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Fan interest in the NC Courage has wavered. Players have noticed. What happened?

North Carolina Courage players stand and kneel during the national anthem on May 22, 2022 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
Mitchell Northam
North Carolina Courage players stand and kneel during the national anthem on May 22, 2022 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.

It would be an understatement to simply call Jessica Turner a fan of women’s soccer. She absolutely loves the game and wants to see it grow.

The 33-year-old Raleigh resident went to France for the Women’s World Cup in 2019 and she’s been a season-ticket holder of the National Women’s Soccer League’s North Carolina Courage since the team moved to the Triangle in 2017. She is also the vice president of the club’s lone official supporters’ group, The Uproar.

And typically, when it comes time to renew her season tickets for the Courage, she shows no hesitation. But this season was different. Turner felt conflicted.

“I was asking myself: ‘Do I want to give money to an organization that may not align with my values, and that has — very publicly — decided to employ someone who I know does not align with my values?’ So, that was really hard for me,” Turner told WUNC recently. “What it came down to for me is that I do want to support the players. And I do think that women’s soccer and our league — and the way our league is growing — is bigger than one club or one player. But it is very difficult.”

While Turner has continued to show up and support the Courage at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary this season, some of her peers have not.

Early on in this 2022 NWSL season, it seems that enthusiasm among fans for the Courage has dwindled some. And the evidence backing that up is quantifiable.

According to figures from Soccer Stadium Digest and Football Reference, the Courage have averaged 4,424 fans — in a 10,000-seat stadium — through three regular season home matches this year, which ranks 10th out of the 12 teams in the NWSL. It is also the lowest attendance average the team has posted since 2017, its first season playing in the Tar Heel state.

Before this season, the Courage were typically in the top half of the league in attendance. In the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, the Courage drew an average of 5,036 fans per-game across eight matches, which was fifth in the league. In 2019, the Courage were fourth in league attendance, with an average of 5,875 fans per-match across 12 games.

From 2019 compared to this season, the Courage are averaging 1,451 fewer fans per home game in the regular season, a decrease of more than 24%.

"The fan support has wavered and there are reasons for that... My personal opinion is that we miss you guys."
Courage defender Merritt Mathias

This runs counter to what the NWSL is seeing in fan turnout across the league. Average attendance for matches league-wide on opening weekend was more than 10,000 fans per-game, which smashed a previous attendance record set in 2016.

In the preseason Challenge Cup, attendance was even worse for the Courage. Through four home games, the Courage drew an average of 3,234 fans. And, with a trophy on the line, just 3,163 fans showed up to WakeMed Soccer Park on May 7 for the Challenge Cup Final — which the Courage won.

So, where have nearly a quarter of Courage fans gone? Why did this team go from the top half to the bottom half in league attendance?

Fans point to one transaction

The past year has been an eventful one off the field for the Courage. The team fired its long-time head coach following a report outlining his history of sexual coercion and harassment, they parted ways with fan favorites from the U.S. Women’s National Team, and — the most crucial issue for Turner and many others — they brought back a player who is not a favorite among some supporters.

Courage defender Jaelene Daniels dribbles the ball against the Orlando Pride on May 18, 2022 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
Mitchell Northam
Courage defender Jaelene Daniels dribbles the ball against the Orlando Pride on May 18, 2022 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.

“For me, the biggest sticking point was the re-signing of Jaelene Daniels,” Turner said. “They knew that there had been issues in the past with this player, very publicly… And they decided to go with that knowing that there is going to be backlash, knowing that there is going to be a whole section of our fanbase that are going to feel harmed by this and are going to feel like the club doesn't support them.

“That was the biggest thing that made me really question renewing my season tickets.”

Daniels, an undeniably talented player, has made statements on her social media accounts that fans, players, and others called homophobic. Most notably, in 2017, Daniels declined a call-up to the U.S. National Team and later revealed in an interview with the 700 Club — a Christian television program — that she did so because she refused to wear a jersey with rainbow decals honoring LGBTQ Pride Month.

