USL Championship heralds return of sports competition in local US markets

The United Soccer League Championship set a meaningful industry precedent over the weekend with the return of live sports competition in local markets in the United States amid the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The move came on the same weekend that Professional Bull Riders ushered in the comeback of spectators at indoor arenas in the US, in another significant step amid the health crisis.

With Major League Baseball poised to make its return on July 23 – with teams playing in their ballparks – many eyes will be on the USL in the coming weeks as sports organizations examine how games in home venues will look and feel amid the pandemic and, in turn, try to adopt best practices.

A number of USL Championship teams had limited fans at their home venues following the approval of local authorities.

In Utah, 816 fans watched Real Monarchs lose 1-0 to the San Diego Loyal at the 20,000-capacity Rio Tinto Stadium. The Utah and Salt Lake County health departments approved a plan that allowed up to 5,300 fans to show up to the game.

“When it first started, it was really quiet out there,” one fan told the Salt Lake Tribune. “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.”

Despite the sharp spike of coronavirus cases in Florida in recent weeks, 140 spectators watched the Tampa Bay Rowdies secure a 2-1 victory over Atlanta United 2 at Al Lang Stadium.

“We’re the first team in the state of Florida that has anybody inside their own stadium,” Rowdies president Lee Cohen told the Tampa Bay Times. “The guys view this as a chance to write history for a lower-division soccer team in this country. This is a chance to showcase something and be a part of something larger.”

Colorado Springs Switchbacks allowed fans for its home game against New Mexico United at Weidner Field. “I’m just glad to be back and be outside and enjoy the game,” one fan told the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Meanwhile, Indy Eleven attracted an announced crowd of 4,761 at Lucas Oil Stadium for its 2-0 win over Saint Louis FC, though the actual number of fans present was believed to be far fewer.

Despite the risks and potential pitfalls involved – not least of which is that numerous states with rising coronavirus cases could ban all public gatherings in the coming weeks and months – the USL has decided to set this precedent for two principal reasons.

Firstly, the league wants to make a mark and differentiate itself from other sports properties. Secondly, USL teams are hugely dependent on matchday incomes as a revenue source, which is mainly why a quarantined event has not been held.

“There are certainly risks and key learnings that we have every day but our ownership felt a way that we could differentiate ourselves from other leagues was to be first and be back in our communities, serving them and playing in front of fans where appropriate,” USL executive vice-president Court Jeske told SportBusiness.

“The other thing the USL could do is take advantage of our geographic footprint. With 35 clubs in the Championship and 12 in League One, many of our trips can be focused on bus travel, which can be delivered in a very safe and efficient manner. So a combination of those factors led our ownership to make a very bold and aggressive move as it relates to return of play,” he said.