SANDY — Just past 12:30 p.m., just after the west lot in the shadow of the big white clamshell called Rio Tinto Stadium opens, a white Honda CR-V pulls in. Its driver parks as far from the entrance as possible, and four young men spill out from every door. They’ve spent the past 12 hours crammed into their “super cozy” car, making the trip from San Diego to the Salt Lake Valley in search of something normal.
They expect to find it here, where their hometown San Diego Loyal SC will take on the Real Monarchs in what the team claims is the first American professional team sporting event with fans since March 11.
Austin Alegre, a 20-year-old with a thick beard and enough pride in his United Soccer League Championship team to bring a scarf into the near-triple-digit heat, explains that he and his crew left Southern California Friday night around 10. After stops in Victorville and Las Vegas, they made it to Sandy around 9 a.m.
They’re proud boosters, having followed this team since its inception, having attended its first match — even its first practice. “Everything,” Alegre says.
They decided to come here earlier this week, when they realized most of the available 5,300 tickets hadn’t been claimed by Real Salt Lake or Utah Royals season ticket holders. Their car battery was dead, but the four of them pitched in $50 each to buy a new one.
“What’re you expecting?” I ask, hoping to understand why anyone would not only want to be here — in the middle of a pandemic, on a day so hot that once-hardened sidewalk gum melts and reverts back to its original sticky form — but would make a 750-mile drive to be sure of it.
“It’s gonna be insane,” Alegre answers, delving into which players will be back from past injuries and who he expects to do well.
I push the conversation toward the virus. Are they nervous? Will the new protocols be weird?
“It’ll definitely be different,” Austin Alegre’s 26-year-old brother, Andrew Alegre, answers.
Long ago, writer Hunter S. Thompson chronicled the Kentucky Derby in a piece titled, “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.” Could Saturday’s match also be described as decadent or depraved?
Depends on who you ask. Is it decadent — meaning reflective of moral or cultural decline — to host a sporting event with fans one day after Utah set a new single-day COVID case record? Is it depraved — meaning corrupt or wicked — to risk spreading the virus for the sake of watching live sports?
Some, like epidemiologist Zachary Binney, accused the USL of profiteering. “They’re creating a massive public health risk to make a buck,” he wrote on Twitter. “Are you willing to risk lives, or schools being able to open, so the USL can have fans? Whether it’s willful ignorance or greed or just plain sociopathy, it’s despicable.”
He dismisses those who claim “no activity is risk free.” There are low-risk and high-risk activities, he explains, along with essential and nonessential activities. A soccer game with fans, regardless of precautions, is high-risk and nonessential. And with the pandemic raging — Saturday morning’s New York Times graphed skyrocketing cases across the U.S. — anything like Saturday’s game should be condemned. “It ain’t rocket science,” he wrote.
But tell that to the Larson family, who traveled from Grantsville. Between spraying each other with Coppertone in the parking lot, Jay Larson explains how he sees Saturday’s match as a potential model for how to resume live sports with fans moving forward.
“For our kids, there has been nothing normal for months,” his wife Soji adds. “And to be able to do it in a safe way — and have a good time with our family and support something we all love — we couldn’t pass it up.”
Tell it to Lynn Streva, 62, who made the solo three-hour drive from Pocatello, Idaho, Saturday morning in her minivan. “I was pretty doggone excited,” she says of finding out fans would be allowed.
Is she scared of the virus?
She shakes her head. “Nope.”
“I want to be able to enjoy life,” she says. “I don’t want to be stuck in the house.” So she’s here, with a red Nick Rimando jersey and a white Real Salt Lake visor, eager to get inside.
Tell it to 48-year-old Scott Goff, who drove from Springville on backroads, piloting a seafoam green scooter that maxes out at 50 mph. He’s here in an RSL jersey, a red RSL cap, an RSL mask, and red Hello Kitty-themed suspenders. A mini bottle of hand sanitizer dangles from his matching Hello Kitty belt. “I’m in the supporters section,” he says, “so I think it’ll still be a little hyped.”
