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In a particular Utah moment, the professional soccer team Real Salt Lake is changing its jersey sponsor — from one multilevel marketing company peddling fruit juice to another that touts its nutritional pills.

The team has sold sponsorship of its jerseys to a surging company called LifeVantage, whose name next year will replace that of XanGo, the once high-flying company whose fortunes have fallen rapidly after a spectacular rise.

The new deal, though, also comes at what could prove to be a critical moment for multilevel companies. They are the object of hundreds of millions of dollar in bets by investors over whether such companies can sustain their business models, which depend on constant recruitment of new independent distributors to buy and sell their products.

LifeVantage itself recently illustrated the industry's volatility when it fired and sued its top distributor less than a month after announcing the new deal to emblazon its name on RSL jerseys where it will be seen by millions of Major League Soccer fans.

Neither RSL nor LifeVantage would comment on financial aspects of the deal. But Sports Business Journal cited MLS sources as saying it was worth $30 million over 10 years, three times more than XanGo paid for the rights in November 2006.

Back then, XanGo, rolling in cash, touted the deal as the first of its kind involving a professional sports team in the United States.

RSL President Bill Manning said that, facing the end of their seven-year deal, the club approached XanGo about renewing its sponsorship.

"But it was a financial commitment they weren't comfortable with," he said.

Now, the company has laid off a good part of its workforce, about 20 percent in July alone. XanGo also faces a lawsuit from a founder who alleges top executives, among other things, used millions of dollars of company funds to pay personal expenses. XanGo's attorneys have characterized the lawsuit as an attempt to get a better buyout from the company.

XanGo deflected questions about why it did not make a bid on the new contract. But spokesman Dave Webb did say that in order "to maximize exposure throughout our burgeoning global marketplace, we're evolving our sponsorship philosophy accordingly."

As XanGo has declined, LifeVantage has soared.

LifeVantage is 10 years old, having emerged as Lifeline Therapeutic in Colorado from a reverse merger with a shell company.

"There were two business partners who had an idea for a superantioxidant supplement, neither of whom were science people," said Doug Robinson, president and chief executive. "They were more marketing types."

Paul R. Myhill and William J. Driscoll formulated the tablet that became Protandim — made from extracts of the plants milk thistle, turmeric, green tea, ashwagandha root and bacopa — and went for help to University of Colorado scientist Joe McCord, who became chief science officer.

The company began promoting Protandim as a superantioxidant supplement that reduces unhealthy oxidative stress in cells in the body.

Lifeline Therapeutic languished for several years selling its products through retail outlets and with its shares trading over the counter in a marketplace for minor stocks.

In 2006, the company changed its name to LifeVantage Corp. and the next year announced that Protandim would be sold through multilevel marketing, a business plan in which independent distributors are contracted to market a product.

Singer Donny Osmond became a spokesman, touting Protandim on the "Dr. Phil" show as a "fountain of youth," according to a company news release.

Still, LifeVantage lost $9.1 million in 2009 and $11 million in 2010, according to its 2013 annual report to federal regulators.

In its fiscal year 2009, though, the company took advantage of a heated dispute between the owner and officers and top distributors at the rival multilevel marketing company Zrii and signed former officials and distributors. Those hires included Jason Domingo, a Californian who became LifeVantage's top distributor.

In 2011, the company had a net loss of $50.7 million, largely due to a huge increase in distributions to distributors. But sales had soared — from $4.1 million in 2009 to $208 million in fiscal 2013 — and in the past two fiscal years the company had a net profit. By the end of June of this year, it had amassed $26.3 million in cash.

LifeVantage had taken off — and the company was looking for greater marketing opportunities to get its name out, Robinson said.

Manning of RSL said the club had approached about a dozen Utah businesses about replacing XanGo as the jersey sponsor and talks were getting serious when LifeVantage came "a little out of the blue toward the end of process."

Manning said he was skeptical at first about LifeVantage but that changed when he started to get to know the company and its executives and to take a look at its finances and the "big brand" experiences of the CEO and board members.

"And you go, OK, these guys are on the rise," Manning said. "We felt they had the infrastructure that would make them a good long-term partner for us."

LifeVantage saw an opportunity to gets its surging brand out to a wider audience and possible distributors and companies as XanGo declined, said Robinson, who became CEO in 2011.

"So wouldn't it be great if we had an opportunity to replace that sponsorship and have our name on the jersey as Major League Soccer continues to grow?" Robinson asked, citing the 19 cities where MLS has teams with 92 million Americans exposed either through game attendance or by watching matches on television.

Robinson insists the deal is not a financial gamble.

But many multilevel marketing companies — think XanGo — have shown their business plan can be volatile.

This week, less than a month after it announced the jersey deal, LifeVantage terminated Domingo, its top distributor.

The company declined to comment on the action, but it also filed a lawsuit in federal court for Utah in which it accused Domingo of violating his contract by disparaging LifeVantage's management to other distributors, employees and investors and for moving to start a rival company.

Domingo did not return a phone call and emails seeking comment but his departure could mean that many of the distributors he recruited to LifeVantage also could leave, taking revenue along with them.

Company shares plunged the day after Domingo's termination was announced but on Friday had recovered and even finished 11.5 percent higher.

Still, other possible threats loom.

Investor Bill Ackman and hedge fund manager David Einhorn have attacked Herbalife, another multilevel marketer that also happens to be the jersey sponsor of the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team. They claim Herbalife is an unsustainable pyramid scheme in which sales are largely to distributors and not to end users. Frustrated by no or little earnings, distributors quit in droves and companies are forced to constantly recruit, the two have said.

Ackman pressed his attack again on Friday, though he also acknowledged he's lost about $500 million in his $1 billion bet that Herbalife's shares would fall drastically, according to news reports.

Still, if Ackman's accusations are backed by federal regulators or otherwise given credence by investors, similar companies such as LifeVantage also could suffer.

Robinson said he pays close attention to what's happening with Herbalife but he insists his company is different.

"We have a consumption model," he said. "For every 10 people who come to our company, north of eight of them, north of 80 percent, come to consume our products."

The company sells Protandim for $40 for 30 tablets.

Twitter: @TomHarveySltrib —

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