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Experiencing live sports during the pandemic: A day at the NWSL Challenge Cup

Photo Copyright Lucas Muller

The first of my concerns in my walk up to the Zions Bank Stadium entrance was a piece of paper on a table. After getting a badge with my name on it, I took the pen and joked to the National Women’s Soccer League staff member: “Is this form I’m signing pretty much saying you’re not responsible if I die?” She laughed and sighed. That was a “yes.”

That kicked off my path on the strange yellow-brick road to watching live, pandemic-era sports, a journey paved with social-distancing reminders taped on the ground, “face mask required” signs, a temperature check, and security staff opening every door for me.

It feels weird to type, but I really did expect that — most of it, at least. A thermometer on my forehead, and a signature assuring my family would not sue if I keeled over, felt bizarrely standard in June 2020.

Actually, I think the biggest surprise for me when I walked into Zions Bank Stadium for a game on the morning of July 4 was how many people were in the stadium.

Yes, people.

Watching the streams on CBS All Access, I was under the impression that pretty much the only people sitting in the stands were a handful of media, players and coaches from other teams, and a sprinkling of NWSL in-house folks (e.g. commissioner Lisa Baird, NWSLPA members, general managers). Instead, setting my stuff down, I realized that about 40 fans — family and friends of the Real Salt Lake/Utah Royals FC organization, I learned — would also be watching the game in person. They were assigned to specific sections with distanced seats, staggered six-plus feet apart, and nearly all of them sported incredibly stylish RSL/Royals face masks.

Taking in the views from my own little media table before kickoff of Challenge Cup game 7, it seemed a way of ensuring things ran smoothly and safely in Zions Bank Stadium. Even though we were in an open-air stadium and spaced six feet apart (and then some), face masks stayed on. The High Class Maintenance crew dotted the stands, at the ready to spray down surfaces.

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Comfort also did not fall to the wayside. Much to my surprise, I was provided with some quality food in a to-go box. I could be at risk of contracting COVID-19 entering this stadium, but RSL/Royals management would be sure I did not go hungry.

Being there was exciting. I found myself trying to parse through what exactly it was I so excited about. No doubt, being at this historic sporting event in the pandemic was part of it. So was the idea of seeing the likes of Vero Boquete and Rachel Daly work their magic in the flesh.

I laughed as I realized it was also about the playground, the ambulance, the mountain behind the stadium, and the coffee truck — objects that were just, well, objects, but that had been given celebrity status and a life of their own thanks to the weird and wonderful virtual world of people who love this league. Of course, all these folks were in a chair or a couch in front of their computers elsewhere, yet, their presence seemed to be so palpably here, in Herriman, Utah.

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Just a day prior, I was one of those people, on my couch, reading NWSL Playground’s tweets. No one was encouraging me to get up and come here. I was not assigned to a specific story. In fact, many told me that, because there was zero access to players in person and that I would not be in the bubble, there was likely little value in me, as a member of the media, driving seven hours to Utah for this event.

And really, fresh off an I-80 drive across one of the least amusing parts of the country, watching the game get underway, I understood why I was told that. Overall, the scenes looked very much the same as they did taking them in from the front row of the couch. Players in Black Lives Matter shirts dropping to kneel at those first notes of the national anthem. Huddles. Coaches standing and sitting and standing and sitting. Amy Rodriguez doing Amy Rodriguez things, scoring a game-winner with a clinical finish just inside the 18.

Without the voices of Lori Lindsey and Mike Watts and any (fake or real) crowd noise, the most notable difference was the quiet — a quiet full of contradictions. On the one hand, the relative silence provided the ambience of a scrimmage. Walking into Zions Bank Stadium, one could get the impression they had wandered into a preseason game that didn’t count.

On the other hand, it was the quiet which amplified the intensity of everything unfolding on the field. I could hear how loudly Kelley O’Hara cheered from the players’ box not far away. I could hear Utah coach Craig Harrington’s instructions being shouted in a British accent. I could hear the crunch of tackles and players talking and cursing and encouraging each other.

Dell Loy Hansen (bottom right) in the stands. (Photo Copyright Lucas Muller)

The vibe created by a nearly empty stadium that morning was odd, almost unsettling. No doubt a lot of it was an adjustment being made by my system as my eyes tried to make sense of what was then and what is now. Visuals of pre-pandemic soccer flashed in my brain. I realized that the last major women’s soccer game I attended was the World Cup final in France last summer — a moment from what may as well have been a different universe.

Maybe my eyes and mind got on board in the second game that day — or maybe, there is just something about a night game. Whatever it was — being in an empty stadium, nestled in the mountains, watching the world’s best players under the lights — the quiet did not feel odd. Rather, it felt sacred. It started to sink in more, how special it all was that this tournament was happening, when just months ago there were doubts about any sports being played, and talk, more specifically, of what this pandemic would do to women’s sports.

And though I’ve never been much of a fireworks person, let me tell you, that night I was.

The next day, I drove home. As a journalist, considering all the restrictive media measures in place, was it important for me to be at the NWSL Challenge Cup? Probably not. Did it feel important as a sports fan, soccer lover, and feminist?

That was a “yes.”

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