SANDY, UT — The National Women’s Soccer League formally announced the return of Utah Royals FC today during a press conference at America First Field.
The Royals will begin play in the 2024 NWSL season, Real Salt Lake and Utah Royals owners Ryan Smith and David Blitzer announced in a statement alongside NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman.
The announcement comes after years of waiting, and it’s been eagerly awaited by executives at the club. “The club is whole again”, Real Salt Lake vice-president Tyler Gibbons said in an interview.
“(Changes at clubs like Portland) opened up an opportunity for this club to be the preeminent club when it comes to the academy system and then men and women's soccer because we're the only one that does it to the level in this entire country.” said Gibbons.
“It just feels right that there would be a women's team here,” former Utah Royals player Mandy Laddish said in an interview. “I'm really excited to see a fully women-led organization coming to the league.”
The new iteration of the Royals will be led by Michelle Hyncik, who will serve as president of Utah Royals FC. Hyncik joined Real Salt Lake as vice-president of legal and general counsel in 2020 after working at Major League Soccer for five years as legal counsel. Hyncik will move away from her role as legal counsel and dedicate her focus to the Royals.
Under previous ownership the role of Utah Royals president did not exist. Owner Dell Loy Hansen served as President of the origination (RSL and Utah Royals), with general managers for each team reporting directly to him. Kraft Analytics Group CEO Jessica Gelman and Philadelphia 76ers president Daryl Morey bought into Utah Soccer LLC as a consortium known as 42 Football Group. Under the ownership group headed up by Smith and Blitzer, Hyncik will report directly to ownership, just as RSL President John Kimball does.
Despite ownership having an option to bring the Royals back for the 2023 season, the plan was always for the 2024 season, giving the team more time to prepare.
“I think time is always your biggest resource in life,” Hyncik said “I do not like false senses of urgency ever, so I think whenever you can maximize time and maximize that as a resource, everything will have a better chance of succeeding the more the more time you can invest in something. And the players, the community here, the state of Utah, really deserve that. And so having this year ramp up will really be foundational, and we do have the time to make sure that we do it right.”
With the announcement, the focus now shifts to building out the staff. Hiring a head coach and general manager are the top priorities. The club is in talks with a coach Hyncik says is world class and is hoping to have an announcement on that front very soon. Once those key pieces are in place, they’ll move forward with finding the right people for the staff. When the technical staff is solidified, they can then work on building the team.
A new crest
In addition to the new President, the club also revealed their new crest. The new badge was designed by a female design team led by Tovah Kaiser. Her firm, Tov Creative, is based in Philadelphia and has worked with MLS teams, though this is their first NWSL crest.
A club spokesperson said the change to a new crest from the original is mean to demarcate a new era of Utah Royals FC under new ownership.
The crest’s focus is a simpler design than the original Utah Royals logo. The lioness is still the focal point, but it drops elements like Delicate Arch, the “FC” after Utah Royals and the soccer balls. It still looks to pay homage to both the original brand and to the state. In the negative space between the lion’s head and the crown, a mountain range represents the Wasatch Front.
When it comes to fan experience, the stadium is already showing signs of the Royals with a few new additions this season. On the northwest corner of the building, the lion head and crown can already be seen, though without the full crest. In the east side corridor, a large photograph of a Utah Royals goal celebration from their first home goal (a 1-1 draw with the Portland Thorns, with Amy Rodriguez scoring the Utah goal).
There is another mural of the Royals lioness that reads “return of royalty” in the east corridor. There is also a Utah Royals mural both inside and outside the player tunnel (there is a corresponding RSL mural).
Gibbons said it was important that the stadium feel like it’s equally the Royals home as well as RSL’s home. The club is working towards that with these murals and installations, but more changes are planned. The Royals crest will become more prominent around the stadium, and they’re hoping to get the team name patterned in the chairs when those are next replaced, similar to how the white chairs spell out “Real Salt Lake” in the stands.
Another facet to all this is Utah’s laws around abortion and reproductive rights after the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman has said a state’s laws around these rights could factor into their decision for an expansion team.
The Utah Legislation recently passed a bill (HB467) to effectively ban abortions in clinics in the state starting in 2024. The bill has yet to be signed into law by Utah Governor Spencer Cox, but he is expected to do so soon. This raises the question if NWSL players will have concerns about playing in a state like Utah with laws that restrict women’s rights.
Former Utah Royals midfielder Mandy Laddish acknowledged this is a difficult topic, but she expressed trust that the league would put protections in place for their athletes.
Hyncik outlined that Real Salt Lake, in conjunction with the Utah Jazz and Qualtrics (both are owned by Ryan Smith), have a policy “whereby a health benefit for women in our organization if they need a health procedure that isn't offered in the state of Utah that we will reimburse those costs of travel and lodging and help them get whatever care they need.“
It’s a policy the NWSL is aware of.