On the Pitch: Real Salt Lake Shares Rio Tinto Stadium With Vancouver Whitecaps FC
In-venue production team handles shows for both clubs
The past 10 months have been a whirlwind for Major League Soccer. After last summer’s MLS Is Back Tournament in the Orlando bubble and the eventual return to empty home stadiums, the attendance of some clubs in the league are returning to pre-pandemic levels. Much like At the Ballpark, On the Gridiron, On the Hardwood, and At the Rink, SVG’s On the Pitch takes you into the control room with in-venue crews to understand what their job is like before, during, and after the official’s whistle is blown.
A brand-new season generates a fresh set of opportunities for growth and success. In Utah, Real Salt Lake has an opportunity to improve its in-venue team’s skills in both production and hospitality by assisting a fellow club’s staff that is unable to cross the U.S.-Canadian border. Temporarily sharing Rio Tinto Stadium with Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the Real Salt Lake in-venue team has its own production plan but is pulling off shows for its guest, providing dedicated video content and a match-day environment that is as authentic as possible 989 miles from home.
“We had a few Zoom calls before their first game because they actually played about two weeks before Real had their first game,” says Stacey Taggart, director, game presentation, Real Salt Lake. “Vancouver has been really great, and it hasn’t felt that different since we’ve all become used to working from home.”
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Stateside Shows: Adapting to the Pandemic
Since the harshest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada-based professional teams either have played “home” games in U.S. stadiums — like the NBA’s Toronto Raptors in Tampa and MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays in Buffalo and Dunedin, FL — or have played all games in a bubble in Canada. Major League Soccer’s Canadian teams, including Vancouver Whitecaps FC, are playing their matches far from home.
On the logistical side in Salt Lake City, both clubs will operate in a separate bubble. While Real Salt Lake uses its usual spaces Vancouver will practice at America First Field, dress in the locker room reserved for the former Utah Royals FC of the NWSL, and enter through a different entrance at Rio Tinto Stadium. As for the production end, Taggart and her Whitecaps counterpart, Specialist of Game Presentation, Events, and Experience Jeremy Benjamin, are working together via Zoom to develop a run of show while his team generates videoboard content in British Columbia.
“Jeremy is preparing everything for us,” Taggart explains, “so I’m able to show up and call the game. [Vancouver Whitecaps FC has no] fans in the stands, so we’re pumping in crowd noise for them. We have their generic crowd noise that we play the entire time. And they have specific chants that I play throughout the game, like every five minutes or so just to add more atmosphere. That has actually been fun because it’s such a contrast from what we’re doing with Real.”
Taggart and Benjamin have operated on a relatively smooth schedule throughout the first few weeks of the season. The key is maintaining an open line of communication and staying ahead of deadlines to make sure the Real Salt Lake in-venue crew can get acclimated with the necessary elements.
“We’ve been able to work out all of the kinks,” she adds. “We’ve asked them to send in their stuff about two or three days before [match day] to make sure that we have time to get their content loaded.”
A Welcome Sight: 10,000 Fans Return to Rio Tinto Stadium
After participating in the MLS Is Back Tournament in Orlando, the squad was able to return to Rio Tinto Stadium to close out the remaining few months of the season in front of 5,000 fans. As the pandemic takes a turn for the better, the franchise is now hosting upwards of 10,000 fans for the first time in over a year. The sound of real voices was an immediate shock that took getting used to, but, since the home opener vs. Sporting KC on May 1, the production team is matching their intensity with its customary in-game atmosphere. In a response to the large influx of returning fans, a capability added to the videoboard allows supporters to be a part of the show.
“We’ve finally introduced Tagboard to our in-stadium experience,” says Taggart explains. “Fans are able to post their photos, and we’ll feature them on the videoboard during the game. We’re trying to get that rolling and let everyone know that they can do that now.”
Besides the videoboard content played throughout the game, the crew is tasked with a completely different set of challenges during Whitecaps matches. Since fans living in Canada are unable to travel to Utah, Vancouver’s players are showcasing their skills inside an empty stadium. Although fake crowd noise can’t compare with the sound of thousands of screaming fans, Taggart and company are pumping in automated sounds for Whitecaps players on the pitch.
“We have generic crowd noise during the entire match and specific chants that we’ll play every five minutes or so to add an atmosphere,” she says. “It has been really fun to do because it’s such a contrast from what we’re doing with Real Salt Lake.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: Shoutout to the Production Team
After only three games of a 17-game home schedule, the 2021 regular season has already added wrinkles to the in-venue team’s day-to-day responsibilities. During an ordinary year, the club’s personnel would have a handful of off days to fine-tune workflows and show segments, but, with a lot of weekends occupied by back-to-back productions, crew members have had to rely on their instincts. With the help of PA Announcer Mike Waldvogel, Audio Engineer Paco Aguilar, Videoboard Director Mike Chidsey, Team DJ Erockalypze, third-party contractors at Sqwak Productions, and others, Taggart faces this unique season with enthusiasm.
“Everyone that’s in the control room and the booth with us has been awesome,” she says. “They have all been crushing it this year.”
After traveling to Toyota Stadium to face FC Dallas on Saturday, May 22, Real Salt Lake will return to Rio Tinto Stadium to host Minnesota United FC on Saturday, May 29 at 9:30 p.m. ET.