The Utah Royals are officially back, and with a handful of new investors.
Kraft Analytics Group CEO Jessica Gelman and Philadelphia 76ers exec Daryl Morey are part of a group that recently bought into Utah Soccer LLC, the parent of MLS club Real Salt Lake and the Royals, which will rejoin the NWSL next year. They investors will provide strategic expertise to the Royals, which Utah Soccer backers David Blitzer and Ryan Smith paid roughly $2 million to revive—a heavy discount compared with current expansion fees.
The five-investor consortium, named 42 Futbol Group, also includes 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, the principal owner.
The group had been looking for inroads into women’s sports for a while, Gelman said in an interview, starting with the thesis that analytics was being underutilized in leagues such as the WNBA and NWSL. She said 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.”
A representative for Utah Soccer LLC declined to provide financial details of the group’s investment, or say whose equity was being purchased.
A formal announcement for the Royals’ return is planned for Saturday, prior to RSL’s home opener at America First Field. Michelle Hyncik, RSL’s general counsel for the past three years, will serve as team president.
The Royals are likely not the only team formally joining NWSL in the coming weeks. The league spent much of 2022 running an expansion process, and is finalizing two more additions—a team in the San Francisco Bay Area will likely enter alongside the Royals in 2024, and a team in Boston will join at a later date. Both those groups are negotiating expansion fees north of $50 million, according to people familiar with the talks.
That’s significantly more than the $2 million that Blitzer and Smith, who bought RSL back in 2022, paid last year to resurrect the Royals. The original Utah Royals played three NWSL seasons, and were relocated to Kansas City in 2021 amid an investigation into then-owner Dell Loy Hansen. As compensation, RSL kept the Royals IP, and was granted an option to buy back into the league. That price was originally $500,000, but it was increased as Blitzer and Smith took over, Sportico has previously reported.
The original Royals ranked second in NWSL attendance in their three years in Utah, and built the league’s second largest social media following. That passion remained after the team left for Kansas City, and was re-energized when Blitzer and Smith bought RSL (and the Royals option) for nearly $400 million. Blitzer and Smith held an introductory town hall with RSL season ticket holders last January, and the most popular question from viewers on the video call was about their plans to revive the Royals.
“The chat was running on the side of the screen, so you could read what fans were writing in real time,” Hyncik said of the discussion. “David and Ryan were both floored. It was a milestone moment for our ownership group to be able to visually and viscerally see how important it was to our community.”
Sales conversations followed a similar pattern. Hyncik said RSL’s business partners have also been asking for the past few years about when/if the Royals would return. America First Credit Union, the naming rights partner for the Utah soccer stadium, is in talks to expand that partnership to become the Royals' jersey front sponsor, according to people familiar with the talks.
“If you’re one of our key partners, you want to be involved because you see what’s happening and you see the level of investment from our ownership and how they’re prioritizing the women’s game,” Hyncik said.
The 42 Futbol Group’s name is a reference to Douglas Adams’ 1979 novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the number 42 represents the meaning of life as determined by a supercomputer. Gelman and Morey are co-founders of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and have spent the last two decades on the front line of sports and data. Steger, who led the EY Microsoft Business Applications Consulting unit, is a long-time friend of Morey’s, while Reinhard, a Netflix exec since 2016, is a former classmate and Harvard basketball teammate of Gelman’s. Petro, who is married to Gelman, founded Eleanor Health in 2019 to expand access to addiction recovery and outpatient care.
Each brings a different perspective to the Royals, be it expertise in business analytics, team analytics, consulting, media, mental health or operations. The majority-female group is also passionate about inclusion, equity and social justice, Gelman said, which is top of mind in NWSL as the league emerges from multiple investigations that detailed rampant abuse and misconduct. The Utah ownership group is partnering with the local YWCA and plans to support STEM education opportunities for young women in the community.
“I think we are the best women’s soccer league in the world, and attention to those details matters,” Gelman said. “And the investments that we’re making into the Utah community are going to be very significant and powerful.”
In addition to the expertise of the investors in 42 Futbol Group, the Utah Royals will also be able to tap into synergies across Blitzer’s full soccer portfolio. Along with RSL, that includes clubs in England (Crystal Palace), Germany (FC Augsburg), Spain (AD Alcorcón), Portugal (Estoril), Belgium (SK Beveren), Denmark (Brøndby IF) and the Netherlands (ADO Den Haag).