SANDY, Utah – The 2023 NWSL season kicks off Saturday and there’s one thing we know for sure: This is the last year the league will be 12 teams after the Utah Royals FC recently announced its return to the league for 2024.
“I knew that this was going to be one of the most important things that we do,” Jessica Berman said at the announcement March 11 regarding her priority initiatives over her first year as NWSL commissioner. “I lead on behalf of the NWSL, who is making sure that we bring this team back because we know the NWSL fans here are avid, and they care and they’re passionate, and that’s why we’re so excited to bring this team back to the community that’s been asking for [it].”
The Royals ownership group includes Ryan Smith, owner of Smith Entertainment Group, a sports, technology and entertainment investment group whose portfolio includes the Utah Jazz (NBA), Real Salt Lake (MLS), Vivint Arena, America First Field, the Salt Lake City Stars (NBA G-League), Real Monarchs (MLS NEXT Pro) and management of the Salt Lake Bees (Triple A baseball); and David Blitzer, owner of sports investment group Global Football Holdings, which has interests in the Philadelphia 76ers (NBA), New Jersey Devils (NHL), Cleveland Guardians (MLB) and seven European soccer entities including Crystal Palace (England) and FC Augsburg (Germany).
Also joining the ownership is Kraft Analytics Group CEO Jessica Gelman and Philadelphia 76ers exec Daryl Morey, who are part of a five-investor consortium named 42 Futbol Group. Rounding out the group are Netflix vice president Amy Reinhard, former Ernst & Young partner Jim Steger and Eleanor Health CEO Corbin Petro. Gelman will serve as the team’s alternate governor alongside Blitzer, while Michelle Hyncik has been named the club’s president. Hyncik has served as RSL’s general counsel for the past three years and spent five years working as a senior legal counsel for Major League Soccer.
In a recent interview with Sportico, Gelman said the group believes that analytics was being underutilized in leagues such as the WNBA and NWSL, noting “there was a natural fit between 42 Futbol Group’s vision and the commitment from Utah Soccer to dedicate appropriate resources toward the new women’s franchise.”
“This is the right opportunity, with the right overarching ownership group, which has the same vision as us: to empower women, affect change and to do it right,” Gelman said. “Alignment of values is so important.”
The new club is returning to a state with a very different landscape following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last June. Just four days after the Royals’ announcement, Utah’s Gov. Spencer Coxsigned into a law a bill that bans all abortion clinics by Jan. 1, 2024.
Berman stated last summer that a state’s abortion laws would factor into the league’s decision regarding expansion cities: “It’s one of the things that we’re actually currently analyzing, which is looking even at our current markets to see where we have some differentiation between our values and what we stand behind relative to where we have teams located, and what are the solutions we can put in place that we feel comfortable we can commit to and execute on,” she said.
Berman, Smith and Hyncik talked with On Her Turf about how they plan to address Utah’s reproductive health-care laws within the Royals organization, plus we unpack Utah’s new legislation and take a look at what’s new for the club’s second iteration.
Current Utah abortion legislation counting down to 2024 ban on clinics
Cox signed H.B. 467 into law on March 15 and it takes effect May 3, when abortion clinics will be required to close either by the end of the year or when their license expires, whichever comes first. Additionally, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services will not be allowed to grant or renew abortion clinic licenses starting May 2. The full ban goes into effect Jan. 1, 2024.
The bill does include exceptions for victims of rape and incest, when the mother’s life is in danger or when the fetus has a “lethal fetal anomaly.” It also classifies violations of Utah’s abortion laws as “unprofessional conduct” for health-care providers, requires doctors to offer perinatal hospice and palliative care options as alternatives to abortion for women facing a fatal anomaly, and prohibits abortion for victims of sexual assault and incest after 18 weeks.
“This bill clarifies that so that those abortions can continue. They will continue in a hospital setting, but there’s nothing to prevent those from continuing,” Cox said at a recent news conference.
Under the legislation, all abortions will be required to take place in a hospital, which is defined as “a general hospital licensed by the state.” Critics warn that moving abortions to hospital facilities will likely raise the cost of accessing an abortion in Utah, even when medically necessary, as out-of-pocket costs in a hospital can reach into the thousands compared to costs at abortion clinics.
How Royals ownership, NWSL are addressing Utah’s abortion laws
Both Smith and Berman addressed head-on the concerns over players’ and female staff health-care access in light of Utah’s restrictions. Smith noted that it’s something his companies have already addressed and implemented a policy for.
“Similar to what we’ve done with the Jazz and what we’ve done with all the employees that work in this organization: If there’s healthcare that is not provided by the state, we’ve offered a stipend, we’ve offered consideration for them to go receive whatever treatment they want elsewhere,” he said. “This is one of the greatest reasons why Michelle (Hyncik) is in this spot, because we worked hand-in-hand with her to develop all of this and roll it out.
“There’s a lot of opportunity we have to push forward what the women in this state can go do. I’m incredibly proud of the women that we have in the state, Look at the entrepreneurship and this platform – it’s way bigger than soccer. And as a girl dad, that’s what I want to see — I want my daughters want to work here. I want our stats department and our analytics to be the best in women’s sports, and I don’t know why we can’t officially own that. And with Jessica (Gelman) coming on board – that’s what she’s done out of Boston and with all of their analytics background, like, that’s right here.”
