The Triangle is about to get a second professional soccer team.
Gov. Roy Cooper joined Steve Malik, owner of North Carolina F.C., to announce the purchase of the Western New York Flash, champions of the National Women’s Soccer League. The team will be renamed the North Carolina Courage and will begin play at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park in April.
“We, in North Carolina, are an epicenter for sports,” Cooper said at a news conference Monday at WakeMed Soccer Park. “This is my first economic development announcement … sports can bring money to the pockets of people in North Carolina.”
Malik, citing a confidentiality agreement, declined to say how much he is paying for the club.
“We’re going to have the best pro women’s franchise in the world. We’re going to do that on the field, in the stands and in the community,” Malik said.
Doug McRainey, Cary’s director of parks, recreation and cultural resources, described the announcement as “a huge deal,” particularly because of the loss of sports events, including NCAA College Cup soccer in December, that were moved from North Carolina due to the fallout over HB2.
“It’s also going to fill a void,” McRainey said.. “The spring of 2017 we were to have a Division I women’s lacrosse (tournament), so now instead we’ll have one of the best teams in the professional soccer league show up. It fills a huge void.”
The NWSL is a 10-team Division I women’s professional soccer league featuring national team players from around the world.
Last year, each NWSL club hosted 10 regular season games, a number that will likely stay the same unless the league adds teams via expansion. The league average for attendance per game last year was 5,558, though it was skewed by the Portland Thorns F.C.’s 16,945.
The Sahlen family, which had owned the Western New York Flash for eight years, released a statement about the sale on Twitter Monday.
“Unfortunately, it has become apparent that the Western New York market is not the right fit for the NWSL and the future direction of the league. We know that the North Carolina market will provide what the players deserve and we are excited to see the team compete at the highest level.”
The Flash, despite consistently being successful on the field, struggled with attendance.
In regular season matches over the past two seasons, the Flash averaged around 3,361 fans a game.
A large cause of the paltry attendance was due to the Flash’s dual-city involvement. The team was based in Elma, N.Y., a town of 11,317 that’s about 17 miles east of Buffalo. It was able to practice for free there at Sahlen Sports Park, which is owned by the club’s former owners. The Sahlen family owns a meat packing company that has existed for more than 90 years and has connections in the Buffalo area that made for low-cost housing for players.
However, there was no suitable stadium near Buffalo, so the team played its matches 90 minutes away in Rochester, where the players had little to no connection with the local community.
Malik announced recently he wants to secure a spot in Major League Soccer, the top professional men’s league in the country, which would require a new or expanded stadium with at least 20,000 seats. The MLS expansion fee is $150 million, and stadium costs are expected to hover around that same number. The North Carolina F.C., formerly known as the Carolina RailHawks, plays in the North American Soccer League, which is in a lower division than MLS.
The popularity of women’s soccer skyrocketed after the United States defeated Japan in the 2015 FIFA World Cup – the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history. Malik hopes to see the popularity of the national team’s players reflected at the local level.
“That popularity is so infectious and … we are so fortunate to have so many national team players,” Malik said. “We’re not just going to take advantage of (the U.S. Women’s National Team’s) popularity, we’re going to sustain it.”
“I think with 10,000 seats (at WakeMed Soccer Park), we’re going to need more. That’s up to you guys and how the community responds.”
Curt Johnson, general manager of the men’s club, will handle the same duties on the women’s side. His first challenge is Thursday, when he’ll be in Los Angeles as the Courage hold the second, seventh and 18th picks in the NWSL Draft.
The coaching shortlist has been determined, but nobody has been hired yet.
The team’s name is a nod to the Carolina Courage, a club founded in 2001 that played three seasons. Despite solid attendance numbers, league issues resulted in the original women’s club’s demise.
Staff writer Henry Gargan contributed to this story