For Royals fans to turn up and drown (traveling Thorns fans) out would be the most satisfying thing for me. —Royals head coach Laura Harvey
On Nov. 15, a day before it was announced that Utah would be getting a National Women’s Soccer League franchise, club leaders met with a number of key figures in the local soccer community.
In telling the group of the news that was to come, the conversation centered around the notion that this venture could thrive, and that the NWSL’s Portland Thorns were both the proof that it could happen as well as the model in large part for how to do it.
The Thorns are certainly a good franchise to try to emulate. Not only have they won two of the league’s five championships including last year’s, but they’ve also never averaged fewer than 13,320 fans per game over the course of a season, and that came in 2013, the league’s first campaign (last season they averaged 17,653).
The rest of the NWSL has lagged far behind that, as the highest attendance average from a non-Portland team in a single season was the 8,785 fans the Orlando Pride averaged in 2016.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that after Utah Royals FC’s much-anticipated home opener Apr. 14 at Rio Tinto Stadium drew a standing-room-only crowd of 19,203 fans and attention from soccer observers around the country, URFC will get the chance to begin answering the question of, 'What now?' during a four-game homestand that begins when the Thorns come to town for a match Saturday evening.
“Portland has shown us the way and what was possible with the Thorns, and we feel, and what we conveyed (to the community leaders) is we feel like we can be bigger than the Thorns,” chief business officer Andy Carroll told the Deseret News in March.
If ticket sales for Saturday is an indication, there’s work to be done yet to solidify a base of supporters as big as Portland’s. As of Friday afternoon, fewer than 10,000 fans were expected to be in attendance at Rio Tinto Stadium, and the club is at about 5,000 season tickets sold, short of its initial goal of 8,000.
Carroll understands the importance of continuing to build public awareness throughout the season in an effort to maintain the excitement that was present at the season opener. To that end, he said marketing to the already established Real Salt Lake fanbase will be key, as will getting players out in the community.
“We know that if we market properly, make sure that people are aware that Utah Royals FC are playing, that the fanbase and the community will support it,” he said.
Ultimately, though, people in the organization understand that consistently putting a quality product on the field will be of paramount importance to keep the fans coming. On Saturday, URFC will still be looking for its first win after a 2-2 draw with the North Carolina Courage last weekend.
The squad will be as full as it has been all year, as there are no injured players beyond Alex Arlitt and Mandy Laddish, who have been out all season and will likely miss much, if not all, of the campaign.
Additionally, Australian midfielder Katrina Gorry arrived in town this week after being with the national team for the past few months at World Cup qualifiers.
Head coach Laura Harvey, who had a longstanding rivalry with the Thorns during her five seasons as coach of the Seattle Reign, chuckled this week at training when asked if she has any strong feelings about Saturday’s foe.
“I respect Portland, I respect what they do, I respect who they are, but yeah, it doesn’t leave ya. The feeling you have about the opposition doesn’t leave ya,” she said. “For Royals fans to turn up and drown (traveling Thorns fans) out would be the most satisfying thing for me.”