For the NC Courage, rebranding is just the beginning

On January 9, the Western New York Flash of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) announced their acquisition by North Carolina Football Club and subsequent relocation to Cary, North Carolina from Rochester, New York. This announcement came just three days before the NWSL College Draft.

This rebrand of the reigning NWSL Champions was swift and efficient. The new North Carolina Courage Twitter account was launched simultaneously with the announcement, live-tweeting their press conference. They began promoting their social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat with the hashtags #919inNWSL and #NCFCFamily, referencing the Cary area code and North Carolina Football Club, respectively.

The move and rebrand was disappointing, though not entirely unexpected, for WNY Flash fans, who boasted fifth-best attendance in a league of ten teams. The WNY Flash were one of the longest-running women’s professional football teams, playing in the USL W-League, Women’s Professional Soccer, Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite and now the NWSL.

But not all fans were disappointed. Many celebrated the team’s move to North Carolina, recalling the now-defunct Carolina Courage, who played in the Women’s United Soccer Association from 2001-2003. Like Western New York, North Carolina is a football hotbed. The state is currently home to the University of North Carolina women’s football team, which has won 22 of 36 total Division I national championships.

With this move, the NC Courage are the first NWSL team to relocate. Although the WNY Flash have been a strong presence in Rochester, the lack of subsidization from Major League Soccer partners meant the club used sub-standard facilities. Their new owner, North Carolina FC, is the first non-MLS team to partner with an NWSL team, but owner Stephen Malik hopes for an MLS bid in the future.

Though the NC Courage have a new logo—which bears a striking resemblance to the NHL’s Florida Panthers—they will retain the roster of the WNY Flash. A defending NWSL championship team is a good start to filling the new 10,000 seat stadium the NC Courage will play in, but the team already has bigger troubles off the field.

As soon as the rebrand was announced, fans took to Twitter to voice their concerns about House Bill 2 (HB2), nicknamed the “bathroom bill”, which seeks to bar transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Given that the NBA and NCAA have recently moved major events out of North Carolina in reaction to HB2, the questions are valid. The issue was not addressed in the team’s opening press conference—curious, given the national salience of the issue. There wasn’t a single mention of the bill from the owner, general manager, commissioner, North Carolina governor or the press.

The strong Twitter reaction to the announcement took the team’s relocation to North Carolina as tacit approval of the law—which has faced criticism locally and nationally since it’s passage in the North Carolina state legislature, now having withstood several attempts to repeal. Fans were upset with the NWSL. The NWSL is partnered with You Can Play, a non-profit working to end LGBT discrimination in sports, and the league has several openly gay players.

Fan reaction continued until NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush spoke to reporters at the NWSL Draft on January 12. Plush’s comments signaled a change in philosophy for professional sports. Instead of pulling out of the state in protest, Plush spoke on the league’s desire to fight the law while residing in the state. He reaffirmed the NWSL’s position as an accepting diverse league, and stated his desire to stand with the locals in opposition to the bill.

But is this vocal opposition to HB2 going to be enough? When the NBA pulled the All Star Game out of North Carolina, the media reaction was huge. The NBA is one of the big four in the United States, and losing the All Star Game stood as a substantial loss for the state of North Carolina. Similarly, when the NCAA announced the relocation of seven different championships, the state felt the consequences of the bill.

The NWSL wishes to fight the bill, but has not announced how. As of now, there are no measures to do so besides the stance of the commissioner. The NC Courage have already proved that they have a social media presence with vocal fans. These fans are invested in the team’s response to HB2. But if the league takes no other steps to oppose the bill, how will the team fare?

The NWSL is one of the most accessible sports leagues in the States. All games are broadcast free on YouTube, and the league maintains a strong social media presence to reach fans across the country. And the NC Courage will need a strong fan base to succeed in a larger stadium in a new state.

The NC Courage have an opportunity to become a very successful franchise. Their relocation announcement was a start, but the NC Courage must hit the ground running. A strong social media campaign can reach out to concerned fans while cultivating new ones. #919inCary and #NCFC Family are a start, but there has to be more.

The social media presence has become an important marketing tool for sports teams, and the NWSL’s presence is already fairly comprehensive. For the most part, teams create good content on all platforms, cracking jokes, sharing news, and showing a glimpse into players’ lives. But teams often fall short in fan interaction. The NC Courage need a campaign designed to engage fans. Creating a hashtag for fans to share experiences and thoughts can create a more invested fanbase. A campaign to build excitement before the coming season is exactly what could help this team thrive.

Unfortunately, the NC Courage are up against one more challenge. The NWSL’s collective bargaining agreement recently expired, and there is not yet a replacement. Players are in a dispute with US Soccer, which pays the salaries of all national team players in the NWSL to help alleviate the financial situation. Until there is a new CBA, the league will not begin play in April.

North Carolina is a fertile market for women’s football. If they can harness social media to their advantage, the NC Courage rebrand has massive potential—far more than in Western New York. They’ve already seen a reaction to the team, but they must now build on it to succeed. The pieces are there, but it’s up to the Courage to put them together.

You can follow the @TheNCCourage on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.

About author

Ellen Larson
Ellen Larson 22 posts

Ellen is an intern for Snack Media and contributor to Digital Sport. Follow her on Twitter @Ellen_Larson.

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