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'This is unique': Real Monarchs' continued return a preview of how live sports will look, sound during pandemic

Real Monarchs take the field in front of a mostly-empty Rio Tinto Stadium crowd against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, Saturday, July 18, 2020 in Sandy, Utah.

(Tyler Gibbons, Real Monarchs)

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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SANDY — Once again, Real Monarchs returned to Rio Tinto Stadium to continue its regular season in the U.S. Soccer-sanctioned second division.

Once again, the club allowed a limited number of fans into the stadium.

And while the result was slightly improved from its previous 1-0 loss, the franchise is also hoping to learn more about what it will take to allow people back in the seats while allowing players back on the pitch.

Real Monarchs dropped points on nearly the final touch of the match, when Colorado Springs’ Abdul Rwatubyaye finished off a corner kick in stoppage time to help the Switchbacks to a 3-3 draw Saturday afternoon at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Andrew Brody had a goal and an assist to lead the Monarchs, who also got goals from Syracuse High grad Kyle Coffee and Brighton alum Taylor Peay.

“For me it’s a joy to play with the guys," said defender Noah Powder, who had two assists. "Whether it’s 90 minutes for 20 minutes it doesn’t matter. I enjoy being out here all the time in front of everyone.”

But as the Monarchs (0-1-2) built up a 3-1 lead on their Rocky Mountain rivals and then watched it slowly slip away, there was less fan engagement to signal the closure of a possible collapse. That’s simply because there were fewer fans.

And that created some challenges for the broadcast, said Landon Southwick, the club’s play-by-play broadcaster entering his sixth season with the Monarchs. It led to a unique experience from his view in the broadcast booth perched four stories above the field.

“I think this is unique,” Southwick told “A home game where you have the faithful, loyal fans that you’re used to at every game but aren’t here because they aren’t comfortable, is a little bit different.

“But it’s also different looking down and seeing a more subdued excitement or personality — people are not sure if they want to encroach on someone’s space. People just don’t know what is socially ‘acceptable.’”

Even in television, where the visuals may seem to be as important as audio, the roar of the crowd can play a huge role on the tenor of the broadcast.

“You can hear the crowd build as situations build. I hope that always comes out in the way I call games,” Southwick said. “It’s easy to get the energy going.

“When there’s no noise, like in a completely empty stadium, it’s different. I can imagine that translates to the players, as well. That’s the challenge; the fans provide a lot. And it’s something in sports we’re going to miss.”

As more teams and leagues reopen following the COVID-19 pandemic-forced hiatus of every major professional sports league in North America, the unusual sights and sounds of Saturday’s USL Championship match will become more commonplace.

The Monarchs hosted what they believe to be the first professional outdoor match with fans in the United States since March 11 a week prior in a 1-0 loss to the Landon Donovan-managed San Diego Loyal SC. That match drew just 816 fans, able to be physically distant in the cavernous 20,000-seat Rio Tinto Stadium, with stadium personnel on-hand to direct parking, stadium entry at various locations, and mask-wearing compliance, among other protocol.

Much like the week before, everything was as touchless and contact-free as possible, from tickets to entry to concessions and bathroom use. Fans were directed when or how to enter and exit the stadium, and stadium staff was on hand to ensure proper social distancing and mask-wearing was strictly enforced.

“I can see the benefits of getting sports started, but I can also see some of the challenges of it,” Southwick said. “They made some changes from last week, and I think that’s what this will be all about: what changes can we make, and what lessons have we learned?

“Hopefully they aren’t lessons from people getting sick, but lessons learned to make the process smoother. I think that’s the name of the game on this.”

There’s still time to learn and experiment, too, as fans slowly become more comfortable with returning to live sporting events in the midst of a global pandemic that has infected more than 3.6 million Americans, including over 33,000 Utahns, as of Saturday.

A recent poll by Provo-based Qualtrics revealed that 65% of the population doesn’t feel comfortable attending a live sporting event. That's in line with similar findings of those who are uneasy with a return to working in a communal office space (61%), engage in retail shopping (51%), go to the gym (56%) or eat at a restaurant (45%).

The number of those who felt uncomfortable in attending a live sporting event is down from the 79% by a similar survey in early May, but the numbers are still high, and likely will remain so without a vaccine or medicine to treat the novel coronavirus or its symptoms.

On the Monarchs’ side, an announced crowd of 505 fans watched the Switchbacks tie the hosts Saturday — down from 816 a week ago. So those noted broadcast voices may be the way the majority of Americans consume sports for the foreseeable future, assuming sports continued to be played.

The NBA is getting ready to restart its season inside a closed bubble at DisneyWorld near Orlando, a similar move to the MLS is Back Tournament on the campus of the ESPN Wide World of Sports.

And how those games will sound will be “completely different,” ESPN lead NBA broadcaster Mike Breen told the ESPN Daily podcast this week.

“There are times when crowds have chants that become part of the broadcast,” Breen said. “You take your cue from that, and it’s something you need to address.

“You really take your cue off them a lot, and that’s why it’s going to be such an intriguing thing for all of us. It’s something none of us have had to do.”

Fan roars and chants are often incorporated into a broadcast, such as when waves of “boos” or other derogatory messages are hurled at players or referees.

“It’s also a very effective way of giving the viewer a feel of the excitement,” Breen said, “by letting the crowd take over.”

That will be lost with empty stadiums, and even to an extent with the limited crowds allowed to watch as lower leagues like the USL Championship experiment with the return of fans.

Real Monarchs play their next match on the road July 29 at New Mexico United. They’ll return home Saturday, Aug. 15 to host El Paso Locomotives at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman.

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