SALT LAKE CITY — Faced with the chance to attend either this afternoon's Utah-TCU college football game or the NBA contest pitting the Utah Jazz against the L.A. Clippers tonight, Natalie Gochnour never thought twice.
She chose Real Salt Lake soccer.
Despite being a University of Utah alumna and Ute football fan as well as a Jazz season-ticket holder, Gochnour will do her cheering Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. Alongside her husband and two teenage children, she'll be pulling for her beloved Real Salt Lake in its Major League Soccer playoff match with FC Dallas. Real is the defending MLS champion and enjoys one of the highest attendance figures in the 16-team league, but if it doesn't win tonight's game against Dallas then its season ends.
"I even have Jazz tickets on Saturday, but this is not a hard choice for me at all," she said. "This is a playoff game that will determine whether we go on. Soccer is the sport I'm most motivated by, so I will use my DVR on the other sports and attend the Real game."
By opting for an RSL match over other more traditional sporting-event options, Gochnour is the local embodiment of a national trend: even in an era of economic uncertainty, MLS is steadily gaining market share in the hypercompetitive world of sports entertainment.
Out of the 13 North American markets boasting both an MLS franchise and an NBA team, the soccer entity is outdrawing its basketball counterpart on a per-game basis in five of those locales (New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Houston and Toronto.) Take that statistic with a grain of salt, though, because it comes with multiple caveats — not the least of which being that the NBA teams in the five above-referenced metro areas are raking in much more ticket-based revenue than their MLS neighbors by charging higher admission prices and playing more than double the number of home games the soccer teams do. Still, the fact remains that MLS has achieved a level of legitimate competitiveness with the NBA in a very meaningful attendance metric.
The Utah market is no exception. Although the Jazz continue to outdraw Real Salt Lake on a per-game basis, 19,378 to 17,095, Real Salt Lake's average attendance has increased each of the past four seasons and, given the fact that Rio Tinto's 20,159 capacity is larger than EnergySolution Arena's 19,911, it's very possible that Real Salt Lake could soon eclipse the Jazz in terms of average attendance.
Despite the comparable per-game turnouts, RSL's ticket revenue that team president Bill Manning pegs in the $5 million to $7 million range still falls far short of Jazz ticket revenue that a conservative estimate projects between $30 million to $40 million (NBA teams don't discuss ticket numbers.)
Utah Jazz president Randy Rigby associates his team's powerful economic advantage over other sports-entertainment competitors in the state with the fact that on any given night a Jazz game always showcases world-class talent.
"I think our greatest tool is being an NBA team and that we are the NBA franchise," Rigby said. "It truly is the only (highest-level) professional league in this marketplace. This is the premier (league) where basketball is played. Everyone else around the world wants to play in the NBA, and people are seeing the best basketball players play in our arenas."
Before coming to Real Salt Lake, Manning worked for the NBA's Houston Rockets and the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL. Knowing from firsthand experience that his MLS franchise simply cannot compete with the inherently powerful position occupied by an NBA squad like the Jazz, his strategies for growing the RSL brand center on differentiation.
"I think we've created another option," Manning said. "Having worked in the NFL and having worked in the NBA, I can tell you there are NBA fans who are never going to be soccer fans and there (are) football fans who are never going to be soccer fans — and I'm not going after them.
"There's a big enough marketplace for us, and we've found our own niche."
One advantage for Real Salt Lake is that it plays the first five months of its schedule during football's offseason — because, in many ways, when it's in season, college football rules the roost in the Beehive State. Over the past five years the BYU and Utah football teams have both filled more than 97 percent of their seats and attracted average crowds of 62,231 and 43,620, respectively. To put those figures in perspective, the next-highest average attendance in Utah during the past five years belongs to the Jazz at 19,415.
Natalie Gochnour worked as Gov. Mike Leavitt's spokeswoman, and when Leavitt moved to Washington, D.C., to head the Environmental Protection Agency he brought Gochnour along to be associate administrator for public affairs at EPA.
"I lived in Washington, D.C., during Real's first season," she recalls. "I bought season tickets even though I was a resident of D.C. because I was an early supporter and I was flying back on the weekends and I was still able to get to some games."
Currently she works at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce as vice president for policy and communications. The same brand of mental acuity, focus and passion that fuel her career are also on full display in her Real Salt Lake fandom.
"When I walk into a game I just sit there and marvel at the size of the crowd, the makeup of the crowd, the energy in the crowd," Gochnour said. "To someone who's a soccer devotee it's like a dream come true because it's in our hometown — not everybody has this — and they're a terrific team in a terrific facility. It's actually quite moving to see the type of sport that they have."
However, there is a fine-line limit to the lengths Gochnour will travel to show her support for RSL.
"I've adopted what any good soccer fan should do and so I wear Real-branded shirts," she said. "But I don't paint my face or anything like that. There was a time in my life when I may have done that, but I'm past my prime for that kind of thing."