During the NWSL offseason, when the announcement was made that the Western New York Flash were moving their entire operation to Cary, North Carolina, my wife and I were elated.
Like many, we jumped cannonball-style into women’s soccer mania during the 2015 Women’s World Cup and there was no looking back. That summer we attended our first NWSL game as part of a trip to D.C. A year later, we strategically decided D.C. would be a common sense “half-way” point between North Carolina and Buffalo (where we would be married later in the week), so we could catch our second game.
This time, the Spirit hosted the Orlando Pride, in their first match following the massacre at Pulse. I was struck by the strength and unity of the women’s soccer community during that game, and literally felt the furious fusion between the LGBTQ community and Women’s Soccer. The game that provides a safe space for each of us to enjoy healthy competition also opens its arms to welcome fans from all backgrounds – after all, it welcomed us.
The day of the official NC Courage announcement, season tickets went on sale. Since we live that grad student + graphic designer lifestyle, we opted for budget-friendly seats across from the benches, but right up front so we could witness the up-close and personal athleticism of nearly every national team player over the course of a complete season (side note: injuries have plagued this game plan), while getting to know the members of our very own North Carolina Courage. So far, it’s been a great experience.
After a third of the season, we’re starting to recognize familiar faces in our section. We’re also close enough to other fans to gather from their conversations who they’re excited to see and who they’d rather not see. In these moments we have learned that most fans are just like us – grateful for the opportunity to support an NWSL team locally, and for the type of atmosphere that women’s soccer cultivates. As I mentioned already, this is one that is noticeably welcoming to every type of person, with particular attention paid to the LGBTQ community.
In the final months of the offseason, there was a lot of chatter in women’s soccer world about the revival of a professional women’s soccer team in North Carolina, and how the club would function under House Bill 2, especially since the NCAA had removed all collegiate tournament games from the state and the NBA pulled the All-Star game from Charlotte. To be fair, those sporting events are stand-alone and more easily relocated than a more-or-less permanent franchise. After all, the Carolina Hurricanes hadn’t moved out of the state, nor would anyone expect them to. They have, however, hosted Pride nights – something I have been giddy to experience with the Courage.
Early in the season, the social media hype for the Courage was heightened. So much so that they got in a bit over their heads when their first gif tweet at the other NWSL teams declared “We are the champions” and garnered unexpected reactions like “No,” or “actually… the Flash?”
They eventually found their groove, though, and within that groove were the early and frequent promotions for North Carolina Football Club Pride Week events and the mid-June Pride game to be played against the Boston Breakers. Even better, a percentage of ticket sales for the Pride games are being donated to Equality NC, an organization that fights for equal rights and has stood at the forefront of the fight against HB2. Even today, they are still fighting against the inherent anti-trans discrimination written into HB 142, a law that supposedly “repealed” HB2. So as a season ticket holder, and a member of a social media team for a women’s soccer site, imagine my confusion when suddenly the voices holding the power of promotion for Pride night got quiet.
By now, it’s no secret that the speculation as to why one of the Courage’s defenders chose not to attend national team friendlies in Scandanavia got red hot a few weeks ago. For me, this whole ordeal was doubly frustrating. I knew about the history of this player, and I didn’t like it, yet I was attempting to come to terms with it. And then this happened.
I was frustrated because this player is on MY team, and MY team is in North Carolina, where a week before, we hosted a Family and Faith night. It’s true, we’re located in a part of the country where Christianity is held in high regard, and that’s great. If I had to guess, there is a demand in this area for a game that celebrates faith. However, I do not have to guess that there is a demand for a game that celebrates pride. This could easily turn into an argument about privileged groups and safe spaces, but that’s currently being played out in every arena imaginable at the moment. What became frustrating after this incident, was the silence from the Courage regarding their Pride night.
Nearly every other NWSL team used the international break to advertise their Pride game with daily tweets. Some teams changed their social media profile pictures to rainbow logos. I kept up with every other team’s updates, and started to question whether the Courage were going to advertise the Pride aspect of the June 17th game at all. It got worse when the Courage began advertising the game as an opportunity to get food from food trucks before the game, while leaving out any mention of LGBTQ+ Pride.
Food trucks. Yes. I LOVE a good street taco. Who doesn’t?
But do you know what I love more? A stadium filled with rainbow flags in the heart of North Carolina.
A day and a space to be loud and proud while we watch Debinha wow ten-year-olds eating soft pretzels. Is that too much to ask?
Finally, last Tuesday, my social media sleuthing reached its pinnacle when the Courage posted what must have been coordinated and scheduled Facebook and Twitter posts with the caption “stay tuned …” and a photo of Sam Mewis’ rainbow number USWNT jersey. Could it be? Was my team actually going to embrace this Pride game? Before I could comment with an emphatic “Ooooohhhh!!!” the posts were deleted. That’s right. Completely gone. At that moment, I was convinced that we would be celebrating food truck pride during Pride month.
In the days that followed, my wife designed some stellar rainbow Courage graphics and put them all over social media in an effort to spread the word. We were pleasantly surprised when one of the tweets was given attention by the Courage’s general manager, an assistant coach, Equality NC, and Playing for Pride, a coalition of professional players who raise money for the Human Rights Campaign. This attention felt like a little victory, like Pride night hadn’t been forgotten. Thankfully, Thursday night served as the Pride kickoff at a local bar, where Taylor Smith and Abby Dahlkemper acted as guest bartenders, and the Pride aspect of the game was finally given some attention.
Game day arrived, and I was ready. We set up a mean tailgate right outside the stadium where I could be seen wearing my equality t-shirt, dancing to Kelly Clarkson, Janet Jackson, and the Spice Girls behind my Kia Soul, proudly displaying our brand new rainbow flag.
During our tailgate, we met up with the former leader of one of the prominent supporters groups for the Carolina Railhawks (now NCFC, the men’s NASL team under the North Carolina Football Club umbrella). We discussed the promotion of the Pride game (and lack thereof), and he offered some insight that I appreciated. He expressed that in the past, they tried to push the organization to have different themed nights and that there simply was not the manpower or money to make it happen. He was pleasantly surprised that the organization was even hosting a Pride night, and held the opinion that he was grateful for the progress. I noted during this conversation that I was grateful for the progress too, but now that we have the NWSL in town, the demographic has shifted to include a swath of fans who deserve and expect a Pride night.
Prior to the gates opening, more than half of the Courage roster joined hands for a photo in Equality shirts, a photo that was posted to Twitter as a show of love, support, and solidarity.
— Stephanie Ochs (@stephochs7) June 17, 2017
Later, upon entering the stadium, we noticed a large number of people wearing the rainbow pride scarves designed for the occasion, and a few rainbow flags were draped over sideline fences. At the conclusion of the national anthem, the supporters section unraveled a giant rainbow tifo, which was subsequently posted on social media by the Courage. All-in-all, the game was a blast, pride was everywhere, and the Courage came away with a big win.
Reflecting on the events of the past two weeks, I am certain finding a balance between Pride promotion and keeping the peace among an increasingly polarized discourse was a PR nightmare. Because of this, fans had to take it upon themselves to make Sahlen’s Stadium the type of atmosphere they were hoping to get out of a Pride night. I’m grateful the game was a success, but I wish it would have been given a bigger push. With this year’s game in the books, now we have something to compare it to. Fingers crossed that next year, the series of events leading up to the Pride game allow for louder and prouder promotion.
— McCall Zerboni (@McCaLL2) June 17, 2017