In first Utah pro sports event to be held with fans, Monarchs lose opener in front of a small crowd at Rio Tinto

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Masks are required in the stadium as the Real Monarchs host the San Diego Loyal SC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, July 11, 2020.

Sandy • When Pete Gillwald heard about Rio Tinto Stadium allowing fans for the Real Monarchs game against the San Diego Loyal, he made his decision quickly.

“We have to go,” Gillwald said at halftime of the Monarchs’ 1-0 loss to the Loyal.

Gillwald was one of 816 fans at Rio Tinto on a scorching Saturday afternoon as the Monarchs hosted the first sporting event in Utah to allow spectators during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other professional leagues — the NWSL and Major League Soccer, followed soon by the NBA — have played or will play without fans.

There were less than 10 fans waiting about an hour before the game, but that number quickly grew as it got closer to kickoff time. Once the action was well underway, the atmosphere started to feel normal.

When the Monarchs came close to scoring or prevented the San Diego Loyal from scoring themselves, cheers and groans emanated from the stands. And even when the Monarchs appeared to tie the game in the 35th minute only to have the referees conclude otherwise — the ball looked like it crossed the goal line after pinging off the underside of the crossbar — the crowd voiced its deep displeasure with the call.

But the game wasn’t as hoppin’ when it kicked off.

“When it first started, it was really quiet out there,” said Jasmine Ontiveros, who attended the game. “It kind of felt like a movie, like you can hear people chewing on their popcorn and drinking their drinks. So it was a little weird at first, but it livened up a little bit more.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Soccer fans Lonnie and Beckham McGill are among a limited number of fans at Rio Tinto Stadium to watch the Real Monarchs host the San Diego Loyal SC in Sandy on Saturday, July 11, 2020.

The Utah and Salt Lake County health departments approved a plan that allows up to 5,300 fans into Rio Tinto, which has a capacity of more than 20,000. Part of the reason for the low turnout could have been the 2 p.m kickoff on a day when temperatures soared into the high 90s.

With so few people, even the youngest fans or faintest chants could be hard clearly. One young fan repeatedly yelled “kick the ball” during an early Monarchs possession. After the Loyal scored in the 16th minute, two Monarchs fans wearing team scarves and sitting in the second row started a chant heard often at RSL and Monarchs home games. The chant lasted only about eight measures.

Practically all of the fans sat on the west side of the stadium, which was completely under the shade. There were, however, a few fans in other areas.

Real Salt Lake, Utah Royals FC and Monarchs owner Dell Loy Hansen said Saturday’s game with fans was “a test.” Because the NWSL tournament has so far not resulted in positive COVID-19 cases and players across the league are saying they feel safe, the Monarchs game could be more than a one-off.

But Utah experienced its highest ever daily number of cases Friday, and its rolling seven-day average is up to 614 cases per day as of Saturday. The organization, however, hopes to continue allowing fans at games, but only if the cases start going down.

The Monarchs are scheduled to play again at Rio Tinto next Saturday.

Hansen felt confident that the Monarchs game would go off without a hitch.

“We will be able to go through this, we think, 100 percent COVID friendly,” Hansen said. “That we won’t be violating an protocols, which we would never do.”

He also said the minimal number of fans at the game didn’t allow for making much money. But that’s not his focus.

“The revenue that we generate from this game is less than it costs to open up the stadium. So this is not about money,” Hansen said. “This is truly about trying to figure out a way that we can reengage our fans and our teams with one another.”

Gillwald, who attended to watch the game and also his son working as an assistant referee, said he felt safe being at the game because everyone was wearing masks and attempting to socially distance.

But he mostly felt happy to engage in an activity.

“It feels great to get out of the house,” Gillwald said.