In the world of professional sports, there has been very little you could call “normal” happening over the past few months. Worldwide cancellations and postponements across nearly all sports came one after the other in early March at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professional soccer in Utah was no different.
Major League Soccer, home of Real Salt Lake, suspended its season on March 12 and the National Women’s Soccer League, which Utah Royals F.C. competes in, followed suit soon after, delaying the start of their season on March 20.
There is some good news for soccer fans, however, as games have managed to return this summer. The NWSL was the first professional sports league in North America to return to play with the Challenge Cup in late June, taking place in Sandy. The MLS is also currently hosting a quarantined tournament of its own in Orlando, Florida.
The Challenge Cup in Salt Lake features both Utah Royals FC and Real Monarchs and will run through the end of July. The tournament has even featured the first games with spectators. Fans were able to watch the games on July 11 with special restrictions in place at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Andy Carroll is the chief business officer for hosts Real Salt Lake and says every detail of a fan’s experience has been carefully planned for the games with spectators. He says parking, socially-distanced seating at the stadium, as well as dedicated bathrooms and concession areas for each section of the stadium have special protocols in place.
“You have to go through a different planning cycle and literally plan every detail of how you have ingress, and then you have the stadium experience, and then you have egress,” he said of the entrance and exit procedures. “It’s a very different model than what we’ve done in the past where people just come to a stadium and if you’ve done it before then you know it and if you haven’t done it before, you kind of figure it out and look at the signs.”
Carroll says RSL has only allowed just over 5,000 spectators per game at Rio Tinto. He adds the club’s early planning for spectator-friendly games bodes well in the event the MLS resumes regular play at stadiums across the country in the near future.
“If and when Real Salt Lake comes back, then we will have a huge advantage relative to other clubs because we’ve done it.”
Carroll says even though RSL has been hard at work for a safe return to regular league play, a lot of that decision making is out of its control. All of the teams spread across the United States and Canada need to meet the same health standards in order for play to continue outside of the “bubble” in Orlando. He says a lot of moving pieces must come together in a constantly changing environment.
“We also share stadiums, so if you think of NYCFC, for example, in New York, plays at Yankee Stadium,” Carroll said. “The Seattle Sounders play where the Seahawks play. The flexibility in stadiums is even difficult. We don’t have that and there are a lot of other clubs that don’t as well, but it’s a challenge.”
The semifinals of the Challenge Cup at Rio Tinto Stadium take place on Wednesday, July 22, with the finals on Sunday, July 26. Fans will not be allowed at these games but they can catch the action on CBS and CBS All Access. The men’s tournament in Orlando concludes on August 11.