For the Real Salt Lake players and coaches, it's all about the wins and ties. For RSL general manager Steve Pastorino, much like a campaign manager in an election year, it's all about the numbers.
Instead of caring about exit polls, however, Pastorino's primary interest is ticket sales. On Saturday night, in RSL's second home game of the season, the final head count was 16,254 a very good number according to Pastorino. Last year, the Major League Soccer average attendance was 15,500.
"I was a little nervous because emotionally you put so much into the first game. You've got to put on a good show the first time out, that you risk totally falling apart in the second game," said Pastorino.
In that season opener against Colorado, Salt Lake exceeded everyone's expectations by packing over 25,000 bodies into Rice-Eccles Stadium. Even though Game 2's crowd was nearly 9,000 less, considering the circumstances, it was anything but a disappointment.
On a night when rain showers were in the forecast, against an opponent without a household name, exceeding 16,000 in ticket sales is a very encouraging sign for Pastorino. Approximately 4,000 of those fans were walk-ups.
It's exactly the type of crowd that has Real Salt Lake believing it might average 20,000 fans in its inaugural season. That would be an incredible accomplishment for a small market team, and a reality that would have RSL owner Dave Checketts and MLS commissioner Don Garber looking like geniuses around the league.
In the nine-year history of the league, only 11 out of a possible 98 teams have averaged more than 20,000 fans in a season. Six of those 11 have been in Los Angeles, while two have been in New York. Last year's leader was Los Angeles with 23,809, just over 3,000 short at the immaculate 27,000-seat Home Depot Center.
So is a 20,000 average realistic for Salt Lake, a city with a metropolitan population less than two million?
Through two of 16 games, the team is averaging 20,771 fans. With some big dates lined up later this year, RSL management is cautiously optimistic such an average could hover around the 20,000 mark all season.
"If we averaged 20,000, we would be ecstatic," said Pastorino.
Here's a few reasons to believe it can happen.
On June 4, Pastorino fully expects a sellout at Rice-Eccles Stadium for a doubleheader that features a World Cup qualifier between the United States and Costa Rica, followed by RSL against FC Dallas.
"It will sellout without a doubt, the fact we've sold 20,000 (tickets) so fast has blown me away," said Pastorino. "A big contingent of Costa Ricans will come from all over the West, who probably haven't made travel arrangements yet."
The team also expects to draw between 25,000 and 30,000 fans for home games on July 4 and July 23, games featuring a post-game fireworks extravaganza.
Those two holiday games, the U.S. National Team qualifier and then the previous two home games have the potential to draw over 145,000 combined fans. If Salt Lake averaged 15,909 fans in its other 11 home games, that average would be exactly 20,000.
Throughout the year, however, there are a handful of other games in which Pastorino expects to draw more than 20,000 fans. One of those is Real's next home game on May 14 against Landon Donovan and the Los Angeles Galaxy. The team has already sold over 10,000 tickets for that game, and Pastorino anticipates another huge walk-up crowd for that game.
Crowds of 20,000 plus are also a possibility when Los Angeles returns again on June 22, when CD Chivas USA comes to town May 18 and Aug. 6, and then again on Oct. 5 when Freddy Adu makes his only visit to Salt Lake City in 2005.It's a reach to think all of these positives can happen. Attendance may eventually dip with a losing streak, summer temperatures in the upper 90s or perhaps in the fall when college football rolls around. But based on the response from the community through two games, anything is possible in the eyes of Pastorino and his staff.
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