Skip to main content

North Carolina Courage… what is the plan?

·14 mins

Updated - 2023-01-12 … even more departures #

On Monday, Debinha signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Current.

My initial reaction was an overwhelming sigh.

Thanks I hate it - Debinha signs with KC

The more I thought, though, the more I wondered about the events that led to this, and what it means for the Courage long-term from a ownership and leadership perspective.

Notes #

  • This post draws heavily on the work of sportswriters like Meg Linehan and Steph Yang. You should subscribe - support good journalism!

  • Large chunks of this may be “Courage 101” for those that follow the team. If you’re one of those folks, skip ahead to Taking the team seriously?

Amazing success… and then a blip #

The North Carolina Courage are by far the most successful top-level professional sports team in the state - in their first three years of existence, they won three NWSL shields and two championships. Since then, they’ve declined a little - a first round playoff loss in 2021, and just missing the playoffs in 2022.

Maybe it’s just a blip; it’s hard to perennially compete, and the NWSL has the most parity of any women’s league on the planet. However, the more I look at what ownership and the front office has done (and hasn’t done), the more I wonder what the long term plan is for the franchise.

Player losses #

Lynn Williams joined the team out of college in 2015 (when it was the Western New York Flash), and scored 56 goals for the franchise over 7 years. In the offseason before 2022, she requested a trade, and now is part of the Kansas City Current.

Sam Mewis joined the team at the same time as Williams. She was an MVP finalist in 2017, scored in the playoffs for both titles, and won the 2019 World Cup with the US. In the offseason before 2022, she also requested a trade, and now is also part of the Kansas City Current.

Abby Dahlkemper joined the team in the same 2015 draft, and was named to the NWSL Best XI twice in her four years at the club. She voluntarily left to join Manchester City after the 2020 season, and on her return to the NWSL made it clear she did not want to continue with the Courage, eventually playing for Houston and then San Diego.

Jessica McDonald joined the Flash in 2016, her fifth NWSL team. She scored 34 goals in her 104 matches with the Courage, won the championship MVP in 2018, and also won the 2019 World Cup. In the offseason before 2022, she chose to be traded to Racing Louisville.

Debinha joined the Courage in 2017. During her time she became the focus driving the attack, and scored 42 goals across 115 games, and was the MVP for the 2019 Championship. After the 2022 season, she informed the team it was “in her best interest to continue her professional career elsewhere” and left as a free agent, later to sign with Kansas City.

Diana Ordóñez joined the Courage in 2022. After setting the NWSL rookie record for goals and tying for fourth in the Golden Boot race, she asked to play closer to home and was traded to Houston.

To be clear: athletes having control over where they choose to play and work is a good thing, and is leverage that many athletes (and especially women athletes) haven’t had in US sports leagues. But it does show a striking trend - the Courage’s top players didn’t want to play in North Carolina.

Abuse, and the front office’s mismanagement of it #

There’s a reason players may not have wanted to play in North Carolina.

In late 2021, it became public knowledge that the Courage’s coach for its first 5 years, Paul Riley, had sexually coerced his players over multiple teams and leagues prior to coming to North Carolina. It later came to light in the NWSL’s investigative report that while the Courage leadership did not know the extent of Riley’s prior abuse, they did know at the time that they purchased the team that he had engaged in inappropriate behavior towards his players, and they didn’t think it was disqualifying for the coach of their team.

Riley continued abusive behavior in North Carolina. Multiple players noted abusive behavior, weight shaming, and psychological games that Riley played with players. His abuse drove defender Kaleigh Kurtz into an eating disorder, and she twice requested a trade to get away from the environment, only for Riley to hold her rights hostage. She reported this to the team, and to the league, but no actions were taken by the team until Riley’s misdeeds became public.

Dealing with the fallout of these revelations is certainly traumatic to players in ways I can’t fully understand; it’s no wonder that some would request a fresh start elsewhere! But the sheer number of players in the exodus certainly leads me to believe that they’re responding to how the team didn’t take allegations reported by their own players seriously, and how the team possibly hasn’t taken the steps to guarantee those players safety since the abuse became public.

For their part in the NWSL’s abuse scandals, the Courage were fined $100k.

Homophobia sanctioned by the team #

There are other ways the front office’s actions and inaction led to players feeling less welcome.

