In return of Utah Royals, soccer community gets back what it desperately missed

Smith Entertainment Group announced the return of the NWSL team ahead of Real Salt Lake’s home opener of 2023.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Hyncik, president of Utah Royals FC, announces the return of the women's soccer club during a news conference Saturday. America First Credit Union will be the jersey sponsor for the team, which will begin play in the National Women's Soccer League in 2024.

Real Salt Lake’s new owners watched the comments and questions flood in during a town hall meeting with season ticket holders shortly after they took over in January 2022. An impressive number of them were not about the Major League Soccer Club. Instead, fans wanted to know when David Blitzer and Ryan Smith would bring back the Utah Royals FC that was sold in December 2020 and moved to Kansas City.

A little more than two years later, those fans got their wish. Women’s professional soccer Is officially returning to Utah.

Smith Entertainment Group announced Saturday it will resurrect Utah Royals FC, with the club becoming the 13th National Women’s Soccer League team. The Royals will join Real Salt Lake and Real Monarchs, returning to the pro soccer triumvirate in the Beehive State.

“We think this is a big opportunity, especially for what the organization came from, to start fresh,” Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week.

The Royals will begin play in the 2024 season, giving ownership and management much more runway to launch the team than it did when it first arrived in Utah. Royals president Michelle Hyncik told The Tribune that time is on the new-but-not-new team’s side, giving them the opportunity to find the right types of people that will play on the field and be on the technical staff.

“I know that there’s a lot of young girls playing soccer in the communit,y and there’s nothing more important for young players to have heroes to look up to and to have professional women in their backyards,” RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni said Saturday after his team’s 2-1 loss to Austin FC. “I think it’s tremendous for the sport, tremendous for the club. [I’m] really, really excited about them coming on board.”

Hyncik said some “key hirings” have already been made, including statistical physicist Caterina De Bacco and, through Blitzer’s Global Soccer Holdings, professor Chris Anderson, who wrote a book in 2013 about soccer analytics called “The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong.”

Hyncik also hinted at a technical staff hire that could be coming soon.

“We are negotiating with a world-class head coach that I think the community is going to be just totally over the moon with,” Hyncik said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Royals celebrate the second goal as the Utah Royals FC host Sky Blue FC, August 7, 2019 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

The Royals will continue to share America First Stadium with RSL just as they did when it was called Rio Tinto Stadium, Hyncik said. And, obviously, the team name will remain as fans remember it. But aside from that, “pretty much nothing else” will be recognizable to fans.

Hyncik said the team will have a suite of new logos. Additionally, the team hired muralists to spruce up America First Stadium for the Royals’ return. The artists the team hired are all women.

The Royals came to Utah in 2018 after former owner Dell Loy Hansen purchased the contracts of the players who were on the now-defunct FC Kansas City. The team started play in only a few months when, normally, a new team can take years to get off the ground in a new market.

For two seasons, Utah’s NWSL team averaged nearly 10,000 fans per game at the former Rio Tinto Stadium. It averaged the second-most fans in the league during that stretch of time. Only the Portland Thorns had more average daily attendance.

The Royals moved to Kansas City in December 2020 two months after Hansen announced he would sell Utah Soccer LLC, the holding company that also included RSL and Real Monarchs. Hansen came under fire that year after allegations surfaced of racist and sexist behavior, as well as contributing to a toxic workplace culture in the organization.

Recently, an NWSL report detailed allegations against Hansen and former Royals coach Craig Harrington while he coached that team and others in the league. The report described concerns about Hansen’s behavior and also said Harrington made “sexualized jokes and comments to staff.”

NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said Saturday that she had several conversations with Blitzer and Smith about her own values and how she intended to lead the league as commissioner, and how any misconduct would be handled given the circumstances surrounding why the team left in 2020.

“We had several discussions along the way to discuss their vision, my vision, what had transpired in the past, what was and wasn’t acceptable, where we were going to draw the line on any potential misconduct,” Berman said. “And make sure, most importantly, that our clubs are resourced and positioned to be able to support our athletes and ensure that the league is a place where players are proud to play.”

The purchase agreement for the Royals gave the organization’s new owners the option to bring back the NWSL team as a new expansion team at a much lower fee, which was reportedly between $2 million and $5 million. Two other new NWSL teams which will join the league in the future will reportedly pay expansion fees of about $50 million.

Smith said he and the ownership group are of course competitive and want to win. But ultimately, bringing the Royals back wasn’t a financial play as much as it was to enrich the Utah community.

“It’s about running a startup and building it out and empowering the people we have and in doing what we say we’re doing around how we care about the community and in different groups in our community,” Smith said, “and showing that you can do anything in the state of Utah and so every little girl is going to be able to look up and say, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do, what I want to become.’ That’s why we’re doing this. Period.”