On the same night as Real Salt Lake’s 2023 home opener on Saturday, ownership made it official that the Utah Royals will be returning to America First Field as well.
“I couldn’t be more excited to officially welcome the Utah Royals back,” said Real Salt Lake co-owner Ryan Smith at a pregame announcement inside the stadium.
NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman was on hand for the announcement and said the team is slated to return to the field for the 2024 season.
Berman was hired as NWSL commissioner one year and two days ago, and she said the first initiative she was briefed on upon being hired was the Utah Royals, and getting them back. The club previously played two years in Utah in 2018 and 2019, but former owner Dell Loy Hansen sold the team back to a Kansas City investment group after he became embattled in controversy that ultimately led him to sell Real Salt Lake as well.
Burman said at the time, the Royals set the standard for professional training facilities in NWSL, and it helped the rest of the league raise the bar.
She said with the new ownership group, she expects that trend to pick up where it left off.
“The history here is I think well known and obvious, the community supported this team for several years before they left so there’s a proven fanbase here and that’s no better data point to a league to bring a team to a community,” said Berman.
It’s something Smith felt as well after he was part of an ownership group that purchased RSL a little over a year ago. During the Royals’ official announcement in front of fans and VIP members on Saturday, Smith recounted the very first question he received in a town hall with RSL fans a year ago, “When would the Utah Royals return?”
Smith said that he and co-owner David Blitzer hadn’t discussed that detail at all, but both said, “Of course we are.”
A year later, that has become a reality.
Smith said the Royals returning isn’t just about sport, but it’s about leadership, technology and what the asset can do for the community.
“It’s 100 percent a community asset, and there’s a lot of work and responsibility,” said Smith.
He said in a perfect world he’d have more time to start another professional soccer franchise just a year after rejuvenating a Real Salt Lake franchise, but he said returning the Royals to the community was too important to not jump on.
He credits the passion of team president Michelle Hyncik for making it possible.
“(It’s) a time in NWSL where honestly I think they need us and I think we share that same vision and passion. There’s probably never a great time to do it, so you lean in and we’re super fortunate to have incredible folks within the organization, Michelle especially, who said we’re going and we’re going now, and we all said this is the type of passion we want and we’re going to back it,” said Smith.
During her introductory press conference, Hyncik said Saturday was her first official day on the job as a Utah Royals employee.
Hyncik has served as Real Salt Lake’s General Counsel for the past three years, and was in Utah when the Royals franchise was sold to Kansas City in December 2020.
At the time, Hansen was still trying to sell the RSL franchise — which would remain for sale for another year with MLS running the team for a year. NWSL indicated that once new RSL owners took over, they would have the right to buy back into NWSL with a discounted expansion fee.
As a result, there’s almost been a sentiment within the soccer community in Utah that the Royals returning was always as a matter of not if, but when.
Hyncik in particular has held that idea close to her heart, so much so that she basically locked the door on the Utah Royals locker room facility at America First Field and hid the key. Hansen previously spent a reported $1 million on the Royals locker room facility, making it the crown jewel in the NWSL.
“Literally since the day they left I personally have Saran wrapped that locker room off, those facilities have been in hibernation,” said Hyncik.
Commissioner Berman said she visited the locker room back in December during a visit with RSL ownership, and said it felt like a time capsule.
“It almost gave me the chills that they’ve been waiting for this moment for three years,” she said.
It was announced on Saturday that America First Credit Union will be the Royals’ jersey front sponsor beginning with the 2024 season.
Smith said she expects Hyncik to hit the ground running with hiring a staff to help the organization be successful. They fully expect the fanbase to come back in full, a fanbase that is hungry for a winner after the club missed the playoffs in its two seasons in Utah.