Jaelene Daniels (née Hinkle) joined the Western New York Flash in the same 2015 draft that brought Mewis, Williams, and Dahlkemper to the team. In 2015, she publicly decried the Obergefell decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the US. She later refused a call-up to the USWNT due to it happening during Pride Month, and in 2018, she gave an interview defending her decision on the homophobic & Islamophobic “700 Club” television program – an interview the Courage let film on the stadium grounds.

Riley, who in the NWSL investigative report was shown demonstrating multiple instances of homophobic behavior, responded to outrage with “It doesn’t affect the team, it doesn’t seem to affect anybody on the team”. Owner Stephen Malik defended the decision later that year at a season ticket member event, asking attendees what people expected him to do, saying “we’re in the middle of the Bible belt”. Not exactly courageous.

Daniels left the team after the 2020 season. However, the Courage signed her out of retirement for the 2022 season, to a tremendous amount of negative feedback, and many season ticket holders canceled their membership over it.

(Full disclosure: I’m one of the many season ticket holders who canceled.)

In a later press conference, team president Francie Gottsegen stated “I don’t think it’s caused harm to the community”, echoing Riley and Malik’s earlier statement.

But did it harm no one as the team execs said? During the 2018 season when this came to light, a documentary crew was following the team. In snippets that have become public (the documentary itself was shelved), forward Kristen Hamilton is seen saying “she’s a teammate, and she disagrees with my lifestyle… and that’s fine”, while looking like she may feel much less than fine.

The team itself refused to hold a Pride night for three years while Daniels was initially on the team. For the 2022 Pride Night, Daniels refused to suit up, unwilling to assist the team in the middle of a playoff push. She was not disciplined by the team for it.

Defender Merritt Mathias commented on the pain the front office has caused noting that the team missed the fans that were no longer coming, stating “I am a part of the community that has struggled with some of the choices that this club has made. They’ve made it very clear.”

The team declined to renew Daniels’ contract after the 2022 season.

Declining attendance #

In their inaugural season, the Courage were fourth out of the league’s 10 teams in attendance. Their attendance increased through the 2018 and 2019 seasons - they ranked 3nd of 9 teams in 2018, and 4th of 9 teams in 2019. While attendance dipped slightly post-pandemic, they were still 4th of 9 teams in 2021.

In 2022, however, attendance for the Courage has waned, likely due to the fan disconnect with team management. They finished their season with their lowest attendance since their inaugural season, and finished 10th in attendance out of 12 NWSL teams, less than 200 fans per game above the last place team.

Taking the team seriously #

When the Courage were fined $100k for their part in the NWSL’s history of abuse, they were given the additional sanction that they must hire a full sporting staff (general manager, coaches, and so on) for the Courage that is separate from the staff for North Carolina FC (the USL League 1 team that they share ownership with under Malik). Currently, Curt Johnson performs the GM role for both teams.

When discussing this on their podcast, Meg Linehan and Steph Yang noted that this was already a NWSL rule for general managers… even though the Courage have never had a separate GM, and apparently have been in violation. Yang glibly noted “you can’t have just a women’s auxiliary, you need to be ‘the women’s team is the main thing’”.

This is interesting when it comes to the Courage - they are the top-line professional team in the North Carolina FC organization. The men’s team self-relegated to USL League 1 in 2021, and they haven’t outdrawn the Courage in attendance since the Courage’s inaugural season. The past two seasons, North Carolina FC has been drawing only 35-40% of the attendance of the Courage.

So why would the NWSL insist so clearly that Malik and the ownership group need to take the Courage more seriously among their holdings, when it’s the highest profile, most successful, and most revenue driving team in their organization? Are the Courage not taking it seriously because they don’t want to?

Fan Dave Warner in early 2022 noted in a twitter thread how many (including him) feel that North Carolina FC is operated primarily for the youth teams, not the Courage or the USL League 1 side.

Even the work they did after 2021 to improve shows a lack of followthrough, and leads to some skepticism.

After 2021, the team created new roles to assist players. They hired Molly Dwyer into the new role of Director of Player Experience, and promoted Vanessa Fulcher (a staffer who’d been with the team since 2017) to a new operations role to work in tandem with Dwyer to create a positive work environment for players But both staffers left their role after just one season, and the Director of Player Experience role was transitioned to the team’s 2022 equipment manager, Kathryn Page. (The Courage, as of this post, have still not updated their staff website to reflect this).

