The weirdest spot in any Utah sports venue provided a perfect view of Real Salt Lake’s biggest goal of the season.
Section 15, Row Z, Seat 1 is just below the concourse on Rio Tinto Stadium’s west side, atop a vertical row of single chairs. Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman’s winning goal last week vs. Houston almost directly followed the sightline from that seat, with a shot from the left side that hit the goalpost and bounced into the net.
In my 10 years of coming to Rio Tinto, the rogue row was a fresh discovery for me, topped only by the greatest find in Fandemonium series history — the street tacos offered on Two Dollar Tuesday at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, where the Real Monarchs play. And the Utah Royals FC is proving to be an equally refreshing addition to the Utah pro sports market.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Fandemonium is an occasional series about the sports fan experience in Utah. This installment: The fan environments of the three pro soccer clubs operated by Real Salt Lake.
RSL’s operation of three clubs provides options for mildly interested fans and the equivalent of a full-time, seasonal job for the likes of Kandace Christensen, who has become attached to all of them. Former RSL owner Dave Checketts awarded 10 years of season tickets to the family of the late Ardell Brown, who owned part of the land where Rio Tinto Stadium was built. That turned out to be a good investment, for the benefit of current owner Dell Loy Hansen.
Christensen, Brown’s granddaughter, was 13 when she delivered a ceremonial first kick to open the stadium in October 2008. She jokes that she should have most of her paycheck as a health care consultant go directly to Hansen. She bought season tickets to the Royals and Monarchs, as well as single-game tickets for RSL, and she’s in the midst of six games in 10 days — ending with Wednesday’s RSL-Sporting Kansas City meeting in the U.S. Open Cup and Thursday’s exhibition between the U.S. Women’s National Team (with three Royals players) and China.
Each product has a distinct look and feel. The RSL atmosphere is vibrant, thanks to the incessant drumming and chanting of supporters’ groups. That’s an interesting dynamic, with distinct groups that clash occasionally and work together at other times.
Anyone who walks around Rio Tinto’s north plaza would be struck by the crowd’s diversity. That’s a testament to soccer’s international appeal and RSL’s role in the pro sports market. The remainder of this season will be a good gauge of RSL’s following. The current average of 17,521 would be the lowest in eight years, but the historic trend is for crowds to grow steadily throughout the summer and into October.
Real Salt Lake’s attendance averages at Rio Tinto Stadium:
2009 • 16,375.
2010 • 17,095.
2011 • 17,591.
2012 • 19,087.
2013 • 19,218.
2014 • 20,351.
2015 • 20,153.
2016 • 19,770.
2017 • 18,764.
2018 • 17,580.
The Royals may never match the Rio Tinto crowd of 19,203 for their inaugural game in April. Yet having sold nearly 6,000 season tickets, they’re guaranteed good numbers and Christensen senses the club’s impact. “It’s been fun to see so many young girls watch international stars and see the looks on their faces when they realize that professionals play in their own backyard,” she said.
In much the same way as the University of Utah’s gymnastics program took hold, mothers and daughters compose a healthy percentage of the Royals’ crowd. But they’re not the only ones who appreciate the NWSL style. “I have noticed when the women play, I just enjoy watching the game a lot more,” said Zachary Sites, of Pleasant Grove.
That’s partly because he takes RSL games more seriously and often finds himself drained at the end. The Royals’ atmosphere at Rio Tinto is more low-key than RSL’s. Fans do get involved, though, and they’re rewarded by players who linger afterward to greet them.
The appeal of the Real Monarchs is being close to the action, after driving to the remote location among the alfalfa fields of Herriman in the southwestern Salt Lake Valley. Even in the top row of the stands, fans can hear players and coaches call out instructions.
The vibe of Zions Bank Stadium is subdued, compared with Rio Tinto — except for the Sacramento Republic fan who loudly sang his group’s songs last week as he stood alone in the west stands. In the second half, the home team’s fans responded with chants of, “Let’s go Monarchs!”
When the Monarchs’ Chandler Hoffman scored his 50th career goal in the United Soccer League, a Real fan ran around the Sacramento supporter in the bleachers. The visitor took the celebration good-naturedly, as his team absorbed a 1-0 loss to the Western Conference leaders.
Having posted the USL’s best regular-season record in 2017, the Monarchs are the winningest RSL-brand club. Christensen has latched onto them, missing only a May 9 game when the Royals were home the same night. She can catch a doubleheader July 14 with the Royals vs. Orlando at 1:30 p.m., then the Monarchs vs. Seattle at 8 p.m.
Personally, I’d recommend catching the Monarchs vs. Fresno on June 26 — a Tuesday, featuring two tacos for $2. Or four for $4. In my world, that’s a major upgrade over the four hot dogs I consumed in an effort to validate the Jazz’s All You Can Eat promotion in January.
Even with Utah Royals FC out of town, Kandace Christensen of Draper will have attended six soccer games in 10 days, as of Thursday:
May 29 • Real Monarchs vs. Sacramento.
May 30 • Real Salt Lake vs. Houston.
Saturday • Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle.
Monday • Real Monarchs vs. Rio Grande Valley.
Wednesday • Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting Kansas City.
Thursday • U.S. Women’s National Team vs. China.