Multiple USWNT players — and multiple Courage players — are openly gay. During the World Cup in 2019, that interview with the 700 Club was resurfaced and aggregated by mostly right-wing news outlets. One of those stories caught the attention of national team goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, who called Daniels homophobic in a tweet. Daniels did not respond to Harris publicly, but essentially likened her to “Satan” in a subsequent blog post. In 2015, on the day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, Daniels tweeted: “This world is falling farther and farther away from God.” She also made an Instagram post on that day, referring to gay people as “lost, rejected, and abandoned.”

After the Courage re-signed her, Daniels released a statement on Twitter that said, in part: “My beliefs may call me to live differently, but my love runs deep for all… Labels do not keep us from loving others as we desire to be loved.”

The Courage did not immediately make Daniels available for comment for this story.

Addressing the decline in attendance, Courage president Francie Gottsegen told WUNC that three games was a “fairly small sample size” and that the club’s ticket sales staff is “in the process of staffing back up from COVID.” She added that the club is "bullish" about getting back to its 2019 average. She declined to answer further questions from WUNC.

Players notice the dip in attendance, too

 San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan
Mitchell Northam
San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan celebrates after scoring a goal against the Courage on May 22, 2022 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
Courage defender Merritt Mathias
Mitchell Northam
Courage defender Merritt Mathias celebrates a goal during a July 5, 2019 match against the Houston Dash at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.

Courage players say WakeMed Soccer Park isn’t as loud as it used to be, and there are fewer folks in the crowd wearing the Courage’s colors. The only time this season that the Courage have topped 2019’s attendance average was when San Diego Wave FC — led by U.S. women’s national team superstar Alex Morgan — came to Cary on May 22. More than 6,000 people showed up for that contest.

“It's called the Alex Morgan effect. Whatever way we get fans into the stands, that's great, but I think it definitely has something to do with her name,” Courage defender Kaleigh Kurtz said after that game. “… It just sounds a little quiet.”

After the same match, fellow Courage defender Merritt Mathias was asked about the fan turnout this season and had a whole lot to say.

“The fan support has wavered,” Mathias said matter-of-factly. “It isn’t a coincidence that Alex Morgan is playing and there are 6,000 people that are here. Previous games, the fan support has wavered and there are reasons for that.”

She continued: “My personal opinion is that we miss you guys. There are a ton of people that are not only a part of your community, but definitely support it. It would be wonderful for you to come back consistently and be in the stands, because it does change the environment. To see the seats filled again is pretty incredible, but it can’t be because of Alex Morgan. It has to be because of what you believe in here. And I think there is something to believe in and to invest in again.”

Mathias also addressed the re-signing of Daniels.

“Personally, I don’t think we’ve done a great job of (supporting the LGBTQ community) in the past years. And that is fair. I don’t think that has been any secret,” Mathias said. “And I think bringing back Jaelene was a decision made by the club, and as a player who is part of the (LGTBTQ) community, you have to work through those struggles, but that is what a team is about. You have to be able to embrace people of all different religions, of all different views, of all different backgrounds.”

Mathias added, as if she was talking directly to fans: “If you don’t like one player, then there are 25, 26 other ones to choose from. Find someone you love.”

A turbulent year

Some fans will attribute the attendance reduction to the toxicity surrounding everything that happened with Paul Riley last season. Riley, who coached the Courage to a pair of NWSL Championships, was fired after the Athletic published a heavily-sourced report outlining a pattern of sexual coercion by the coach toward former players. The club replaced Riley with Sean Nahas, who was an assistant under Riley, but had the vocal and public support of the Courage players.

Courage coach Sean Nahas
Mitchell Northam
Courage coach Sean Nahas on the sidelines before his team's game against the Orlando Pride on May 18, 2022 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.

Others will point toward how the Courage’s star power has dwindled following a flurry of roster moves in a busy offseason. U.S. National Team players Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald and Abby Dahlkemper are all gone. Still, the club has a few recognizable faces, like the flashy Brazilian midfielder Debinha, USWNT goalkeeper Casey Murphy and longtime defensive stalwarts like Abby Erceg and Denise O’Sullivan.

Still, Mary Pruter — the president of the Uproar — doesn’t believe either of those events had a big impact on fan turnout.

