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Utah Royals return to NWSL for 2024: How it happened and why things are different this time

• Royals return to NWSL for 2024 under new ownership and with refreshed brand after 2020 demise
• Roughly $2 million fee comes as bargain as NWSL’s popularity explodes
• Commissioner Jessica Berman, NWSLPA, Royals president address Utah laws on abortion and transgender healthcare

Meg Van Dyk (Real Salt Lake)

Eight hundred twenty-four days passed between the National Women’s Soccer League’s announcement that Utah Royals FC would fold, and Saturday’s official announcement that the franchise has been revived as a 2024 expansion team.

The Royals will rejoin the NWSL next season alongside another expansion team (expected to be the California’s Bay Area) to bring the league to 14 teams. Utah’s name remains the same, although the Royals’ branding has been refreshed and, most importantly, ownership is completely different from the previous regime that left amid controversy. Sources say the expansion fee paid was roughly $2 million, as first reported on ESPN in June, marking a significant bargain to the $50 million fees expected to be fetched by the next two teams joining the league.

Saturday’s Royals announcement was confirmation of what has been an open secret for the past year. It was also a culmination of efforts that literally began with the Dec. 7, 2020, announcement of the Royals’ demise.

“From the moment that happened, I feel like every day I’ve woken up trying to get them back,” new Utah Royals president Michelle Hyncik told The Equalizer this week.

Hyncik, who joined Real Salt Lake — the MLS team that shares ownership with the Royals — in 2020, personally negotiated a buy-back clause into the termination of the Royals franchise for future prospective owners to trigger.

The Royals ranked second in NWSL attendance in the two full seasons the team operated, and the franchise set several business standards that pushed the league forward. Utah hosted the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, an endeavor that former leaders said cost nearly $1 million and made the NWSL the first U.S. team sport to return to play at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlike past failures in the sport, the team’s dissolution — and replacement with what is now the Kansas City Current franchise — was not about failed business metrics; allegations of racism, sexism and a toxic work environment ended Dell Loy Hansen’s brief reign as an influential NWSL owner. The Salt Lake City area team joined the NWSL in the wake of two franchises folding after the 2017 season, and the Royals averaged over 10,000 fans per game over the course of two season.

“From our perspective, any time we are talking about bringing in teams to a new market, you always want as much data and confidence that the team is going to be successful,” NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman told The Equalizer. “In this circumstance, we have really undeniable evidence that this team is wanted by this community, both from the perspective of the raw data on attendance, but also, we know anecdotally that when RSL [was purchased], the most-asked question from the community was, ‘When are the Royals coming back?’”

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