North Carolina Courage president Curt Johnson was trying to explain how important it was that the team called the Triangle home, and how inspirational the team was, “specifically for girls and young women.” But his phone kept interrupting him.
For three seasons, the Courage had the best record in the National Women’s Soccer League, winning two championships and an International Champions Cup, a competition between teams who won titles in their respective countries. The Courage were one of the best women’s soccer teams in the world.
“Sorry, I’m getting a lot of calls here,” Johnson apologized, as yet another incoming call broke up our phone interview on that afternoon last September.
What all those calls were about became clear the next morning, when Athletic reporter Meg Linehan broke the story that Paul Riley, the Courage’s head coach since the team was first brought to North Carolina in 2017, had been accused of a long-running pattern of sexual coercion during his time with the Portland Thorns. Johnson had learned of the accusations the day of our interview. Within a few hours of the accusations going public, Riley was fired.
Despite the team’s success on the field, the Courage’s parent organization was in the middle of a rough run. Their campaign to bring a men’s Major League Soccer team to the Triangle failed in 2019, when Charlotte was awarded the franchise. As part of their bid, the Courage and its owner, Steve Malik, had spearheaded the $2.2 billion Downtown South development, which included a 20,000-seat soccer stadium at the center. Suddenly the Courage were the biggest remaining draw—and their average attendance was only5,900people per game that year, according to data the team provided.
Then came COVID, which canceled the 2020 season entirely. And then North Carolina FC, the men’s team that the Courage organization also operates, elected to downgrade from the second-tier men’s league to the third. The following season, they finished dead last.
The Riley news had put the Courage in the middle of a scandal that rocked the NWSL and forced the league’s commissioner and general counsel to resign. And things were going to continue to get worse.
In November, the Downtown South stadium was delayed indefinitely. The next month, the team brought former Courage and U.S. women’s national team standout player Jaelene Daniels out of retirement—despite her infamous decision to turn down a national team call-up because she refused to wear a special-edition Gay Pride jersey.
The Courage fans were incensed.
“This is a tornado that our club willingly stepped back into,” said Jessica Turner, vice president of the Uproar, an independent organization for Courage fans. “They had to anticipate the backlash from not only Courage fans, but the greater women’s soccer community.”
As the team looked to recover from the controversies, Johnson was moved into a new role as “chief soccer officer.” The team brought in Francie Gottsegen as club president in January.
“No question, I came in at a challenging time,” Gottsegen told me in May. “I certainly knew what I was walking into. We had our challenges, and challenges ebb and flow with any organization, regardless of what they are.”
But now, a third of the way through the regular season, the Courage find themselves in last place. Ticket sales are abysmal, and the most loyal fans are frustrated with the front office. Whether the Courage can turn things around has as much to do with soccer as it does with politics—and whether they can attract enough spectators to become more than a niche attraction.
A Test for Loyal Fans
The 2021 playoffs were looming when the team took on the Portland Thorns last fall, a few weeks before Riley’s firing. While some Courage fans outside the stadium jokingly greeted the Thorns with a “Portland sucks” chant, another family picnicking nearby welcomed them from across the quiescent parking lot.
Fans of the NWSL broadly share the sentiment that the sport matters, both on the field and off. “Watching a bunch of women kick ass was appealing to me,” said Mary Pruter, president of the Uproar.
Pruter had never been a huge soccer fan, but a friend encouraged her to attend a Courage game shortly after the team moved to North Carolina. Then she went to another. Then she kept showing up so much she was elected president of the Uproar, which now takes up much of her free time outside of her job as director of multimedia at a small marketing company.
Many fans found the Courage in a similar way. They say they began following the league after the U.S. women’s national team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, or because they were shocked to learn that there was a team as good as the Courage right here in Cary that never got much attention.
“Soccer, for me as a young girl, was always a place I felt strong and confident, and I had other young girls around me who were also strong and confident,” said Turner. “I would say women’s soccer fans are a bit more engaged in social issues and don’t see soccer as separate from that.”
Gottsegen, who joined the Courage after a career in sports marketing and sponsorships at various businesses and the NBA, MLS, and PGA, agrees. “It’s not just about competing and winning,” she said. “It’s about social change. I think that’s just inherent in the sport.”
Women’s soccer began its growth when Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education, was passed 50 years ago. But the sport was largely confined to the collegiate level for decades. After the US national team won the World Cup in 1999—with key players coming from the powerhouse University of North Carolina team—a new era in professional women’s soccer began.