Is he scared of the virus? “Absolutely not.”
Following the match, I asked RSL officials if the event met expectations. “Discussions and evaluations are ongoing regarding today,” a team spokesman emailed back. “Several parties and inter-club departments will meet to evaluate today.”
Clearly, the official tally of 816 spectators wouldn’t be here if they feared the virus and the repercussions of spreading it. In the parking lot, attendees seem part cautious, part rebellious. All appear to be wearing masks and some claim they only decided to turn up after reading about the social distancing rules.
Still, few seem bothered by the likelihood of the sickness lurking within the stadium. And inside, past the radar-gun looking thermometers waiting at the gates and the blue, circular stickers dotting the floor as social distancing markers, some discover loopholes.
Caleb Reeve, 41, from Provo, sits near midfield with a scarf serving as a makeshift mask. It’s hot underneath, he admits, “but as long as we have food, we don’t have to wear them.” He does anyway, though he admits he wouldn’t care much if he didn’t have to. “I probably would’ve come regardless,” he says. “But I was happy with the responsibility they’re taking.”
Much of that responsibility falls to individual fans, who had to sign a waiver before getting their tickets. The lengthy legal document featured warnings like, “I acknowledge the risk of illness and injury from presence at the Facility is significant, including the potential for permanent disability and death, and while particular skills, equipment and personal discipline may reduce the risk, the risk of serious illness and injury does exist.”
At kickoff, with the west side of the stadium comfortably shaded, a few brave the north end zone, where Goff expected significant hype. Or at least some hype. But there’s little hype to be found. “Let’s go San Diegoooo!” someone yells. Laughter trickles throughout the 20,700-seat stadium. The screams and grunts of players, whose communications are usually indecipherable but who occasionally blurt out distinctive four-letter responses to bad calls, echo alongside the thud of the ball off the goalies’ gloves — or even one referee’s head.
Ushers patrol above the west side of the stadium, making sure social distancing is upheld. From afar, it looks like folks are staying in their approved clusters, with space in front of and behind them, along with at least a few seats on either side. The north end zone stays socially distanced by virtue of so few people being willing to brave the sun. About halfway through the first half, a fan walks through those sections, and with a wink and a smile, he implores another fan to move on down. “There’s open seating right now,” he says. Club officials soon follow his lead, allowing those in the sun to relocate under the canopy, providing them with new, shaded, socially distanced seating.
At concessions and at the gift shop, there’s little enforcement. Countertops and credit card readers aren’t wiped down after each customer. But, for the most part, people seem to police themselves, jostling into place when they realize they’re not social distancing enough. “It’s been pretty good,” one cashier says.
By the game’s end, few seem to have moved. Socially distanced seating remains intact, as does the crowd. It boos the referees when time expires and the Real Monarchs lose 1-0 after a few questionable calls — a bit of normalcy any sports fan knows well. Yet the boos feel different. Like so much of this game, they’re both new and familiar. Something like normal — until you look up from the pitch at the emptiness.
Sports philosopher Jan Boxill and others have said sports mirror society. What would a historian, 50 years from now, make of the society reflected by Saturday’s game? Would they remark of its “decadence and depravity?” Comment on its resilience and its place as a necessary outlet?
Or would they take Boxill’s lead and recognize that sports isn’t a passive but active reflection; that sports have the power to influence society just as society influences them, and that hosting a game with fans during a pandemic not only reflects the state of society, but affects it?
In other words, what would they make of the Alegre brothers, cheerful and scarf-clad and proud of witnessing a historic sports moment as they skip back toward their Honda CR-V and zip down I-15 toward San Diego, full of life and enthusiasm and “a little sense of normalcy” for the first time in months — and possibly, however unlikely, bringing a deadly virus with them?