David Blitzer and Ryan Smith took a stroll around Rio Tinto Stadium with a contingent of Real Salt Lake executives. It was Jan. 5, the same day news went public that Blitzer and Smith had taken ownership of the franchise, and already the pair was pointing out changes they could make to revivify the fan experience on game days.
Blitzer remarked that the stadium looked like “a bunker” and felt “cold.” Smith fixated on the once-bright seats that had faded due to years of sun exposure, saying “our colors are red and blue, not orange,” recalled one RSL executive who was there with the new owners.
Blitzer and Smith’s remarks were the very first observations they made of a franchise that they had just purchased for reportedly close to $400 million. After a nearly 18-month limbo period of being run by Major League Soccer, the organization finally had people who not only could make those observations, but put significant money behind plans to address them.
Nearly seven months later, the feeling at the RioT mirrors what it was back in the glory years of RSL — from the 2009 MLS Cup championship to the years when they were perennial contenders in the CONCACAF Champions League. The stadium has been sold out for eight consecutive home games, a franchise record. The team has not yet lost at home in 2022, boasting a 6-0-2 mark.
“The environment in the stadium on game days is just so much better than it has been in several years,” General Manager Elliot Fall said. “I get chills when I see a lot of it because it reminds me of what we were when we were at our best.”
RSL employees across the organization have been pining for years to bring back that loving feeling. But under Dell Loy Hansen’s ownership, making seemingly simple changes like painting the walls was a hassle.
If a project Tyler Gibbons, the club’s vice president of marketing and game production, was working on was almost complete, someone above him would make a last-minute change that would “throw off all the hard work and thought and rhyme and reason” behind it, he said. Decisions made by the previous ownership group always felt like they had an “ulterior motive” that was more about business rather than the fan base or larger community.
On the stroll back in January, the new owners issued a task: spruce the place up by RSL’s home opener on March 5. Gibbons was the point man and worked with Art Director David Dryden to get the ball rolling.
Now when fans walk around the stadium that even Gibbons described as once looking like “an old abandoned factory,” they see decals of current RSL players on almost every door of the third and fourth floors. They see vibrant murals behind the south goal and along the third-floor concourse featuring messages like “Believe” or “The RSL Way,” each with a lion depicted within them. They see the team colors all over the stadium walls.
This new ownership group, current and former RSL employees say, empowers everyone in their current positions do what they do best, to pitch and implement ideas without fear of last-minute changes or grousing about budgetary constraints.
“We’ve wanted to do a lot of the things that you’re seeing for years and we were just never allowed to,” said Taran Meyer, former senior manager of communications. “But now that ownership sees the value and they see the blessing that it brings, the proof is in the pudding at this point.”
Gibbons said the initial upgrades to the stadium are about 70% of the way finished from where he wants to be by the end of the season. Dryden added that the west side of the stadium is almost done, and that work on the east side will commence soon.
Making the stadium more vibrant is just the beginning. RSL plans to make other upgrades that fans have wanted for a long time. One notable example: safe-standing seating in the supporters’ section, which would add railings that fans could hold onto or lean on to prevent from falling.
The plan is for safe-standing areas to be installed in time for the Aug. 6 game against LAFC. Sections 9, 10 and 11 will be the recipients on a trial basis.
“You’re going to see that happen this year,” President John Kimball said. “We want to try it, make sure the fans like it. And again, it’s based on collaboration and working with them. We’re going to take a small section and give it a go. If they love it, then we’ll take it from there.”
The organization also wants to make good on plans it’s had for several years to make more drastic upgrades to the stadium. A few days before COVID-19 halted sports around, former Chief Business Officer Andy Carroll said there will be “a total renovation to the stadium” in the next “two to three years.”
The pandemic — plus the ousting of both Hansen and Carroll after allegations of racist behavior and fostering a toxic workplace culture surfaced — put those plans on hold. But Kimball said they’ve been renewed.
“There was a significant amount of money that was set aside for that very reason,” Kimball said. “We are in the process of looking through designs and plans and testing seats and all those different things. So I would say in the next two years, you’re going to see a lot of those big initiatives actually come to be.”
On the field
RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni spoke to Blitzer and met with Smith before signing his contract to be the next head man, which was about a month before new ownership was announced to the public. Those conversations had him looking forward to the prospect of staying with the club.
“Having experienced what it was last year without ownership and a lot of decisions that couldn’t have been made because of that,” Mastroeni said, “to now having two visionaries with an awesome vision for this club, that alone was exciting enough.”
Mastroeni liked Blitzer and Smith’s vision, particularly its community-driven aspect. But one significant way new ownership has enhanced life on the soccer side has been roster building and collaboration.
