RSL’s ownership nightmare is finally over

Clubs

Real Salt Lake‘s ownership nightmare is finally over. Seventeen months after then-owner Dell Loy Hansen was found to have made racist comments, and overseen a misogynistic, toxic work environment, MLS and RSL announced that Blackstone Group executive David Blitzer and Ryan Smith’s Smith Entertainment Group have purchased the team and its associated properties. This includes MLS NEXT Pro side the Real Monarchs, Rio Tinto Stadium as well as the team’s training facility and academy in Herriman, Utah.

According to a report by Sportico, the total outlay will be just under $400 million. Arctos Sports Partners also has a minority stake.

As MLS commissioner Don Garber lounged with the two new RSL owners from a suite at Salt Lake City’s Vivint Arena on Wednesday, his gratitude in having Blitzer and Smith on board was evident. RSL has a local owner in Smith, owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz. For Blitzer, RSL is the latest acquisition in an ever-expanding sports portfolio, one that includes ownerships stakes in the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. He also owns parts of Premier League side Crystal Palace, FC Augsburg of the Bundesliga and Belgian top-flight side Waasland-Beveren.

But beyond the duo’s undeniably deep pockets, and pro sports experience, Garber senses there is a changing of the guard in MLS ownership ranks.

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“Generationally, this is what the future of MLS is going to be about,” said Garber on a Zoom call that included Smith and Blitzer. “You have an owner in David who’s thinking about the sport on a global basis through an American lens. And with Ryan you have one of the more successful tech entrepreneurs in the industry, getting involved in pro sports, now making the decision to get involved in Major League Soccer. It’s perfect, and it’s a good ending to what’s been a challenging situation.”

For years, RSL punched above its weight both on and field and in the stands. It’s made 11 postseason appearances in its 17-year history, winning one MLS Cup, despite a salary-cap figure in the bottom third of the league in 2021. Those successes were almost fatally undermined by the damage Hansen wrought. So for Smith and Blitzer, the timing was perfect.

Blitzer recalled how when he returned to the U.S. 10 years ago after a stint living in Europe, one of the first people he talked to was Garber. The idea even then was to find a way to invest in MLS. He said he looked at a variety of situations over the years, but RSL was the right one.

“I say that because number one I’ve met Ryan, and the ability for he and I to do this together in this market is just a win-win-win,” Blitzer said. “So I start really broadly, which is I’m a huge believer in the sport globally. I’m a huge believer in what Don and his team are doing with the MLS. I’m a huge believer with where soccer is going within our country. This market is fantastic and growing, and to have a partner like Ryan to be able to do it with, it’s just all came together and worked out really well.”

From the very beginning of RSL’s ownership saga, Smith — a graduate of nearby Brigham Young University — seemed a natural fit to buy into the team. But in October of 2020, Smith purchased the Jazz, seemingly taking him out of the running.

“That’s a little bit of an undertaking,” he quipped about his purchase of the Jazz. But Smith and Blitzer soon found themselves on a lot of the same NBA owner calls, and two months ago, with RSL still available, the opportunity brought them together.

“We had a little bit of a better handle on what we were doing with our group,” said Smith. “Our group from the Jazz was like, ‘Yeah, we’re all in on Utah. We’re all in on soccer. And we’re all in on doing this.’ And so it’s kind of interesting that we’re both here, checking our phones on NBA games, and here together. So that’s really kind of the bond that brought him in.”

When asked if he intends to create a Red Bull-like soccer empire with his stake in four different clubs, or whether the teams would remain totally separate, Blitzer said his approach will be somewhere in the middle.

“Being able to think about scouting across the globe, doing that out of one organization regardless of what country that organization is located in, is really hard,” he said. “When you can play that across six, seven, eight teams, it just becomes so much more powerful. So talent identification, player development, the ability to move players and see different environments, etc., I just think it’s a benefit to all.”

RSL likely won’t be the last team that Blitzer acquires. An RSL spokesperson told ESPN that the organization has an option to bring an NWSL team back to the city in either 2023 or 2024. The Utah Royals, at one time part of the RSL organization, were sold and moved to Kansas City in late 2020.

“Our intention is to have [a women’s] team back here,” said Smith. Blitzer added, “We think it’s a ‘when,’ not ‘if.’ We would intend to bring an NWSL team to this marketplace and we’re excited to do that.”

The remit of Smith and Blitzer won’t be just about the on-field product. There is an organizational culture to rehabilitate as well. It helps that interim team president John Kimball has spent the past 16 months doing just that, meaning that the two new RSL owners will not be starting from scratch. But there remains work to do.

“I think Ryan and I both care very deeply about all the organizations that we’re in,” said Blitzer. “I can say nothing other than I feel like both of us are huge culture people, and we’re really excited to continue and grow this team in this market.”

The proof will come over time, although the two are already well versed in developing cultures within their respective organizations. For the present, Smith and Blitzer will benefit from simply not being Hansen. But at least now, Real Salt Lake is in the position where it can generate some forward momentum once again.

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