Story, photos, and graphics by Shauna Romrell.

Hannah’s blue eyes grew wide as she surveyed the wall in front of her. Before her stood a mural blanketing the westside bleachers of the America First Field in Sandy, Utah. Bright reds, blues, and yellows debut the Real Salt Lake logo and comic-like patterns. To the right of that–painted even larger–is the Utah Royal’s lioness logo; with her crown, her mane, and piercing eyes–staring at onlookers as if she is right at home on that wall.

The lioness is a symbol of what Utah has been lacking the past four years. The logo of a professional women’s sports team, run by women, for women. A team committed to redefining the future for young female athletes. 

Hannah was one of twenty-plus girls that congregated in front of the colorful wall on March 16, 2024. At age 12, she has already found a lifelong passion for soccer. She plays for the Blue Knights in Salt Lake City, a non-profit soccer club for boys and girls. She stood with her dad an hour before kickoff, adorned in her Blue Knights joggers and a Royals dry-wick shirt.

As kickoff neared, the stadium grew more electric. Employees ushered the kids into two lines, and marched them across the field to the Royals’ side of the pitch. Hannah’s eyes grew large as she stepped onto the turf for the first time, turf that she had only seen from somewhere high up in the stands, and had only seen professional male athletes play on in recent years. 

A melody of “oohs” and “ahhs” grew louder as the group entered the historic players’ tunnel on the west side of the arena. The lionesses painted on each side of the tunnel, the carpet printed with a URFC pattern, the door at the front of the tunnel that led to the locker rooms–everywhere was a reminder of where these young fans stood. Their role models, the only professional female team based in Utah, were seconds away from walking out of that door.

All of these girls–not much older than 11 and not much taller than 4 feet–were seeing for the first time what their future could hold. Never before had playing professional soccer, or being a women athlete in general, seemed so…possible.

The current generation of Royal players only began to comprehend the reality of playing professional soccer late into their college years. Forward Michelle Vasconcelos felt this dream become a tangible possibility when her own role model, Kealia Ohai Watt, was drafted by the Houston Dash.

“I was like, oh, this is a thing, you know? As I was going through college, I just was thinking, ‘Oh, I want to do this.’ Ever since then, the league has just been getting better and better… more rights for us as women has been nice in this specific sports realm,” Vasconcelos said. 

Forward Brecken Mozingo had a similar experience. “My last two years [of college]…I was like, okay, this is for real. Let’s do this. Let’s go pro. You want to fulfill yourself in this journey. And that’s something that I have been feeling as I’ve been in [the NWSL].

“All these little girls now have something to look toward. They have this end goal that’s right in their backyard. It’s huge for Utah and just huge for all the little girls out there that want to play.”

The Royals were adored during their first two seasons in Utah. Fans were gutted when the team was uprooted and moved to Kansas City after an ownership change in 2020. 

“We had a really strong community and fan base in its prior iteration when the Royals were here from 2018-2020,” Connor Oniki, now the Assistant Sporting Director, recalled. “We averaged the second-highest attendance in the league as a club during that time. The community was heartbroken when the club was sold. And so to be able to bring that back, we want to reinvigorate that fanbase that was already here and so strong.”

In 2023, The NWSL announced the return of the Royals to Utah for the 2024 season. Owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith have repeatedly preached the impact a professional female team has on Utah and young girls in the community. This mission was amplified when Olympic skier and Utah-enthusiast Lindsey Vonn joined the ownership group. She declared it the “biggest and best opportunity I have to support local women.”

Five of the current Royals are BYU alumni, and even more either grew up in Utah or played for other Utah colleges. 

“We’re the only women’s sports team in Utah. Being able to be a part of something starting from the ground up is super exciting, so is being able to play with some of my past teammates,” said defender Olivia Smith-Griffitt, who starred alongside Brecken Mozingo and Mikayla Cluff at BYU. “There’s a lot of girls here that love soccer. Obviously, being at BYU, we had a really big following, and so being able to be that role model for girls [in Utah] has been amazing, and I’m excited that I get to keep doing it.”

Maybe the most important figure to return to Utah was coach Amy Rodriguez. She is a World Cup champion, Olympic gold medalist, and two-time NWSL champion. Rodriquez played for the Royals in their last season in Utah, and is the first player from the NWSL to become a head coach.

Rodriguez coaches alongside two other females, Vanessa Mann and Maryse Bard-Martel. Three of the four coaches are female–as well as most of the other staff, including the sporting director, head of talent identification, analyst, head of performance, sport-scientist, medical trainer, and athletic trainer. The Royals embody a program that fiercely exemplifies their lioness mindset. A unique professional program to be for women, by women. 

“I think it’s really cool to be a part of a staff that is mainly all women,” Smith-Griffits said. “I haven’t really been a part of that growing up. It’s really cool to see how these women have a lot of goals and dreams, and we’re putting in the work to make that happen.”

“We are a club for women that’s being led by women. Everything that we’re doing as a club is lifting women and lifting the sport of women’s soccer,” Oniki said.

The popularity of the Royals can be attributed to the talent and dedication of the players and front office, but also to the growing landscape of the NWSL. More than 1.2 million fans attended NWSL matches in 2023, a 26% increase over the previous year. 

The NWSL’s media rights deal for this season was also at a historic high, totaling $240 million and becoming the most lucrative media deal for any women’s sports league. In the 2024 season, over 120 games will be televised, four times the amount of games televised in 2023. 

“I didn’t have that as a kid. I didn’t even know what the path was [to NWSL],” Vasoncelos said. ”And so I think I would have loved as a youth, to feel welcome and that this is something that you can do.”

The Royals, and each of the other 13 teams in the league, will play 13 home and 13 away games. With such a large schedule–and one never as televised before–the Royals and every team in the NWSL will have the opportunity for dozens of wins–for their team, their fans, and every little girl watching.

