MLS teams prepare to bring fans back
For three hours on Aug. 12, Sporting KC President and CEO Jake Reid underwent a walk-through of Children’s Mercy Park. The team’s first home game in which fans would be allowed inside wasn’t until this Tuesday, 13 days away, but Reid was checking out all the changes that have been made to safely allow a maximum of 2,500 fans in a stadium that has a capacity for 18,000.
There are 6-foot social distance markers on the ground, one-way arrows directing fans to restrooms and around the concourse; designated entry times; staggered exits by seating sections; and, said Reid, “basically re-signing the entire building.”
“It’s a lot of changes, but I don’t think it’s going to be anything that’ll be disruptive to the experience,” said Reid.
Four of MLS’s 26 clubs have received local approval to host fans in their stadiums. FC Dallas has already played two games at Toyota Stadium, drawing 2,912 fans on Aug. 12 and then hosting a significantly smaller crowd for a rain-delayed match on Aug. 16, both against Nashville SC. The other three clubs — Sporting KC, Real Salt Lake and Orlando City — are awaiting final sign-off from MLS but are expected to be able to make their in-market debuts this week, another sign of the sports world attempting to return to a semblance of normalcy.
Each club has received approval from local health and government leaders. Real Salt Lake will allow 5,000 fans out of the 20,700 capacity at Rio Tinto Stadium, while Orlando City has not announced its maximum.
For Sporting KC and RSL at least, the decision to have fans back is not driven by financial considerations.
“If financial was the driver, this would probably not be a great decision,” said Reid. The club would not specify if the team will make money if fans are allowed in.
Andy Carroll, chief business officer for Real Salt Lake and the NWSL’s Utah Royals FC, echoed that sentiment. “Does it make sense relative to our financials a year ago? You would say no. For us, it’s really getting soccer back in the community.”
To do so has required enhanced health and safety protocols, including a mask requirement for fans, temperature checks upon arrival, all-cashless transactions and socially distanced seating, among other measures, at each stadium.
At Children’s Mercy, parking will remain free for fans on-site. All retail and concessions locations will be open to minimize congestion while plexiglass will be positioned at all points-of-sale. Fans will be separated by 6 1/2 feet on either side and by 8 feet from front to back. Premium areas won’t have their traditional buffet-style setup. Instead, there will be packaged items and food served by staffers. There will also be a clear-bag policy (Orlando City won’t allow bags at all inside Exploria Stadium).
Additional protocols at Rio Tinto include digital-only tickets, one-way restrooms and designated parking lots, which is part of a fan’s ticket purchase at no additional cost. Food and beverage along with retail will be available. RSL eliminated the first seven rows around the bowl to comply with league rules mandating social distancing of at least 20 feet between fans in the stands and players and officials on the pitch.
Both RSL and Sporting KC have had experience with fans at their stadiums during the pandemic. Real Salt Lake’s USL Championship affiliate, Real Monarchs, has already hosted five matches with limited fans. Based on the prior experience, fans who attend matches will now see more strategically placed trash and recycling receptacles to minimize the congregation of fans, an occurrence during USL matches. Additionally, Carroll and his staff noticed people removing their masks immediately upon exiting the stadium, but going forward, there will be more signage and outside staffing telling fans to keep their masks on until they reach their vehicle.
“It’s really hard to anticipate everything, but the virus almost demands that you do,” said Carroll. “We want to be as bulletproof on this as we can.”
As for Sporting KC, in addition to watch parties at the stadium for the team’s matches during the MLS Is Back tournament, the organization hosted about 20 graduation ceremonies, which all averaged 2,500 people.
Season-ticket holders at both RSL and Sporting KC are being given priority access to tickets. With 11,000 season-ticket holders, RSL is expecting to sell out. Sporting KC, meanwhile, conducted a lottery for season-ticket members to have a chance at utilizing their existing credits. For each home game, there will be a different lottery, the club said.
Though Reid said Sporting could have welcomed more fans, it decided not to, preferring to re-evaluate with city and state authorities after the matches. “We’d rather start small and get it right,” he said.
Health experts, of course, are still not convinced any approach will get it right enough.
“That’s not a wise idea in this environment, given what we know,” said Dr. Ryan Demmer, associate professor of epidemiology at University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “I really hate to be the buzzkill on these things.”
Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, had a simpler approach for the question of having fans in the stands: “The best way to prevent this is not to have fans at all.”
Carroll acknowledged there’s a concern about fans contracting the coronavirus and tracing it back to attendance at a match but said, “We feel very strongly that this will be a safe place to enjoy Major League Soccer.”