But even if they do re-staff these roles appropriately, I wonder if the Courage still can compete with the rest of the league in other areas.

Keeping up with the rest of the league #

Linehan in the same podcast described the new reality of the NWSL as “amateur hour is over”.

The NWSL is becoming big business. Y Michele Kang purchased controlling interest the Washington Spirit in early 2022 for $35 million. The Portland Thorns are rumored to have a $50m selling price. Angel City FC has described working on a plan to have a billion dollar valuation, and brought in over $40m in sponsorships in its first year.

With that money comes professional treatment. Chris and Angie Longs have dedicated a large amount of funds to building world-class facilities for the KC Current - they recently opened a new training ground dedicated to their team, and broke ground on a new stadium solely for the Current. Debinha in her signing announcement noted “Being in a competitive team, which fights for titles, has its own training structure and soon its own stadium, are things that I think are very important and that made my eyes shine.”

How do the Courage’s facilities stack up? #

Their home stadium, Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, is a perfectly cromulent soccer-specific stadium with a capacity of 10,000 seats. It regularly hosts the NCAA College Cup and other events. Yet it’s showing its age and its size - as we start the 2023 NWSL season, it ranks as the second oldest stadium in the league, ahead of only Providence Park in Portland (which has undergone multiple significant renovations), and ranks dead last in capacity.

The training facilities at WakeMed hosted USMNT and USWNT training camps in 2002, 2006, and 2011, and while they are certainly better than many used the early days of the league where other teams would train on random high school fields, they again do not compare to new modern facilities such as Kansas City’s.

The Courage and North Carolina FC at one point put forth a plan to build a new stadium in Raleigh as part of a “Downtown South” real estate development plan attempting to lure MLS to Raleigh. With MLS choosing to award a franchise to Charlotte instead, the talk of a new stadium has died out, and it’s currently on hold as other issues with the development are worked through.

Where does the money come from? #

Facilities and investment cost money, of course. To compete in the NWSL, the Courage will need it.

Malik bought the team in 2017 for an undisclosed price, but certainly well below the current $30-50m valuation of NWSL teams. Malik’s money comes from entrepreneurship - he sold the company he founded, MedFusion, to Intuit in 2010 for $91 million. He’s certainly wealthy by most standards, but not compared to the conglomerate that owns Angel City FC that touts people like Alexis Ohanian, or the Longs in KC who run a $22bn asset management firm.

He does have original partners in Courage ownership.Capitol Broadcasting, who also own the local Durham Bulls and assorted real estate ventures, has a stake in the team. Kane Realty, Malik’s partner in the Downtown South project, also owns a stake. As North Carolina FC does not publish a board of directors or ownership info, it is not clear what their ownership stakes are, or at what valuation.

Like many NWSL teams, the Courage in 2021 brought on additional investors, including Naomi Osaka, Sara and James Toussaint, Torry Holt, and others. However, the filing for this new ownership initiative noted only $5m of capital was planned to be raised. It’s unlikely that it materially affected the team’s ability to build new facilities or do other large capital expenditures. Even in comparison to other teams, the pre-Kang Sprit sought to raise twice as much.

So where does that leave them? #

In summary, where do the Courage stand as an organization going into 2023?

Many of their top players have intentionally left after playing multiple seasons in an abusive environment that the team didn’t remedy. The staff they hired to create a positive environment for players also left.

They’ve been fined by the league for failure to act on abuse, and have been told they need to do more work and hire new club leadership staff to uphold professional league standards.

They have arguably the worst stadium situation in the league, and if the front office can’t reverse trends, they stand a good chance of having the worst attendance in the league. There’s no published plan to invest more into the team so they can compete on facilities, player safety, and other items that make them an attractive destination for players.

To be clear - I want them to succeed. I’d like them to return to the top of the table. I’ll probably be back out there this year now that they’re no longer fielding a player that questions the humanity of my family. I want these athletes to get the supportive team environment they deserve, and raucous committed support that can come to a team where the ownership builds engagement with the fans every day.

But I look and see a team whose front office leadership seems understaffed and disinterested in doing that. I see a team whose leadership shows very little public understanding of how they got into this situation, and how they plan to get out of it, and I wonder how much longer that can continue.