by TODD PATTON
On a recent Saturday night 21,000 fans slowly stream out of Rio Tinto Stadium after a Real Salt Lake match against Chivas USA. Before a sold- out crowd, it’s apparent Real Salt Lake has come a long way since it’s inaugural season in 2004.
Just eight years ago Real Salt Lake found themselves without a stadium and little support. That is, until the new and picturesque $110 million Rio Tinto Stadium opened in 2008. The stadium was funded half by private donations and half by public funds. The city of Sandy took the brunt of the responsibility for financing Rio Tinto and its investment seems to be paying off for the local economy. Restaurants, bars and hotels all benefit from the 25-plus home games each year and off-season concerts at the 23-acre complex.
“I think the only reason Jim’s Diner is even still there is because of Real Salt Lake games,” said Brandon Craft, Real Salt Lake Fan Relations Coordinator. “The amount of fans that come to games really do impact the surrounding businesses.”
The stadium has drastically changed the atmosphere of Real Salt Lake games, something that didn’t exist when the team played in the much larger Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah for its first four seasons.
“I’ve been going to games since they were played at the U and I can’t express how much better the atmosphere is here at Rio Tinto,” said fan Cristiano Pesci, as he cheered on RSL from the upper deck. “It’s a beautiful stadium. It rivals going to Jazz, BYU, Utah games in my opinion. It honestly might be the best sporting event you can attend in the state of Utah.”
Building an atmosphere is something that all sporting events need and that atmosphere can now be seen at every Real Salt Lake match. La Barra, RCB, and Salt City United are the main supporter groups for RSL. They wave flags, throw streamer and beat drums for an entire match.
It’s the personality of each group that builds on those generic characteristics seen at most soccer matches around the world. Whether it’s the shirtless drummers of La Barra or the tattooed, vulgar chanting RCB and Salt City United, the atmosphere thrives in the uniqueness of RSL fans.
Fan support is the lifeblood of professional sports teams and the RSL fan base has steadily increased recently, Craft said.
“The last three seasons we’ve seen our season tickets increase each year. We have 1,200 more season tickets this season than last. Last year was the first time that we’ve [RSL] broken even in any season. I think three years ago our revenue was $6 million, the next was around $6.8 million, and this year were on pace to be about half a million dollars above that. So yeah, it’s certainly a growing sport and organization here in Utah.”
Television viewership is another important aspect of professional sports, an aspect that Real Salt Lake has recently improved. In the first few years of the team’s existence finding a game on television was a daunting task. But after signing a long term, high-definition contract with the KTVX, the local ABC television affiliate, Real Salt Lake games can now be routinely seen on basic cable television. And Craft points out that the number of viewers has already jumped dramatically.
“We got a report that ratings have nearly doubled from last season. We used to just have casual fans but people are slowly becoming just as invested in RSL as any other sport.”
That fan investment has morphed into a full-blown culture.
Branden Steineckert, former drummer for the punk band The Used, and current Rancid drummer, is one of Real Salt Lake’s biggest supporters. Steineckert’s YouTube anthem “Believe RSL” became popular with fans just before the season and became the theme song for the team and fans. Sung before each home game in 2012, it’s also shouted in a march to the stadium by dedicated supporters.
If you believe then stand up on your feet and shout it loud Real. Here at the RioT the battle hymns begun, we’re here for RSL, the anthem rings throughout the stadium.
While Real Salt Lake has been hailed a “minor” league team by organizations such as the Utah Jazz, and continually thought to be the little brother to BYU and Utah games, much has changed in the eight years of the organization’s life.
RSL is no longer borrowing a university stadium meant for football and threats of leaving the state no longer exist. It’s now a fan-base that prides themselves on being loyal and above all else, believing.
So if you believe just stand up on your feet and shout it loud Real, the anthem echoes on a suddenly brisk and clear Saturday night in Utah.