Founded in 2012, the NWSL is the third recent attempt to launch a professional women’s soccer league in the United States. It’s already outlasted the first two attempts. It’s also growing, adding its 11th and 12th teams for the 2022 season. The first national NWSL broadcast this year, a game between the San Diego Wave and Angel City FC, had nearly four times as many TV viewers as the highest-rated MLS game that week.
At the same time, the league’s finances are still minuscule compared to those of men’s leagues. Its current television deal is worth a mere $1.5 million; the MLS just signed a new 10-year, $2.5 billion broadcast deal with Apple TV.
Pay for the players has continued to be a concern as well. The player’s union ran a “no more side hustles” campaign last season, in protest of startlingly low salaries. This year, after the first collective-bargaining agreement, minimum salaries were raised nearly 60 percent—to $35,000 a year. The average NWSL player is still only making $54,000 a year—low income for a single person in Raleigh, according to federal Housing and Urban Development guidelines.
Nor was Riley’s the only abuse scandal in the NWSL last year: five of the league’s 10 teams saw coaches or executives get fired or resign following similar allegations, followed by two more this season.
For the Courage’s most engaged fans, the troubles of the last year have exacerbated a dilemma: they want to protest the league and its teams, while supporting the players in particular and women’s soccer in general. Their most obvious and powerful option, boycotting games, would certainly pressure the business interests around the organization. But a boycott would also leave the players hanging.
“We are trying to thread the needle,” Turner said. “We have some concerns about the front office, and we’ve been very public about that. We don’t want it to seem like the status quo can just continue, and we also want the players to know that we are standing with them and we support them, and that that is separate from our concerns with the front office.”
Fans attend games because that way they get to see the best women’s soccer players in the world, up close, multiple times a year. Player access is unprecedented.
“It’s the type of experience you don’t get in any other sport,” said Ryan Keefer, a 44-year-old father of two and founder of Courage Country, an independent fan site dedicated to the team. “Can you imagine going to a Panthers game—even the Canes—and hanging around after and getting pictures? Courage players do their cool-down, have their midfield talk, then come over to the railing and talk and take pictures with fans.”
The Uproar understand that one of the primary selling points of soccer games is the atmosphere, which they are almost wholly responsible for creating.
Founded in 2019, the Uproar is the official supporters group for the Courage, like similar organizations that are standard across world soccer. The Uproar organizes tailgates and watch parties, but is best known for bringing drums to the game and singing original songs. They are also very explicit in framing the fan community as inclusive and progressive, writing on their website, “Everyone is welcome, regardless of gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. Black Lives Matter.”
In the Courage’s first game after the Riley scandal broke last fall—a Wednesday night contest against Racing Louisville in front of 3,500 people—the Uproar tried to give their cheering a more activist edge. They asked fans to wear black to the game, and the standard pre-game cookout included supplies for making protest signs. Twenty fans posed for the suddenly interested media holding a “No More Silence” banner.
“We’re here to support the players and their demands,” Turner told me that night, wearing a homemade “Quit Your Job Curt” T-shirt.
When players and coaching staff from both teams stopped play and huddled at mid-field for a protest the player’s association had planned, the crowd stood to applaud. It was hard to ignore the feeling that fans and players were united against the team’s owners and executives. Some lower-level team staff cried.
But as the Courage powered to a 3-1 win, the more casual fans seemed content with a night out with friends and family. The harrowing injustices shaping the night blended into the background.
Had the Courage’s scandals ended with Riley, the team might have recovered its image with its most dedicated fans.
The Uproar members offered qualified praise for Riley’s swift dismissal, and there has been no evidence unearthed yet about similar abuse happening during his time with the Courage. The team added new HR staff, including a director of people and a director of player experience, and participated in the ongoing investigations by both the NWSL and the U.S. Soccer Federation.
But the Riley fallout also pushed the team toward roster changes it might not have made otherwise.
Johnson said the changes came from a “collaborative conversation with these players about what was best for them.” The result of those conversations, plus typical off-season trading and the expansion draft accompanying the addition of two new NWSL teams, led to long-standing Courage stars like Lynn Williams, Sam Mewis, and Jessica McDonald leaving the team.
The announcement in December that the team was signing Jaelene Daniels caught Courage fans off guard.
Daniels, who was known as Jaelene Hinkle before she married, had inspired protests during her first stint in the NWSL due to her opposition to gay marriage. Given the large segment of queer Courage fans and players—pride flags dot the stadium all year—fans did not welcome her return. Daniels also plays left back; not only did the team need goal scorers, but their current left back, fan favorite Carson Pickett, had been named to the 2021 NWSL all-star team.
Though even critics of Daniels admit that the Courage’s team spirit seems strong and united this season as Pickett and Daniels have alternated across matches, many fans see her signing as unnecessary and baffling.
