Andy Muñoz discovered Real Salt Lake by happenstance.
Twelve years ago, when RSL played the L.A. Galaxy for the MLS Cup and won, Muñoz walked in on his father watching the game. This came as a surprise because his dad’s unbridled soccer fandom resided in Liga MX of Mexico, not Major League Soccer of the United States.
That championship in 2009 ignited Muñoz’s own fandom. He started going to home games, buying jerseys and kicking a soccer ball around with friends. He eventually started producing a podcast about RSL.
Muñoz, 32, is a Spanish-speaker whose father is from Mexico and loves Mexican soccer. By all accounts, he should be following a Mexican team, too. Instead, he is one of a number of Hispanic fans in Utah who passionately support RSL.
The team’s roster features plenty of players of Hispanic descent. It has a passionate supporter group in La Barra Real that consists almost exclusively of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking people. Through the organization’s community efforts, players and coaches make appearances in areas that are majority-Hispanic.
Yet some fans in that demographic still feel the organization isn’t reaching them. And in the past several years, Muñoz has felt its connection to Hispanic fans slipping.
“I don’t think that there’s been anything that I’ve seen that’s been proactive toward the Hispanic or the Latinx culture that I can pinpoint,” Muñoz said.
Club executives, however, say there’s been a recent push to reengage RSL’s Hispanic fans.
“We’ve identified it as something that we need to focus on,” Interim RSL President John Kimball said. “And it’s something that we’re honored and privileged to do and to be more focused on because they’re an important part of our community.”
But gaps real or perceived might still exist. And with the club still in the middle of an ownership transition, some fans think the time is right for a full-throated effort to reconnect with its most ardent supporters and find ways to bring in new ones.
Soccer fans, but not necessarily RSL fans
When RSL played Tigres UANL of Liga MX for a Leagues Cup game in the summer of 2019, throngs of fans flocked to Rio Tinto Stadium to support Tigres. In 2010, when RSL hosted Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League tournament, then-coach Jason Kreis said in a postgame press conference that it felt like an away game and he hoped fans wearing blue shirts “are going home with red ones now.”
That’s part of the challenge RSL faces: luring the casual soccer fan. About 15% of Utah’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, and it’s the fastest growing demographic in the state. Across MLS, nearly 30% of fans are of Hispanic or Latin American heritage, league spokesperson Marisabel Muñoz said.
And the home games against Tigres, Cruz Azul and similar clubs over the years suggest there’s an untapped market in Utah.
“What’s really interesting is we have La Barra, we have a Latin fan base,” said Will Mussak, a former employee who focused on fan experience and worked directly with Hispanic supporters. “But the majority of Latinx soccer fans that are here don’t care about RSL.”
One example is Fabricio Soares, who coaches an Under-12 team for the local soccer club La Roca. He grew up in São Paolo, Brazil, playing the game and going to stadiums with his dad. He oftentimes wasn’t even attracted to the play on the field, but rather the atmosphere in the stadium from fans waving flags or singing.
In the earlier days of MLS, fans were allowed to throw streamers and confetti and balloons, or set off smoke bombs in the stands. But in recent years, the league has updated its Fan Code of Conduct to prohibit such actions.
Exuberant and even sometimes obstreperous behavior is how Hispanic fans are accustomed to expressing their fandom, said Luis Alarcón, a member of La Barra Real. So when those rules came down from the league, some felt neutered.
“It’s like the party in the Latinos was being turned off,” Alarcón said. “They were tying our hands. We weren’t as free anymore. … As Latinos, the party isn’t the same.”
Marisabel Muñoz said augmenting the code was done with the everyone in mind.
“The code of conduct was a process that underwent a lot of time and energy, and it was done for the primary reason of safety,” Marisabel Muñoz said. “Safety for the fans, safety for everybody in the stadium, safety for those participating.”
RSL coach Freddy Juarez said he believes there should be a section of the stadium for every type of fan, including one where supporters can stand and sing the whole game and be a little rowdier. He also thinks it would be beneficial for fans to have moments in every game when they all unite — like singing or chanting at the exact minute when RSL scored its first-ever goal.
