Professional women’s soccer will return to North Carolina.
Steve Malik, owner of the Cary-based men’s soccer club North Carolina F.C., announced Monday that he acquired a team to play in the National Women’s Soccer League.
The team is branded as North Carolina Courage, an homage to the Carolina Courage, which competed in the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer Association in the early 2000s.
Since acquiring the men’s team – then called the Carolina RailHawks − a little more than a year ago, Malik has made big moves. In December he announced plans to compete for an expansion spot in Major League Soccer, the top domestic professional soccer league, and promised to build a new 24,000-seat stadium somewhere in the Triangle.
Now he brought women’s professional soccer back to the Triangle.
During the press conference to unveil N.C. Courage, Dean Linke, the voice of North Carolina F.C., called Malik a “godsend to soccer in the Triangle.” Gov. Roy Cooper also attended the unveiling, noting that it was his first economic development announcement since taking office. Malik did not receive any state incentives, and officials did not disclose any of the deal's financial details.
Malik had intended to enter the National Women’s Soccer League, which has 10 teams, through expansion, something that would have had to wait until the 2018 season. However, through negotiations that lasted just a few weeks, Malik acquired the Western New York Flash, the league's reigning champions.
The league's average game attendance runs about 5,000, though some of the top teams, like the Portland Thorns, regularly draw five digits, according to National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Jeff Plush, who attended the press conference to unveil the Courage. The Flash had averaged closer to 3,000 attendees per game and were looking to move.
That's where Malik saw the opportunity. "We started our conversation with Jeff ... to pursue an expansion franchise," said Malik, the only North American Soccer League team owner to also own a National Women's Soccer League team. "But I did say, having had some experience with leagues, is there a franchise where we could step in and acquire?"
As it turned out there was, and this process allows the Courage to now play in the 2017 season, instead of having to wait for an expansion franchise in 2018. "This is certainly a faster, better process, and we are going to get a great product for the fans," Malik said.
The Triangle offers a strong scene for professional soccer
There is reason to believe a women's professional team could find success in the Triangle. Area universities have historically strong soccer programs, including the UNC women’s program which has won 21 Atlantic Coast Conference championships since 1987 and 22 NCAA national championships since 1981. The College Cup – soccer's version of the Final Four – has regularly played both men's and women's championships at WakeMed Soccer Park, and Capital Area Soccer Club (CASL) in Raleigh is one of the largest and most competitive youth soccer clubs in the nation for both boys and girls.
With an eye on history, the Courage mascot will be a lion, which is similar to the previous courage, though with one important distinction. The previous Courage logo was of lion with a mane, clearly a male lion. The new logo is clearly a lioness, which makes more sense given that the Courage are a women's team.
Malik said he wanted to keep aspects of the previous logo in the new one, "but it's also way cooler," he said. "This is not a male lion, if you aren’t familiar with how manes work."
That line drew a chuckle from the roughly 100 who attended the unveiling.
The logo and color scheme also looks similar to that of North Carolina F.C. The Courage will play at WakeMed Soccer Park, which is also the home to men's team.
In the immediate future, the club's front office has some long nights of film study ahead. The women's soccer league draft is Jan. 12 and the Courage have the second, seventh, and 18th picks. Even with winning the championship this past year, the Flash front office had stockpiled draft picks in previous trades, setting the club up for potential future success. The Flash finished the regular season in fourth place, though rallied in the playoffs to win the championship. The team relies heavily on offense, and their style of play is high tempo. The team scored 40 goals in the regular season, five more than second-highest and 10 more than third-highest scoring teams. However, it also conceded 26 goals, the most of any team to finish in the top six in the regular season rankings.