“I do appreciate the swift manner in which the club let (Riley) go. I guess that was handled as best as it could be with a lot of failures from the league,” Pruter said. “As far as the big players leaving, that doesn’t bother me so much, because to me, it sounded like those players wanted to leave… I don’t have any problems with any of that.”

Like others, Pruter believes bringing back Daniels is what offended a large swath of the fanbase.

“It has been an issue for a long time within the club and had been spoken out about a long time before this year,” Pruter said of the club bringing back Daniels. “So, that’s it for me, right? That one, I know that they know. And if they didn’t know, then they really aren’t connected with the fans in a way that I thought they were. Either way, it felt kind of disrespectful.”

A signing, then an apology

It is rare for a professional sports team to apologize to its fanbase for signing a player to its team. But last December, the North Carolina Courage felt compelled to do just that when it re-signed Daniels. The defender spent six seasons with the franchise before retiring after the 2020 season. After giving birth, she felt ready to return to professional soccer, and the club’s leadership welcomed her back with open arms.

"The club has made decisions that have consequences. And one of those consequences is there are some fans that came to games in 2019 and 2021 that are not coming to games in 2022.”
Jessica Turner, vice president of The Uproar supporters group

However, the transaction was met with swift umbrage, disappointment and anger from some of the team’s fans. More than 800 people responded to a Dec. 19, 2021 tweet from the club’s account announcing the return of Daniels — much of them expressing their displeasure with the roster move. A day later, The Uproar issued a statement calling the signing of Daniels “unacceptable”

“I can’t speak for everyone, but I think, as far as The Uproar goes, I think it’s clear where our position is,” Pruter said. “We don’t make it a secret.”

Three days after signing Daniels, the Courage released a statement saying, in part: “We as a club acknowledge the impact this announcement has on our community. We’ve spent the past few days reading your messages and reflecting on our actions. We are very sorry to all those we have hurt, especially those within the LGBTQIA+ community… (Daniels) will continue to uphold the Courage’s standards of respect and inclusion without reservation.”

The link to that statement now leads to a "not found, error 404" message on the Courage's website.

While the club apologized, it wasn’t sorry enough to reverse its decision. Daniels has remained with the team, appearing in all seven games so far in the regular season.

Disconnected dialogue

 An NWSL soccer ball lays on the pitch at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Mitchell Northam
An NWSL soccer ball lays on the pitch at WakeMed Soccer Park.
"I’m in a weird place where I feel like the players deserve all the support in the world – and I want to be able to give that to them – but at the same time, I don’t necessarily feel comfortable supporting an organization that I’m not 100% sure I can stand behind.”
Mary Pruter, President of The Uproar supporters group

In January, club leadership answered questions about the Daniels signing on a Zoom call with a handful of reporters, following the announcement that Gottsegen had been hired as the club’s new president. A Duke graduate, she had previously worked at Sports Systems, JP Morgan Chase, and with the PGA, NBA and MLS.

Gottsegen and Curt Johnson — the club’s chief soccer officer — both said during the Zoom call that they wanted to “support the LGBTQ community” but never specifically said what that support might look like. Gottsegen also said, “We hope to win back those fans that we may have alienated.” But again, how the Courage plan to regain that wasn’t outlined. Gottsegen also said that she didn’t think signing Daniels had “caused any harm to the (LGBTQ) community.”

Pruter was unimpressed by that response.

“I’m not sure how (Gottsegen) came to that conclusion. I’m not sure why nobody prepped her on what the questions were going to be when it was so obvious,” Pruter said. “So, either, they’re lying, or they don’t realize how big of a deal it was, or they are disconnected from the fanbase, or they want a completely different fanbase.”

Pruter, 39, of Raleigh, has been a Courage season-ticket holder since 2018. She said that she didn’t question her fandom when Daniels was part of the team previously, but opposing fans would sometimes label her and other Courage supporters as homophobic, because they rooted for a team that employed Daniels.

“It wasn't just our team that got harassed and felt like they couldn't be part of the community, it was our fans,” Pruter said. “We would be targeted as homophobic, which sucks. For me, as a queer person, to be called homophobic — those several years, I had to be like, ‘I’m gay.’