Soares, who also believes soccer games should feel more like events, said he used to attend more RSL games when Kreis coached the team because it was a more attractive on-field product. He also liked supporting players like Javier Morales, an Argentine; Joao Plata, an Ecuadorian; and Jefferson Savarino, a Venezuelan.
Nowadays, however, he’d rather watch European soccer at home with his children, who are for the moment better off learning from those games, he said.
“If they became more competitive and more consistent, I’d love to go and take my kids,” Soares said. “But for me it’s like, what are my sons going to learn watching RSL? Not much. That’s just my opinion.”
Many Hispanic players, or the right Hispanic player?
Juan Garcia, another member of La Barra Real, thinks the way the club could attract more casual Hispanic soccer fans in Utah is by signing a well-known player from that demographic. His preference is a Mexican player, but what’s more important is that player’s status, he said.
“I think if Real open their wallet and buy a star player, I think their ticket sales will increase,” Garcia said. “The Latino will fan go to the stadium more. That is for sure.”
Garcia’s idea is not dissimilar to what many clubs attempted for many years in MLS.
“Especially in the first probably 10 or 15 years of MLS, there were a lot of teams that thought if they had one semi-prominent current or former Mexican national team player, that was all they needed to do to connect with a community that the expectation was they already love soccer,” said Trey Fitz-Gerald, RSL’s former vice president of communications.
International players generally come with a hefty price tag. RSL is not known for having the resources it takes to acquire a player like LAFC’s Carlos Vela, who also plays for the Mexican national team and is one of the league’s highest-paid players.
About one-third of the team’s current roster is of Hispanic descent and includes players like Rubio Rubin, Anderson Julio, Pablo Ruiz and David Ochoa. Many of them speak Spanish as a first language, and some speak only Spanish.
Juarez said the club has done a good job of continuing to sign Latino players. “I don’t think we’ve lost that part,” he said.
For Alarcón, that might not be enough.
“They are missing a strong star player to attract more fans,” Alarcón said.
Rubin’s signing might fit the bill. He’s a former U.S. Men’s National Team player with plenty of experience playing in Mexico, including a stint at Club Tijuana of Liga MX. He is Mexican-American and bilingual in English and Spanish. He said he’s open to doing what he can to reach more fans in that demographic.
“That would be cool obviously to be able to get into the Spanish community and be able to help get more fan base into RSL,” Rubin said. “I would be more than happy to take that role and get my name out there for the Mexican-American and even Guatemalan community.”
Pablo Ruiz, who is from Argentina, said he’s been able to get some people close to him interested in RSL just because he’s on the team.
“For myself, my friends and my family, they’ve started following and getting close to Real Salt Lake and they’re learning more and more about the family that we are,” Ruiz said through a translator. “So definitely having a Latino player like myself has helped have an impact in the community and exposing the team to the community.”
In previous years, RSL employed the likes of Morales, Costa Rican striker Álvaro Saborío and Mexican goalkeeper Lalo Fernandez. But the key to attracting more soccer fans could just lie in how well RSL plays.
Over the past several years, the team has struggled to win consistently. If that changes, it could be enough by itself.
“Nobody knew who Javi Morales was when he came here. Nobody knew who Álvaro Saborío was when he came here,” Fitz-Gerald said. “But those guys became fan favorites because of how they performed and how they contributed to the team’s success. And I think that’s always going to be the case.”
Past efforts and challenges to engage
Aurora Lopez started as an intern with RSL in 2010 and joined the fan relations department full time in 2011 as the point of contact for season ticket holders. Lopez, who is Mexican and bilingual, focused on Hispanic and Spanish-speaking clients, as well as all the supporter groups.
As her role evolved and she gained more confidence, Lopez began getting involved in outreach to the Hispanic community.
Lopez said she was part of summer coaching clinics, some of which were held in areas where Hispanics were a large part of the community. She and a coworker also started the Ligas All-Star game, a competition that featured the best players from local adult leagues that consisted heavily of Hispanic players.
The All-Star events occurred for three years from 2010-2012 and were held at Rio Tinto.
A current RSL employee said Lopez’s departure greatly hurt the club’s efforts with Hispanic outreach.
