How many fans can Rice-Eccles Stadium host for Utah football? The answer isn’t so easy

(Photo courtesy of Mark Sargent) Utah Athletics officials are gaming out different scenarios for how many fans Rice-Eccles Stadium can accommodate if the Utes are able to play home football games this fall.

The possibility of a college football season happening at any point during the upcoming academic year, let alone in the fall, appears to be fading with each passing day.

Still, even after the Pac-12 announced late Friday afternoon it would eliminate all non-conference competition for all fall sports, the proceedings have not reached Doomsday levels quite yet. With that, as it pertains to the University of Utah, there is at least one question being asked all the time, to which an answer has yet to reveal itself.

How many fans will be allowed inside 45,807-seat Rice-Eccles Stadium?

Athletic department officials have kept their crowd-size models close to the vest. While they have offered no firm, exact number of fans that will be allowed in, a close look at Utah’s health guidance system at least offers an idea of what could be coming.

Salt Lake County is in the state’s “yellow,” or low-risk phase, but Salt Lake City remains in the “orange,” or moderate-risk phase. Rice-Eccles Stadium resides in Salt Lake City, so for now, it needs to abide by “orange” guidelines.

There are important differentiations between “yellow” and “orange.” The big key at “yellow” is that an outdoor venue is allowed to host up to 6,000 people. In theory, an outdoor venue operating at “yellow” is able to fill every seat as long as all attendees wear a face covering and there is social distancing in concession lines, restroom lines, etc.

Based on The Salt Lake Tribune’s interpretation of “yellow,” if Salt Lake City can get to that level, Rice-Eccles could host 6,000 people, which would equal roughly 13% of its normal capacity.

An interpretation of “orange” and how it would affect Rice-Eccles is cloudier. “Orange” guidelines do not specify a maximum allowable number like “yellow” does. “Orange” guidelines do however include key social-distancing phrasing such as “For reserved-seating facilities, facility capacity is dependent on ability to block reserved seats (demonstrated on digital seat map) to ensure safe radius,” “Limit the number of people in a confined area to enable adequate distancing at all times,” “Congregating at any point is not allowed,” and that the venue must have the “Ability to track attendance.”

Based on all of that, and without an allowable number like “yellow,” one might conclude that under “orange,” Rice-Eccles could go beyond 6,000 as long as social-distancing measures are in place. Neither the state, nor the county was able to confirm that notion when contacted by The Tribune on Monday.

For what it’s worth, Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy hosted a USL match Saturday afternoon between the Real Monarchs and San Diego Loyal. Under “yellow” guidelines, and with approval from state, local and USL officials, Rio Tinto opened to a maximum of 5,300 fans, which is just over 25% of the facility’s normal capacity of 20.700. The announced attendance Saturday was 816, but that may have had more to do with a 2 p.m. start and 100-degree heat than it did COVID-19.

In a conference call with beat reporters on Friday, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan noted that he and others inside his athletic department would be paying attention to how things played out at Rio Tinto.

“We’re blessed here to have a fantastic facility and event staff, it’s the best I’ve been around in terms of being scientific as it relates to fans and movement and those kinds of things,” Harlan said. “That group will be observing to learn and how they’re doing it down there and how fans are spacing. They’ll be watching, I’m sure, mask usage and all of that. It’s a great opportunity for our team to learn, and we’re certainly going to take the opportunity to do so.”

If and when there is football, regardless of whether Rice-Eccles can operate at “yellow” or “orange,” hard decisions lie ahead for Harlan and his staff in terms of not only how many fans get in, but which ones.

In a June 2 interview with The Tribune, Scott Kull, Utah’s director of external operations, said there was a 94% renewal rate for football season tickets, while the school can sell up to 32,500 season tickets as part of a full stadium. With a season-ticket base north of 30,000, even the most-optimistic fan knows that, short of Salt Lake City miraculously moving to “green” guidelines, that many people are not getting into Rice-Eccles.

Using Rio Tinto’s 25% capacity from Saturday as a baseline, 25% percent of Rice-Eccles would be 11,450. As a point of reference, Texas, which is larger and worse-off in terms of COVID-19 cases compared to Utah, is working towards 50% at outdoor stadiums. At Rice-Eccles, 50% would be just shy of 23,000.

Rice-Eccles has announced 64 consecutive sellouts, dating back to the 2010 season-opener, a 27-24 overtime win over No. 15 Pitt.