In being the first U.S. contact sports league to return to play, the NWSL and its nine teams had a massive opportunity to reach new fans and establish itself further.
By the time the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup opened on June 27, one team was not included in the festivities: the Orlando Pride. Less than a month following the NWSL’s return-to-play news, six players and four staff members with the Pride tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the club to withdraw just five days before it began.
Ed Cahill, senior director of content at the Pride, remembers eagerly awaiting the NWSL’s return to the pitch. He was preparing others on his team as they were supposed to fly out to Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Ut., the site of the Challenge Cup. When it was revealed that the Pride would no longer be involved, he lamented over their lost season.
“That was a really tough day for our whole organization,” he said. “I mean that morning, literally we were getting [communications specialist] Duda Pavao ready to send out to Utah. We were prepping her with all of her gear; we were having our final meetings cause we had some really big plans for Utah.”
“We were really excited… and then later that afternoon we found out that we wouldn’t be going and it was tough for all of us. We were so excited to get back to soccer, to have our team out there in Utah, and what we thought was going to be a fantastic platform for the women’s game. It was a big hit to all of us, and, honestly, we all had our heads down there for about 24 hours,” he said.
But despite missing the opportunity to play, the team is instead pivoting its efforts to help elevate the league and the other eight clubs on social media, even adopting a revamped social media handle: the “Challenge Cup Stan Account.”
Cahill and his team instantly began brainstorming ways to stay involved with the Challenge Cup. Pavao introduced the idea of shooting a video showing the Pride’s support for the tournament and their interests in growing women’s soccer. But it was Jackie Maynard, director of communication at the Pride, who pitched the idea of making the team a “stan account” on social media.
“Immediately I was like, ‘That’s what we’re doing,’” Cahill recalled. “We’re going ‘full stan’ to support all the teams in the league, fully support the games, fully cover the matches. I just saw it rejuvenate our entire staff, and we were just so excited to be able to have a role still to play in this tournament that we think is such a special opportunity for the women’s game and for the NWSL.”
As the official ‘stan account’ of the Challenge Cup, Cahill and the Pride have “loosened the belt a little bit” and shown off more fun than they normally would in the past couple of days, he said. Instead of using normal pictures, the Pride have created numerous posts where the heads of people like Portland Thorns FC goalkeeper Bella Bixby and head coach Mark Parsons are being superimposed onto GIFs.
“It brings more people into the game and just gives a personalized tone, and that’s us having fun and making it unique and personalized,” Cahill said.
Cahill and his colleagues believe that the “stan” approach could help the Pride see the most engagement of any team in the league over the starting weekend of the Challenge Cup. In the month of June, 1.2 million of the 7 million impressions that the Pride have drawn on Twitter came from the opening day of the Challenge Cup. That day also saw the club have 93,000 and 120,000 engagements and video views on the platform, respectively.
Since the NWSL resumed play, the Pride have seen a 55% increase in impressions, a 260% jump on profile visits, a 170% increase in engagements, and an overall 3% bump in followers.
Their best-performing post in recent memory is a Shaolin Soccer-inspired GIF from the opening weekend of the Challenge Cup that has generated more than 35,000 views.
Cahill believes that the Pride’s social media growth is also helping to showcase the value of the NWSL and the opportunity around women’s soccer.
“When you look at those numbers, I think it shows the potential for this league to have more people contributing to the conversation, whether that be partners or bigger media outlets,” he said. “Those numbers can’t be ignored, and we’ve known that, for a long time with Pride, the numbers of engagements and the commitment and fandom in women’s soccer is so massive that it’s such a ripe area for conversation.”
While the Pride normally wouldn’t be as cheerful about other clubs, Cahill says that their camaraderie has not gone unnoticed by Challenge Cup competitors. He also attributes that all-around mentality to Orlando relying on fan votes to dictate which team it should be rooting on in the next match.
Although the “Challenge Cup Stan Account” name was born from a dark circumstance, Cahill is happy that its impact is being felt beyond just the greater Orlando area.
“We’ve got lots of messages from other teams within the league that are really excited and hope that we are ‘stanning’ their account for at least one match,” he said. “We appreciate the support… and I think a lot of people understand that what we had to do wasn’t easy. We really felt for our players – they worked so hard to get ready for this tournament. We are with them every single day, and we were really heartbroken to see them not go. We were excited that we could take something that was so hard and turn it into something positive to help grow the game.”