“It just felt like a betrayal to re-sign a player that in the past has said things that question my existence as a queer person,” Pruter said.
The team was forced to release an apology “to all those we have hurt, especially those within the LGBTQIA+ community” within days of her signing. And Daniels offered her own tepid non-apology: “My beliefs call me to live differently, but my love runs deep for all,” it read in part.
“The club responses to that were not satisfactory to me, personally,” Pruter said. “It felt like a lot of, ‘She’s changed. This doesn’t mean we don’t support the LGBTQ community.’ … At this point, it’s just been people telling us that ‘you guys are overreacting.’”
While acknowledging that the team has “been a little bit more passive, perhaps” in supporting “the LGTBQ community” with “actionable items and programs,” Gottsegen downplayed the fan anger. “There are plenty of members of Uproar who are happy, who just want to come to the games and have a good time.”
But happy fans were hard to find at an April pre-season tournament game against the Washington Spirit. “I love the game, I like the players—the NWSL culture is quite problematic,” season-ticket holder Beth Ann Koelsch told me. “Choices management makes can be confounding.”
Koelsch said she was ambivalent about renewing, but wanted to support the players.
“It’s not their fault,” she said.
Katie Cleary, a Lowes Foods manager from Wake Forest, felt similarly heading into this season. What changed her mind was seeing a tweet from midfielder Denise O’Sullivan compelling fans to “stick with us.”
“If Denise wouldn’t have come out and said what she did, I probably wouldn’t have gone back,” Cleary said.
‘It’s Just Words’
Back in December 2020, before fans and players were squaring off against the front office, the three groups were allied on the team’s most ambitious project: Downtown South.
The Courage organization was still navigating a winding road to zoning approval. Public tourism money that Courage owner Steve Malik and his partners hoped to claim had dried up during the pandemic, and their back-up plan to use controversial tax reimbursements wasn’t looking good either.
The project had become a political flashpoint. So at a crucial Raleigh City Council meeting that would determine whether Downtown South could proceed, fans and players turned out.
Season ticket holders signed up to speak. So did then–team member Jessica McDonald. “I truly believe in this project, simply because I believe from the bottom of my heart that it creates opportunity, especially for our youth,” she told the council.
McDonald and the fans lent a progressive veneer to a development facing intense criticism for driving gentrification in the area, echoing the team’s sales pitch. “One of the big challenges with soccer is, it’s been too suburban,” Johnson said last year. Bringing the sport into the “urban core” would be “a transformational moment for our community, as well as for the sport of soccer, and one that will diversify soccer at that,” he said.
Ambitious multi-use developments are essential to the business model of modern sports franchises because they can attract outside capital. It’s why the Courage have turned their attention to the similar, if substantially smaller, Fenton development that backs up to the team’s current stadium in Cary. Gottsegen says that development “presents a really big opportunity for us to further engage with the community and drive attendance to our games.”
As a Downtown South feasibility study described it, soccer becomes not just a sport, but an “anchor” that brings other investment, like restaurants, hotels, shopping, and desirable real-estate returns. The developers claim the project will generate $3.8 billion in economic benefits.
But many locals are skeptical.
“Who is the stadium for?” asked housing activist Wanda Hunter at a Wake County Housing Justice Coalition meeting last year. While almost no residents will be directly displaced by the development, Hunter and her allies stressed that the predominantly Black neighborhoods near the development, including Rochester Heights, are “the last naturally occurring affordable housing within the city.” If it becomes a tourism hotspot, current residents will be forced out, and whatever jobs are created will likely be low-paying service jobs.
From that perspective, soccer is a Trojan horse for accelerating gentrification. Malik and his partners are presenting soccer as an activity that will bring culture to the area, Hunter said. “You’re assuming that culture doesn’t already exist in these communities.”
Despite the fact that the Uproar is “our way to be activists in our community,” according to Pruter, the fan group never took a position on Downtown South. As a result, the development’s critics take little solace in the progressive culture of women’s soccer.
“It’s just like when gentrifiers gentrify a Black community: one of the first things they put in their yard is a Black Lives Matter sign,” Wake County Housing Justice member and southeast Raleigh resident Wanda Gilbert-Coker said. “I think it’s just for show, because I have not seen them show up with any type of real action. It’s just words.”
A Call to Action
Those criticisms match the ones Courage fans have been leveling at the team since the Riley and Daniels controversies.
“Until I see action, it’s hard for me to take the word of anybody, but particularly an organization that hasn’t had the best track record,” Pruter told me in April.
To spur the Courage organization into defining some “tangible steps” toward ensuring a welcoming, equitable community, the Uproar introduced a new protest tactic for the pre-season tournament: they refused to drum or chant during games.
