake — and as the COVID-19 pandemic was still greatly affecting sports all over the world.

When new owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith took control of Real Salt Lake in January, they told The Tribune that it would be a “function of when, not if” they bring a franchise back. Waiting until 2024 gives Blitzer and Smith plenty of runway to figure out how to bring the Royals back in a way that makes the most sense.

“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,” Blitzer said at the time. “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 a 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.”

According to an ESPN report Thursday, 2024 is the target for that return. The sentiment behind the scenes at RSL is that both the NWSL at the new owners of Utah’s soccer footprint are working toward 2024.

Berman, the new NWSL commissioner, told ESPN that two teams would be added to the league in 2024, though she declined to confirm that Utah would be one of them.

“We’re working with them to figure out what that means,” she told ESPN. “The process is underway. There are steps that need to be taken still in order to be in a position to be able to say, yes, in fact, that is happening.”