For years, N.C. Courage attendance numbers were some of the best in the NWSL. In 2022, no one wants to go see the Courage play, even when it’s the Challenge Cup final.
The reasons are pretty obvious. Well, they’re obvious to everyone but the owners, it seems.
For the last few years (discounting the pandemic season of 2020), North Carolina has averaged more than 5,000 fans per game, always in the top half of the NWSL attendance rankings. It wasn’t hard to see why: The Courage won three NWSL Shields and two NWSL Championships from 2017-19.
This year is different. Before this weekend’s match, the Courage were averaging a mere 3,200 fans over five home games. Not even a run to the NWSL Challenge Cup final could encourage more than 3,163 to attend the showdown against rival Washington at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.
Players have certainly noticed the dip.
On Sunday, expansion club San Diego Wave came to town and suddenly attendance was back where it used to be. For the first time all year, the team broke 4,000 — in all 6,070 fans showed up for a 1-0 win by the visitors.
The draw for the crowd was quite apparent when cheers went out for the only goal of the game, scored by San Diego’s Alex Morgan. Fans were there to cheer the USWNT star as much as their home team.
Whoop, there it is! @alexmorgan13 puts the Wave in the lead @sandiegowavefc | #WaveFC pic.twitter.com/cYEOwejWwk— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) May 22, 2022
It's pretty obvious what is going on here. Many fans do not want to support the N.C. Courage anymore, and the club seems apathetic and unwilling to make necessary changes.
In case you’ve been ignoring the NWSL for the last year, here’s a brief refresher on what the Courage have been up to.
In September, N.C. coach Paul Riley was fired after horrifying allegations of sexual coercion and other abusive behaviors came to light. The team claimed it knew nothing about the allegations, which means they either failed to do their homework to protect their players or they were lying.
In December, the club brought back retired player Jaelene Daniels (formerly Hinkle) to great fan outrage. Daniels is openly and unapologetically homophobic, which stands in stark contradiction to the values of most players and fans in the NWSL. Both the player and club attempted to apologize, with disastrous results. Despite fan protestations, the club kept Daniels.
In a manner of months, the club proved woefully unable to protect its players then turned its back on its most devoted fan base.
Is there any wonder why the Courage attendance numbers are down this year?
After Sunday’s match, Courage midfielder Merritt Mathias was asked about the obvious boost in attendance. Mathias is a longtime NWSL veteran who played college ball at North Carolina and Texas A&M, two schools with some of the best women’s soccer followings in the country. She’s been around the block. She knows what’s going on.
Merritt Mathias on fan support after #NCvSD:"There’s been a very particular voice that has been heard in wanting to support the community. And personally, I don’t think we’ve done a great job of that in the past years." pic.twitter.com/Uv0KbxV4TS
— Nicholas Schnittker (@nick_schnittker) May 22, 2022
For those who didn’t click the above tweet to read Mathias’ comments in full, let me summarize: We know the fans are only back to see Alex Morgan because our ownership has abandoned a large section of the fans. We want the fans back. The players understand why the fans have left, but there are plenty of other players for you to support.
It shouldn’t be on the players to do damage control for a front office that has a clear disconnect with the fan base.
Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a player who has been around since the NWSL’s inception to recognize what’s going on, even if the Courage ownership seems completely oblivious. Having not held a Pride Night in three years is inexcusable.
Unlike sports like the NFL, where the bumbling masses will watch no matter what, the NWSL needs to foster fan bases. The Courage are leaving their fans out to dry, ignoring the supporters who want to see the team succeed. The result is dwindling attendance anyone could have predicted.
IMO, @UproarNC and individual supporters I know have said what they said for a damn good reason this year.And the Courage FO has brushed them off to a pretty insulting degree.
I feel bad for Mathias as this isn’t on supporters or most players but the FO here. https://t.co/dmWeLEE1Ns
— Douglas Reyes-Ceron (@dreyesceron) May 22, 2022
Merritt Mathias is never shy about speaking her mind. This was a very raw, heartfelt response that honors the pain of disillusioned LGBTQ supporters while giving a necessary voice to the pain players feel, especially when they're the face of the club & dealing w/the consequences. https://t.co/NUaLSAnQjH— Vicster is ready for a fresh start (@vicster) May 22, 2022
it's ridiculous that the courage front office did so little in the aftermath of re-signing daniels that two games into the regular season players are noticing a disconnect with fans and drop in attendance and feel compelled to do the work people in front the office are paid to do https://t.co/bBXohE6for— jobu tupaki (@not_carlisle) May 23, 2022
Given the systemic abuse now apparent in women’s soccer, it’s frustrating NWSL clubs continue to make the same mistakes in a league trying to grow and compete in a country with an absurd number of professional sports leagues and teams. There’s a clear audience for women’s soccer in the U.S., but if clubs and owners keep taking those fans for granted, they’ll stop showing up.
That’s what’s happened in North Carolina. Everyone knows it, except, apparently, the owners. Either that, or they just don’t care, and I’m not sure which is worse.