“We’ve spent the years since trying to re-engage with other supporters’ groups and let them know, like, we are a separate entity. We love this team. We don’t love certain aspects, like the homophobia.”

Pruter said that part of the reason why she renewed her season tickets, continues to come to games, and stays involved with The Uproar is so she can have a voice and attempt to influence change in the club.

“We do have conversations with the club, so they are aware of our feelings,” Pruter said. “Part of my reason for staying… is because I think, the moment I leave is a moment that they're going to cut us off and that dialogue dies away.”

But, Pruter says, even with a line of dialogue between the club and its supporters open, she still hasn’t heard what she wants to hear from the Courage’s leadership.

“I continue to have questions for the front office. And I’m not sure I’ve had any answers that are satisfactory at this time,” Pruter said. “I’m in a weird place where I feel like the players deserve all the support in the world — and I want to be able to give that to them — but at the same time, I don’t necessarily feel comfortable supporting an organization that I’m not 100% sure I can stand behind.”

The Courage typically host a Zoom call with reporters before and after every match. These calls typically include coach Sean Nahas and one to two players. Daniels has not been made available in any of those interview opportunities this season.

Pride Night on the horizon

Courage defender Abby Erceg
Mitchell Northam
NC Courage defender Abby Erceg dribbles up the pitch against San Diego on May 22, 2022 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
Courage midfielder Debinha
Mitchell Northam
Brazilian midfielder Debinha plays for the Courage on May 22, 2022 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.

On July 15, the Courage are scheduled to host their annual Pride Night game. The club says it will wear Pride jerseys too, and the club is going to host a Pride festival before the match which will feature “local LGBTQ+ and LGBTQ+-friendly businesses, artists and entertainers” according to a news release. The club has hosted Pride Night games before, but only started wearing Pride-stylized kits in 2021 — the year that Daniels was not playing for the club. After last year’s Pride Night match, Lynn Williams, then a forward for the Courage, told IndyWeek, “I think I can speak on behalf of the team to say: we should have done this — worn the Pride numbers — way sooner.”

Sales from the Courage's Pride jerseys will go towards LGBT Center of Raleigh. The club also sent representatives to Pride events in Apex, Durham and Raleigh.

For Pruter, the Courage hosting a Pride-themed match and wearing Pride-themed kits is a necessary step, but a small one.

“My questions lie on the more structural, systemic type things within the club,” she said. “What are they doing internally to fix the structure so homophobia is not something that can thrive within the club? What are they doing to make sure that the players who are queer feel comfortable?”

Former Courage and USWNT player Heather O’Reilly — who now works in broadcasting and as an assistant coach at UNC-Chapel Hill — tweeted that she was going to buy 100 tickets for Pride Night to give away to fans. One user replied to her: “I think if you identify as LGBT then you shouldn’t have to spend your money on a club that doesn’t truly value you.”

Nahas has pleaded with fans to return to the stadium too. On May 29, after a road draw with the Houston Dash — and just days after the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas — Nahas told reporters: “We have fans with the Courage that are gay. And I'll tell you right now, I'm disappointed in many aspects. We need you guys at our stadium. We need you guys cheering our players on. I get it. But at the end of the day let's not be a part of the problem. Let's try and get this thing back on track.”

In a tweet, Nahas clarified that he is not disappointed with fans, but rather, “My disappointment is the situation that they have been put in and get where they are coming from.”

Jessica Turner wants to see WakeMed Soccer Park filled again. She wants to hear it rock again. But she also understands why some fans no longer feel welcome there.

“Our players deserve that. We have world-class, amazing athletes. They deserve a full stadium,” Turner said. “But also, the club has made decisions that have consequences. And one of those consequences is there are some fans that came to games in 2019 and 2021 that are not coming to games in 2022.”

Turner went on, adding: “Women’s sports in general has a big queer community. These are people that grew up playing soccer and love the sport, and want to go out to games… I want these people to feel safe at our games. I don’t want them to feel like their identities are in-question.

“It’s June, but we haven’t forgotten. It’s still an issue. It still needs to be addressed.”

This story was updated at 1:10 p.m. on June 30, 2022 with a comment from the Courage president.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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