RSL’s big splash of this season so far has been the return of Jefferson Savarino. In order to get him back from Brazilian club Atlético Mineiro, the club had to shell out $2.5 million for his transfer fee, sources told The Salt Lake Tribune. That number seems like it would’ve been a non-starter under previous ownership. Former head scout Andy Williams said in 2020 that were several talented players the club didn’t sign because Hansen did not want to pay for them.
Savarino already has a goal and an assist for RSL. He adds to an attack that hasn’t seen much goal-scoring yet, despite the team sitting second in the Supporters Shield race.
But as much as Savarino was brought back for how he could potentially help the team in the short term, he’s also an example of new ownership’s long-term vision, Fall said, adding that the ownership group was “100% on board with and supportive” of the Savarino move.
Acquiring 18-year-old Diego Luna from the El Paso Locomotive, a USL Championship team, was also an investment new ownership made for the long term, Fall said. In addition, Blitzer’s wide network of soccer clubs overseas made it smoother to bring in Sergio Cordova and Chris Kablan from FC Augsburg and Waasland-Beveren, respectively.
The summer transfer window is coming up, and RSL has the flexibility to move Cordova and Damir Kreilach out of their designated player slots to make more upgrades to the roster. It seems like with Blitzer and Smith pulling the strings, fans can actually reasonably expect that to happen.
“We have resources, we have the ability to spend and we’ll continue to do so,” Fall said. “I think we’re just scratching the surface of what that’s going to look like.”
Kimball made it clear that RSL won’t go out and try to land a Lionel Messi-type player. His view is that ownership will do what it takes to put a championship team on the field, but do so thoughtfully and efficiently.
Fall reiterated that point.
“We’re not going to be a club that goes out and just throws tons of money at one or two players, big-name stars to put a flashy name on a jersey,” Fall said. “It’s a lot deeper than that. The investment is in the future of the club and in the soccer community.”
Nonetheless, Fall has “unlimited optimism” based on what he’s seen from new ownership so far. When he calls one of the owners, he actually gets a call back and has a meaningful, productive conversation — that didn’t always happen under previous ownership, he said. And when he and his team present an idea they believe makes sense and is worth it for the club, the answer “has never been ‘no.’”
‘It feels like a community again’
People up and down the RSL organization marvel at the atmosphere at the RioT on game days so far this season.
The team is averaging 20,300 fans per game in 2022, per Soccer Stadium Digest. It has sold out eight consecutive home games — a franchise record.
In 2021, the team averaged 15,253. In 2019, pre-COVID, that number was 18,121.
There are myriad reasons for the surge in attendance, RSL officials say. Some of it can be attributed to increased community outreach and initiatives. For example, Kreilach bought 100 season tickets to give away to people who normally cannot afford them. That section of the stadium was dubbed “Kreilach’s Corner.”
Some of it has to do with many more themed games such as the first-ever Hispanic Heritage Night last year, Pride Night, Star Wars Night and others.
“We’re bringing the fan base back into the stadium in a way that’s organic,” Fall said. “It feels like a community again.”
Some fans agree with Fall’s sentiment.
“They care about fan input. That’s No. 1 for me,” RSL fan Hayden Nielsen said. “The supporters section has been unified. They haven’t raised ticket prices even though the experience and team is better. So much change over the six months of new ownership.”
Added Rich Nazzaro: “Social media is active and engaging, the stadium environment is inclusive/engaging, the cosmetic work to the stadium has made it feel like a home for the team/fans instead of just a place we play. Good results probably help a lot, too.”
Some fans said the atmosphere has improved simply as a result of the team winning more games. Meyer, who worked at the club for 10 years before departing in March, believes it is more complicated than that.
Meyer said that under previous ownership, RSL called itself “the community club” but didn’t actually hold true to that idea with its actions. But there’s been a paradigm shift within the team such that winning games is just icing on the cake.
“I still think the club would be where it is right now over the last six months even if we weren’t where we were in the standings,” Meyer said.
It’s only been about seven months since Blitzer and Smith took ownership of RSL. Players feel the shift in their ability to ask for things — like their own rooms on the road or a bigger budget to give away jerseys — and get them.
Fans feel the shift in their renewed connection to the club. The supporters groups, traditionally fractured and constantly struggling to unite, now all sit together. Gibbons said accomplishing that was as simple as following though on some previous “empty promises” made by former ownership.
More changes are undoubtedly on the way. And for the first time in a long time, it feels things will actually change for the better.
“We’re trying to get back to when the words ‘Real Salt Lake’ are uttered in this community, it elicits good feelings again,” Gibbons said. “I think we’ve been making small strides, starting in 2021, and each and every day now.”
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