It has been an interesting couple of weeks for women’s soccer worldwide. There have been international player moves, the downsizing of one English FA Super League team, and trades between sides in the National Women’s Soccer League.
Today, the first steps were announced in a major change for the domestic league for the upcoming season. The Western New York Flash, the current NWSL champion, is seemingly set to move to Cary, N.C., the city that was the home of the second WUSA champions, the Carolina Courage.
The move is a very savvy one on the part of North Carolina FC, the new ownership group. The men’s team, the former Carolina Railhawks, played last year in the North American Soccer League, which has all but collapsed in the last month. Having a championship-level women’s side is a definite boost for the ownership.
The thing is, there has been this seeming mistrust on the part of professional sports franchises when it comes to the enormous fan bases of college sports. In football, every new football league since the 1970s has tried to locate a team in Alabama, but the Vulcans (WFL), Stallions (USFL), Fire (WLAF), Barracudas (CFL), and Bolts (XFL) all helped drag down their respective leagues.
Women’s professional basketball has been loath to tap into the college game’s fandom. The original WBL didn’t try its hand in New Orleans or Norfolk, where both the professional men’s game and college women were having success. Later, the ABL tested the waters from roughly 1996 to 1998, with the New England Blizzard and the Nashville Noise in the same markets as UConn and the Tennessee Lady Vols.
The WNBA, however, only has tapped into the Connecticut fan base with a team in Uncasville. And in an odd twist, the Washington Mystics of the WNBA and the Maryland Terrapins women’s team have seen vastly different fortunes in the last 20 years. Back in the late 90s, you could barely get a few hundred fans in Cole Field House for Virginia vs. Maryland. Twelve miles away, in downtown D.C., the Mystics would average nearly 19,000 per game.
Fast forward to a few days ago where rabid Maryland fans sold out the on-campus Xfinity Center for the Terps’ non-conference women’s basketball game with Connecticut. The Mystics, on the other hand, have seen its attendance dwindle to the point where the plan is to move into a planned Washington Wizards-owned practice court which will seat somewhere around 4,200.
The new North Carolina Courage will begin its life with much the same talent as the Flash did when it went from about 40 seconds from losing the NWSL title to a penalty-kick shootout that won it. But the Courage will also have to satisfy a fanbase which has been entertained by world-class soccer for four decades on the part of the University of North Carolina women’s program.
The team is also dealing with the fact that it is no longer The Team That Abby Wambach Built. Just a year after her retirement from the national team, the Flash had shown signs of being able to come to games without Rochester’s favorite soccer daughter. The attendance for 2016 averaged a thousand more per game than in 2015.
Problem, however, is that the soccer-specific stadium that was built on a filled-in portion of the Erie Canal has not aged well. The neighborhood around the stadium has not seen an uptick in independent business or property value, and saw a previous tenant, the Rochester Rattlers of Major League Lacrosse, leave town.
And now, the Flash have left Rochester, too. That, for me, leaves more questions than answers.