Sports have undergone a seismic shift since March 2020. Covid-19 forced leagues to shut down, rethink their strategies, and overcome significant health and scheduling hurdles. The current NFL season is a prime example. Amid rising case numbers, games have shifted on the fly from week to week while fans, analysts, and even sports bettors struggle to keep up.
During this turbulent time, the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) Chicago Red Stars quietly celebrated a sports success story that could serve as a model for other franchises.
On June 27, 2020, the NWSL became the first professional domestic contact sports league to return to action following months of Covid-19-related shutdowns. The Challenge Cup, a bubble-style 25-game tournament, took place in Utah with a remarkable zero positive tests or Covid-19 cases.
It’s a unique success, especially in a time of rampant shutdowns and last-minute shifts by other leagues to accommodate for the virus’ impact on popular US sports. Despite the tough times, the Red Stars have seen increased viewership.
Chicago Red Stars Owner and CEO Arnim Whisler attributes the team’s success to a bond that extends throughout the organization.
“We care for each other,” Whisler says. “We are a family – that family includes our players, supporters, front office, and partners. It was remarkable to see the community pull together to ensure the club was taken care of – they wouldn’t take ticket refunds, they bought merchandise, they showed up on virtual get-togethers.”
Whisler continues: “I would never ask our players to be in a situation I didn’t believe was safe or that I wouldn’t want my own family to be in. [Our] COVID procedures have been science-based and as much about taking care of each other as taking care of ourselves.”
Support From Fans, New And Old
With so many sports on lockdown, the Red Stars’ success at containing Covid-19 also paved the way for new viewers to engage with the team.
The NWLS broke its domestic television ratings record when the Challenge Cup final drew an average audience of 653,000 viewers on the main CBS network. The Red Stars were also the most-watched team on Twitch throughout the Challenge Cup, nabbing 30% of total event watch time on the platform.
The increase in viewership and fandom has meant a lot to the Red Stars. “It’s been a testament to the fact that women’s sports matter, soccer in the US matters, and that if women’s sports were given the same airtime, media coverage and sponsorship dollars, the possibilities would be endless.” That’s Lindsay Goldner, Director of Marketing and Communications for the team. She continues: “There is a hunger for the entertainment of world-class sports and a deep need for the bond of a welcoming, socially enlightened community…both of which the Chicago Red Stars are uniquely poised to offer. The success of our untraditional 2020 season has put extra wind in our sails.”
Even as more viewers and fans flock to the Red Stars, existing supporters continue to show up for the team.
“Our supporters have been incredible,” says Goldner. “They’ve been quick to adapt, engaging with us virtually and making their presence felt even from a distance. During the Challenge Cup our supporters’ group, Local 134, sent signs into the bubble, which we were able to hang in the stadium on game days. They also treated the players and staff to coffee to bring a sense of normalcy to otherwise unusual living circumstances. Perhaps one of the greatest indicators of fan engagement is the fact that Local 134 membership doubled in a year where fans couldn’t attend any games in person. It absolutely blows my mind.”
Win As A Team, Lose As A Team
Through the entire season and all of its natural peaks and valleys, the Chicago Red Stars have remained unified. A mindset of teamwork and camaraderie brought them success in relation to Covid-19 concerns, but it also led to a great performance on the field.
Bianca St. Georges, Chicago Red Stars Defender, says, “I’m grateful for this season because it allowed me to integrate with the team on a deeper level. There was this unspoken understanding that we had to have each other’s backs in order to safely get through the Challenge Cup and Fall Series. The level of trust, friendship, accountability, compassion and discipline was heightened, and it only worked to enhance the DNA of the Red Stars. Despite the considerable pressure of the pandemic, we came back stronger.”
That deep connection was accompanied by a strong on-field performance. The Red Stars made it to the Challenge Cup finals, where they fell just short of the Championship in a 2-0 loss to the Houston Dash. Twenty-seven players took the field throughout the Cup, the most of any team in the tournament, showcasing the Red Stars’ depth and cohesion. Defenders Julie Ertz and Casey Short were named to the 2020 Challenge Cup Best XI.
The NWSL continued its season with the Fall Series, which kicked off on Sept. 5 and ends on Oct 17. The Fall Series includes 18 matches played over seven weeks, featuring three pods of three teams that play one another. In lieu of a traditional championship title, the NWSL played the Fall Series in pursuit of the Verizon Community Shield. Each of the NWSL’s nine clubs partnered with small businesses or programs in their community, and the team with the most points at the end of the Fall Series will be awarded the Verizon Community Shield and the opportunity to present a grant of $25,000 to their community partner. $15,000 and $10,000 will be presented to the second and third-place teams, respectively. The Chicago Red Stars are playing for Semicolon Bookstore.
The Red Stars’ first match of the Series resulted in a 4-1 victory over the Sky Blue FC at SeatGeek Stadium.
The combination of the team’s impressive season and the struggles related to containing Covid-19 continue to bring the Red Stars together. It’s an attitude that extends through the entire league.
“It has been important that we all come together as a team and a league to follow the proper protocol. We have all made huge sacrifices this year to be able to compete and play games. This has only worked because we have all collectively bought into the experience and expectations,” says Danielle Colaprico, Chicago Red Stars midfielder.
A Learning Experience
The Red Stars and the NWLS have shown their resilience by stepping up to the challenge and playing a full season through trying times. And the team’s experience carries a valuable lesson for other professional leagues as they navigate a sporting landscape mid-pandemic.
“It’s really possible,” says Red Stars Owner and CEO Arnim Whisler. “Sports are more than just teams and players. It’s a community. The key to success in the Covid era, and arguably at any time, is open communication and mutual understanding between the league, the clubs, the players, and the supporters. If there’s an unwilling or reluctant participant in any of those categories, the whole venture could be at stake. Be prepared, be transparent, and admit humbly what you don’t know – seek help from experts.”
The team is taking that advice as it looks forward to 2021. “We are planning for all plausible scenarios,” Whisler says. “We expect to have supporters in the stands (with limitations) and all our planning is focused on how to do that while ensuring the health and safety of supporters, players, staff members, and stadium employees and their at-risk friends and loved ones.”
Whisler continues to note that the Red Stars are ready to implement procedures to protect fans, staff, and players, such as “mandatory face coverings, social distancing requirements, contactless ticketing and parking, additional cleaning and sanitizing protocols and more. We will also be exploring the creation of specific sections for high-risk individuals and revamped premium seating options for those supporters looking for added privacy.”
A Stellar Future
With the 2020 season drawing to a close, the Red Stars are looking at what’s to come. The team is staying focused on the future, and there’s a lot on the team’s horizon.
“In 2021, we expect our club to be in the strongest position it has ever been in,” says Whisler. “As the oldest and winningest pro women’s sports team in the US, we are coming off of six straight semi-finals and two championship games. We’ll be returning to a top-notch stadium as the primary tenants with a roster that boasts a healthy mix of young talent and seasoned veterans who have won World Cups. The Red Stars’ front office is more committed and experienced than ever before. Plus, the club is collaborating with sponsors that are thriving and potential additional owners and investors who share our vision and want Chicago to continue to be at the forefront of professional women’s soccer. To say the least, the future of the Red Stars and the NWSL is very bright.”