At the season opening game, Vonn walked the sidelines, high-fiving and taking pictures with the dozens of awe-struck girls in the stands and on the pitch. She wore her dazzling smile and a black Utah Royals crewneck.

Outreach to young girls and women in general infiltrated every part of the season opener–from the all-female flag bearers and National Anthem singer to the pregame and halftime recognitions of young female athletes by the Lindsey Vonn Foundation. Vonn’s foundation donated over $1,000,000 to girls in underserved communities in 2023. Community outreach, as the LVF exemplifies, is one of the most important parts of the URFC’s mission. 

“We’re the only women’s professional sports team in the state, and we don’t take that responsibility lightly,” Oniki said. “We want to bring in a club that’s inclusive, we want to bring in a community and fans that are inclusive, diverse and really spans everywhere.”

Vonn announced at the post-game press conference that the LVF will donate 25 tickets to every Royals home match that will be used to ensure that more girls can see first-hand the sporting landscape that exists specifically for them. 

Vonn later wrote on Instagram, “Women in sports is a movement, not a moment!… We win or lose, together! Big thank you to the fans, the energy in the stadium was fire!”

A sunny (albeit windy) March on Saturday was the scene for the new franchise’s first game back. Before and during the game, Cleo the Lioness, the Royal’s mascot, made her rounds throughout the stands alongside RSL’s mascot Leo the Lion. Former soccer player Tovah Kaiser and her women-run design studio Tov Creative designed the current lioness logo and crest. 

“To start, we’ve got this really fierce, expressive lioness wearing the crown,” Kaiser said. “It’s super bold. We wanted to create a brand that felt really powerful and made women feel powerful. Something that we think young women would be excited to wear and feel inspired by.” 

Kaiser’s prediction rang true at the inaugural game and every game since. The empowering lioness logo was emblazed on thousands of hats, jackets, blankets, scarves, and flags. As more women–and men–entered the stadium adorned in their Utah Royals apparel, Cleo and the URFC’s pride grew bigger and bigger. 

Black fighter jets flew over the sold-out stadium of 20,370–a record for the highest-attended women’s sporting event in Utah’s history. Drums and trumpets blared, fans and mascots waved Royal flags, and the smell of hot dogs and new turf drifted through the arena. The entire stadium erupted into deafening cheers as they watched the players, coaches, and refs walk from the players’ tunnel to an arena that hadn’t seen a NWSL team in four years too long.

Each team’s players held the hands of little girls as they stood on the pitch for the National Anthem and flyover. Each of these girls had a player on each side of them, a sold-out arena in front of them, and a new perspective at the possibility of playing sports professionally before them. 

One fan and her husband managed to enjoy the game while looking after a newborn she held to her chest, a little boy that wanted to wander every which way, and her oldest daughter–a nine year-old girl that loves soccer. 

“When we showed up to the season opener for RSL, she [my daughter] was like, “Oh… it’s boys playing? And at this game, she was like, ‘Mom, can you sign me up to play on the Royals?’” the mom shared. “We even got her a jersey today because she is so excited and she has never been into sports before. It’s fun to see a women-led team and to see the professionalism of all of the players today.”

When asked about seeing girls playing professional sports in Utah, her daughter said it was “so fun” and that she wants to play soccer one day for the Royals. 

Another woman brought her young daughter. After the game, she held the hand of her daughter who was decked out in pigtails, giant pink sunglasses, and a Disney Princess shirt for the game. 

“It’s fun for her to get to see someone that looks like her, a professional girl’s team.” she said. 

“Of the 20,000 people here, there will definitely be kids that will become NWSL players, 100 percent. And so that’s how I look at it; I look at investing in women’s sports as an opportunity to pave a new path that’s hopefully…an easier path for them to accomplish their dreams,” Vonn said in the post-game press conference.
Owner Ryan Smith sat next to Vonn during the press conference. “I think we’re showing the art of the possible,” Smith said. Pointing at female leaders such as Vonn and Michelle Hyncik, the President of the Royals, he continued. “These are prominent people who believe in this vision of women’s sports and Utah at the same time… this is a place where that can bring the community together.”

As the sun set on America First Field, Hannah and her dad joined hundreds of young girls on the turf after the game. Families and fans huddled in Royals coats and blankets. “Girl on Fire”, “I’m Every Woman”, and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” were some of the songs that blared throughout the stadium speakers. 

“I hope that they’re inspired and motivated and hopefully are given something to look to, to chase their dreams and show that it can be possible for women to do it as well,” Cluff said.  “I feel like you have the Jazz, you have other men’s teams in the state that the boys might look to and even girls can look to as well. But it’s cool to now have a women’s team where the girls can also look and have [women] be their idols.”

“We have all these women around us helping lift us up… this movement is huge. It’s exciting that I get to be a part of that,” Mozingo said. “Carrying the baton from the other previous generations to now and then handing it to my daughter one day… is an awesome thing. And to just put in all my effort in that is really, really cool.”

As the sky streaked in reds and golds (fitting for the occasion) and then faded into the black of night, the arena’s overhead lights again illuminated the stadium and those on the field. Players, families, and the hundreds of little girls in attendance watched the sky fill with vibrant fireworks. The reflections of these fireworks painted Hannah in sparkling light, as she hugged her dad and watched the show.

As the fireworks boomed around the stadium, lyrics from Taylor Swift’s “The Man” reverberated throughout the stadium, “When everyone believes ya, what’s that like?… ‘Cause if I was a man, then I’d be the man.” Just a few yards away, the Royals’ lioness logo–painted in bright colors and adorned in her well-deserved crown–watched over her team, her hundreds of other admirers, and the future generation of female athletes on her home field.

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