The news came fast and furious in the wee hours as Thursday turned to Friday. The Western New York Flash, NWSL Championship holders, are being sold and moved to North Carolina. The move will mark the first relocation of any club since the league was founded in 2013. Here are my initial thoughts.
Does relocation signal weakness?
Not necessarily. You only have to go back to 2005 to find relocated franchises in MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, and NHL. The WNBA has not only endured relocation but contraction over the last dozen years. It happens.
NWSL is still a small league and most of its ownership groups are local investors willing to take losses in order to run a team and support the league. Joe Sahlen and his family threw plenty of money and other resources into the Flash over the last eight years, all but the first two while competing at the highest level of women’s soccer available. Whatever their reasons for wanting out of the game, it was never likely they were going to find a buyer to keep the team in Western New York.
The good news is that Steve Malik has been angling for a NWSL franchise and was ready, willing, and able to step in to purchase the Flash. When the Flash entered WPS, they were on a white horse after the Chicago Red Stars elected to drop down a division and FC Gold Pride closed up shop. Also that offseason WPS panicked and allowed the Washington Freedom to be sold to Dan Borislow, who was never vetted, ran afoul of league policy, and wound up in litigation that put the final nail in the league’s coffin. (A year earlier, the LA Sol folded after a sale fell through and AEG refused to stay on until another could be found.)
This is a different situation altogether. From specific reports about owners in Los Angeles and Vancouver being close to bringing clubs into NWSL to cities like Atlanta and Salt Lake City, interest in operating women’s pro soccer has never been higher.
Losing the league champions to another city is never ideal but such is life in a small sports venture. Winning may have helped the bottom line some but it was never going to be the magic potion to turn the Flash into an instant moneymaker. Franchises changing cities always has a downside, but this particular case should not be seen as a weakness for NWSL.
What happens to the players?
The fine details are still not known but almost certainly player contracts will be transferred along with the club. Even if the league and new ownership wanted to do a fold and rebirth there is not enough time to pull it off logistically. And Malik and his team should be over the moon to be able to dive into NWSL with a talented side that only figures to get better as the young roster develops.
There could well be players who do not want to play in North Carolina for one reason or another, and I would be surprised if management did not try its best to acquiesce if that is the case.
Technical Director Charlie Naimo—who lives in California—has acted this week like a man preparing for the NWSL draft where the club owns the 2nd and 7th picks. But talks could well have been over Naimo’s head, so it will be interesting to see whether he and coach Paul Riley are retained. Naimo could theoretically continue working from the other coast while Riley, if asked back, would have to decide whether he wanted to relocate for the second straight season.
What about HB2?
One reason players may not want to play in North Carolina is HB2, a controversial bill that critics say discriminates against the transgender community. The bill was nearly overturned after Election Day but hit a snag in the state legislature.
As a result of the “bathroom bill” the NCAA has pulled all of its events out of the state and the NBA moved its All Star Game. Several entertainers have canceled dates in North Carolina.
I am not going to pretend HB2 is a hot button issue to me personally, but I do believe putting a permanent team in the state is entirely different from a one-off event that is easily relocated. The league—which has not commented directly on whether HB2 would impact its presence in the state—can stand on a moral principle and force the Sahlen’s to make other arrangements. But that strategy could wind up leaving the league out in the cold and maybe out altogether long after HB2 becomes either accepted or expunged.
Furthermore, while events have been taken out of the state, the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets and Carolina Hurricanes all remain. And there has been zero talk of pulling any of those three teams out of the state. There is no reason NWSL cannot figure out its place.
A note to the WNY folks
I remember meeting Joe Sahlen at the 2011 WPS draft and Aaran Lines a short time later. They were excited about bringing professional soccer to the area and together built a winning club. Many players found it difficult to play for Lines, but from a media standpoint both he and Sahlen were easy to work with. Communications folks Jackie Maynard (now with the Pride), Kylie Woyat (now with the Philadelphia Flyers) and Dave Maurer have also been helpful along the way. I also had the pleasure to cross paths with Jeff DiVeronica and Courtney Andros who have covered the team.
General manager Rich Randall has always been willing and able to provide updates on the Flash. Randall, Maurer and others I have never met, are likely to be out of jobs when the club leaves. No matter how exciting things are when the first NWSL match hits North Carolina, those whose livelihoods in Western New York are being altered should not be forgotten.
The fans will also be at a loss, and the fact the Flash were never able to attract enough of them should not take away the loss that will be felt by those who invested their time, money and emotions in the team. And while I don’t know who it was, Sahlen’s Stadium remains the only NWSL venue in which I have seen someone in the stands dressed in a head-to-toe giraffe costume.
Long live the Western New York Flash. And welcome to NWSL soccer in North Carolina.