“We never replaced her in terms of having someone whose specific target audience in the ticketing department was Hispanic,” said the employee, who requested anonymity due to their standing with the club. “I don’t know if that was by design. I don’t know if that was just oversight on our part.
“Aurora’s loss, I think, was much bigger than I think the decision-makers would have anticipated.”
In the aftermath, the RSL marketing and business staff was left in an awkward position.
“We didn’t feel comfortable trying to think of Hispanic marketing tactics when there’s a bunch of people of Caucasian descent trying to market to a whole community that they have no idea how they live,” said Mussak, who is part Honduran and Guatemalan.
State Sen. Luz Escamilla — who became an RSL fan before she was an elected official in 2008, and even co-sponsored the bill that put the RSL logo on Utah license plates — has been involved in community outreach and attends as many games as she can.
In Escamilla’s view, the club has always had the Hispanic community in mind regardless of management or ownership, though she said there’s always room for improvement.
“I think they can definitely probably do more,” Escamilla said. “I think it will be a good ROI for them. Return on investment is probably high if they target that audience because there is already an audience that’s friendly to the sport itself. And when they’re loyal, they’re loyal.”
Minding the gaps
In the last couple of months, RSL has been attempting to connect with Hispanic fans despite its current staffing situation, which has been described as “bare bones” due to the lack of an owner.
About two weeks ago, Kimball reached out to a broadcast media company that used to be partnered with RSL — a relationship he said he formed during this first stint with the club.
That previous partnership allowed RSL to reach out to the Hispanic community and included various outreach and community programs. If the partnership is renewed, Kimball hopes to return to that.
“With that, I’m really looking forward to getting much more involved and embracing that community as much as we can,” Kimball said.
Juarez and players who speak only Spanish have been made available in settings where they speak mainly to Spanish-language media outlets.
The club’s community relations department, which has a history of reaching out to Hispanic communities, now has its efforts more directly integrated with other departments. That means its events will be more visible than ever before.
“The fact that it wasn’t a huge deal to highlight it, maybe that’s partially on Andy Carroll — that it wasn’t anything that he thought was a priority,” said Mary VanMinde, vice president of community relations. “It’s kind of nice for us because we now have sunlight.”
RSL’s official website also recently added Spanish to a function that allows a visitor to text or chat with someone at the club. The function’s icon says “Se Habla Español,” which means “We Speak Spanish.” Carlos “Chiqui” Pelaez said merely adding the Spanish component to that function was “huge.”
John Genna, vice president of corporate sponsorships, said the club is updating the signage in Rio Tinto Stadium to include Spanish “to be more welcoming and appealing to Hispanic audiences.” He also said more Spanish-speaking game-day staff is on its way.
There are still measures the club wants to implement, but staffing appears to be the biggest roadblock.
Juarez said he would like to see RSL’s website have the capability of translating to different languages, as well as translations for social media posts. Soccer analyst Brian Dunseth said the entire league should feature more of that — particularly in Spanish — and it would go a long way in RSL’s market specifically.
“I would love to see English, Spanish and closed captioning involved in every little thing that clubs put out,” Dunseth said. “Because I just think that would, across the board, be inclusive to everybody in the Salt Lake Valley and in Utah to be a part of this.”
An RSL spokesperson said that Tyler Gibbons, senior director of broadcast and digital, has recently started searching for a fluent Spanish speaker to join his staff to help with media, marketing and content.
Videos from the club lately have featured a Spanish-speaking player whose words are captioned in English. But in those videos, the majority of players or coaches speak in English, with the subtitles also in English. For Read Across America Day, though, the club posted a video of Ruiz reading only in Spanish.
Muñoz credited the club for some of its recent efforts, but feels more can still be done. One idea he has is RSL creating a team of Hispanic ambassadors that visit community members and businesses.
When it comes down to it, Muñoz thinks RSL showing dedication to the Hispanic community can not only bring more fans to the stadium, but also create a lasting connection outside of soccer.
“I know that the Hispanic/Latino community, we just love the thought,” Muñoz said. “We like to be thought of. We don’t like to be dismissed. We want to belong.”