“The NC Courage is our team,” they wrote in a statement. “We continue to support the players. However, the leadership of our front office refuses to do any meaningful work to address and rectify the harm they have caused.”
The Uproar had always worked closely with the Courage front office. Even in the aftermath of Riley’s firing, the club paid for a bus to ferry the Uproar to an away game in Washington. But the Daniels signing ultimately proved that the two groups have very different visions of the future. Gottsegen describes their current relationship as “a bit rocky.”
While the team is most focused on fixing the Courage’s organizational problems and growing in scale, Uproar members and other devoted fans say they want to build a new kind of league altogether, keeping progressive politics at the center.
“We’re still very young. We’re still a fairly small league. We can be nimble and create our own path,” said Turner. “We don’t have to be the type of league to pit cities against each other to see which will give us the best tax status or whatever.”
But Uproar members know that requires changing the business model of soccer. “It’s obviously a much bigger systemic problem than just us and Portland,” Pruter said. “It’s league-wide. I’m sure it’s sports-wide.”
As for Daniels, Gottsegen assures fans that the team has “some fairly robust plans to support both the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities, and not just within the month when those communities are typically celebrated.” She noted partnerships with Gay-Straight Alliances, as well as their plans for Pride, Juneteenth, and Hispanic Heritage Month.
Gottsegen also noted that the team was working on forming new supporters groups—ones that would presumably be less critical of the team than the Uproar. “We have some ideas, but it’s a little premature to comment on that,” she said.
Those efforts could help protect the business appeal of the Courage at a time when the money coming into the NWSL is, according to Johnson, “unprecedented globally.” But the Uproar are skeptical.
In a statement to The Assembly, the Uproar wrote that they “welcome” other independent supporters groups, but often those run by the front office “are not successful because they are not rooted in the community.”
“Ultimately it is the fans who buy tickets to games. It is the fans who buy jerseys and scarves. It is the fans who travel to away games,” they wrote. “It is the fans who talk about the NWSL to anyone who will listen. And it should be the fans that organize and run supporter groups.”
The ultimate test is whether the Courage can inspire that passion, because the team is now judged against exciting new ventures like Angel City FC, which marked its home debut by defeating the Courage in front of 22,000 fans.
Other countries are also catching up in women’s soccer. Mexico’s Liga MX Femenil has attracted over 50,000 fans to matches, while the Barcelona women’s team broke the record for attendance at a women’s soccer match twice in April, with crowds pushing 92,000. Those figures might start turning the heads of more NWSL stars, as they did for Sam Kerr, the Australian superstar who joined the English team Chelsea in 2020.
“Growth is good,” Johnson stressed. “Now, having said that, it’s a huge challenge, absolutely. It’s part about us and how we evolve our organization, but it’s also about the league and continuing to generate revenue. I mean, revenue is ultimately going to drive a lot of this.”
According to team data provided in May, revenue from season-ticket sales is up 22 percent this year, despite all the controversies. But that’s only because prices have increased. The total number of attendees per game, when including single-game tickets, is down almost 25 percent since 2019. So far in 2022, their average attendance is less than 4,500 people per game in a 10,000-seat stadium.
The average cost of a season ticket has increased 50 percent since 2019, to $39 per game, while the one-off price of the cheapest seats has increased 33 percent, to $20, which makes attracting new fans that much harder.
When the Courage hosted a free Juneteenth festival before the day’s game against the Houston Dash on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, these contradictions were on full display. Courage players and staff wore the special-edition Juneteenth shirts available at the team store—“Courage Breaks Chains” they read—and the presidents of Raleigh’s two historically Black colleges took part in the game’s opening ceremonies. But most of the people who attended the festival didn’t realize it was connected to a soccer game, and weren’t staying for the match. Even the vendors seemed to know little about their hosts.
The Courage went undefeated in the pre-season Challenge Cup. But by the Juneteenth game, they were in last place—albeit having played fewer games than most other teams.
The Uproar had resumed their singing and drumming for the regular season. Yelling over the drums pounding nearby, Monica Crawford and Katie Davis, two 25-year-old season-ticket holders, voiced a common sentiment about the imperfect nature of women’s sports.
“I know my money is going to the front office,” Davis said.
But, Crawford added, “I was never showing up for the front office.”
At least for now, the team is dependent on a loyal, if unhappy, customer base. “I think the league has a lot of work they need to do,” Pruter said. “But I have to be hopeful—otherwise, I don’t know why I’m doing the things I do.”
Matt Hartman is an Assembly contributing writer based in Durham. He’s also written for The Ringer, Jacobin, The Outline, and other outlets.