Berman expressed confidence in the Royals’ ownership, noting: “It’s something that we talk about often and in particular with Meghann Burke (executive director of the NWSL Player Association), and we know that it’s on players’ minds. It’s our responsibility to offer that safety net for players, and we know that the Royals ownership group is completely aligned to ensure that if an athlete’s medical needs are not able to be addressed in their home market, that we have the mechanisms and the tools to offer them the support they need, even if they have to leave the market. We’re going to work closely with the union and with our players and our health-care providers to make sure that our players are taken care of.”
In a statement to local Salt Lake City news outlet KSL.com, a club spokesperson stated that: “For all employees enrolled in our benefits plan, we have had a policy in place where if there is a medical procedure that is not provided in the state of Utah, we will provide a reimbursement of up to $4,000 toward travel and lodging costs.”
The nearest abortion providers outside of Utah are in Colorado — in Durango and Glenwood Springs. Earlier in March, a proposed Planned Parenthood clinic in West Wendover, Nevada, was blocked when city council members denied the organization’s request for a conditional use permit. According to the Guttmacher Institute, however, Colorado is protective of abortion rights and has a shield law to protect abortion providers from investigations by other states.
What’s new for the Utah Royals
The new Utah Royals FC has a lot to look forward to, beginning with a new, state-of-the-art locker room at newly renamed America First Credit Union Field, the stadium they’ll share with MLS team Real Salt Lake.
“I personally have Saran-wrapped that locker room off,” said Hyncik. “Those facilities have been in hibernation, just waiting for the women to come back.”
Additionally, the stadium saved spaces for Royals murals, intentionally left blank when the team did recent improvements and now filled with artworks. Expect to see a depiction of the club’s updated crest, which still features a lioness wearing a crown and a blue, gold and red color scheme, but the new badge is a bolder, cleaner look that also pays homage to Utah with its iconic mountain range graphically incorporated into the crown. Philadelphia-based Tobah Kaiser and her women-run studio, Tov Creative, led the redesign project.
As for partners, the Royals announced the YWCA Utah as a foundational partner and donated $20,000 to the organization during halftime of RSL’s home opener. Hyncik said the Royals also will support STEM education opportunities for young women in the community. America First Credit Union, a longtime partner of RSL and the original Royals, will be the new Royals’ jersey front partner.
“Our foremost goal is to empower women, not only on the field but also the young women off the field who look up to them as heroes and women throughout the community,” she added.
History of Utah Royals FC
The Royals were first established in November 2017, the same week that FC Kansas City folded its club and the team’s player contracts, draft picks and other rights were transferred to the new Salt Lake City team. The expansion club debuted in 2018, packing in 19,203 fans at the home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium, and regularly averaging 11,000 fans or more during three seasons in the NWSL.
England’s Laura Harvey, who currently manages Seattle’s OL Reign, was hired as the first head coach and recorded an 18-17-12 (W-L-D) record over the first two seasons. Several U.S. national team members spent time with Utah including Kelly O’Hara, Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez and Becky Sauerbrunn.
The 2020 season was a tumultuous one for Utah. Head coach Craig Harrington was placed on administrative leave that September amid reports that he allegedly made inappropriate sexual and racist comments to staff and was being verbally abusive, and subsequently was fired in November. Harrington received a two-year suspension from the NWSL this past January after an investigation found he “made inappropriate sexual and objectifying comments” to players.
Amy LePeilbet stepped in as interim coach, and the team went 0-2-2 to finish the season. Additionally, MLS opened an investigation into Real Salt Lake and Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen for racist comments and behavior. Hansen sold his Utah soccer holdings, which included the Royals, RSL and USL’s Real Monarchs, at the end of the year.
The team officially finished 18-14-17 in three seasons in Utah, never reaching the NWSL Cup playoffs but making a statement during the pandemic when the league needed a place to play the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup — a one-off tournament that marked the league’s return to action. The Royals donated $900,000 to help establish a bubble for the four-week tournament that stretched from June 27-July 26, as the NWSL became the first North American professional sports league to return to play following the national shutdown.
In December that year, the Royals moved back east to become the Kansas City Current, whose ownership group includes Brittany and Patrick Mahomes. In January 2022, Real Salt Lake transitioned ownership to Blitzer and Smith.
More about potential NWSL expansion teams
In July, the NWSL announced that it would be adding two expansion teams in 2024 and a third later on. The other two cities expected to secure franchises are Boston and the San Francisco Bay area, according to a Wall Street Journal report that estimates the two cities will pay a record $50 million in franchise fees. Utah paid a much cheaper price, reportedly $3.5 million, thanks to a prior agreement by former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird, who had agreed to a fixed reactivation fee.
The 2022 season debuted two new NWSL teams, both located in California: Angel City FC, which averaged more than 19,000 fans at games last year, and San Diego Wave FC, which reached the playoff semifinals and set several attendance records.
Like Utah, Boston would be making its return to the NWSL. The Boston Breakers, one of the NWSL’s original teams, played for five years from 2013-17. San Francisco and Utah are set to begin play in 2024, with Boston launching at a later date.