The owners of Real Salt Lake have a roughly $2 million option to revive Utah Royals FC as an NWSL expansion team, according to people familiar with the details, a price significantly lower than the tens of millions that the league is expected to fetch for its other expansion slot.
The option, which dates back to the 2020 relocation of the original Royals, was initially $500,000, said the people, who were granted anonymity because the details are private. It was revised up to about $2 million after a group led by David Blitzer purchased RSL, the people said. Blitzer’s group, which includes Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, is expected to exercise the option in the coming weeks.
The 12-team NWSL is currently looking to add two more clubs, and if Utah becomes No. 13, it will come at a steep discount. League valuations have soared in the past two years amid an uptick in viewership, attendance, and investment. Commissioner Jessica Berman said Friday that league sponsorship was up 87% year over year. The group that eventually lands franchise No. 14, currently in the sales process, is expected to pay an expansion fee of anywhere from $20 million to $50 million.
Representatives for RSL and Inner Circle Sports, the bank hired to help with the league’s expansion efforts, declined to comment.
Asked Friday about the expansion fee and league valuations, Berman said she believes NWSL franchises could soon be worth double or triple today’s numbers. “So the fact that [RSL’s fee] was negotiated at a different time and space for this league, and the more recent benchmarks for valuation which have been publicly reported, including the majority control sale of the team here in Washington and some other publicly reported numbers of team valuations in minority fundraising that our teams have done, those are the benchmarks we believe will drive the valuations for our current expansion process,” she said.
The original Utah Royals, owned by former RSL principal Dell Loy Hansen, played three NWSL seasons from 2018-2020. When Hansen was accused of racist behavior, which led to the sale of RSL, the single-entity NWSL chose to relocate the Royals to Kansas City. As part of that deal, RSL retained the right to the team name and branding, plus an option to purchase a future NWSL expansion slot at a set price.
An investor in all five major U.S. leagues, Blitzer said during his introductory press conference that it was a “function of when, not if” his group brought an NWSL team back to Utah. The MLS club is in the process of raising money, and the Royals have been a part of those discussions, according to multiple people familiar with the talks.
The $2 million price, which dates back to a prior NWSL commissioner, is in line with league expansion fees from just a few years ago. Angel City, one of the league’s most valuable teams, paid a $2 million expansion fee in 2020. Later that year, Kansas City paid $5 million to bring in the Royals (since renamed the Kansas City Current), a possible premium for getting an established team as opposed to starting from scratch.
The NWSL in July hired Inner Circle (which handled the RSL sale) to run its expansion process. And while Utah’s price is set, the expansion fee for team No. 14 is not. More than a dozen groups around the country have expressed interest in bidding for that franchise, per sources, with formal bids due in the coming weeks. Opinions vary on how much that final slot will cost, with conservative estimates starting around $20 million. Kansas City Current owner Angie Long said on the Sporticast podcast last week that it could fetch as much as $50 million.
Outside of expansion, there may soon be a few other NWSL teams on the market. The league is currently dealing with the fallout of an investigative report from earlier this month, which detailed numerous instances of sexual misconduct and verbal harassment and executives who failed to appropriately respond to allegations. Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson has stepped down as CEO of the team, Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler was removed from the team’s board, and there’s some pressure on the owners of Racing Louisville as well.
There will likely be more clarity on the ownership future of all three teams following the conclusion of a joint investigation by the league and its players. Those findings are expected in the coming weeks.
The NWSL championship is Saturday in Washington, D.C., between the Current and Thorns.
With reporting from Emily Caron.
(This article has been updated in the fifth paragraph with comment from Jessica Berman.)