The North Carolina Courage brand is strong.
“Champions have #NoFinishLine” somehow embodies their collective identity as winners who approach the game as underdogs. And while folks around the NWSL rightly scoff at the back-to-back champions referring to themselves as underdogs, that mentality and the work that goes along with it is clearly effective.
Now, with some significant roster turnover this offseason, the Courage may have a more legitimate claim at that underdog identity. Still, the squad remains formidable in talent and mentality, exemplified by their newest co-owner Naomi Osaka, who decisively won the Australian Open over the weekend.
Also relatively new to the Courage’s brand is the way they are working to embrace their home state of North Carolina in tangible and exciting ways. I spoke with Matt Whiteside, Vice President of Merchandising and Strategic Operations, via email about their vision for the new Courage kits.
The NWSL has made strides in the past couple of years in terms of team branding, and kits specifically. It shows maturity that the league and its teams can move away from solely marketing star players and toward more community-specific engagement. As players move between teams and leagues, lasting team loyalty comes from community ties.
The design team at North Carolina has done well to really lean into this. Both of the new jerseys feature the North Carolina flag and state motto. When I asked Matt about this choice, he told me, “The idea for a consistent ‘tag’ that goes on both the Courage and NCFC jerseys was an idea originally brought up by our EVP, and we all really rallied around the state motto ‘To be, rather than to seem’ as a reminder for us to ‘walk the walk’ not only on the field, but in all aspects of our club culture.”
As we saw with the rebrand down in Houston a few months ago, celebrating club ties between the men’s and the women’s sides can be really effective in promoting the club as a whole. The visible tag and the more intangible ideals it represents strengthens club culture across the board, working to engage fans in a unified effort.
Matt went on, “I’m a transplant to NC, and one thing that really struck me when I moved here was how people from NC love the state and have North Carolina stickers all over their cars and state flags in their yards, so adding the state flag to the jersey just seemed like a no-brainer.”
Going a bit deeper on the aesthetics of the project as a whole, Matt told me, “If you’re from North Carolina or if you’ve lived here, you know the geography of the state is a very clear source of pride for every North Carolinian. ‘Mountains to Sea’ is a common shorthand for the topography, and residents of the Triangle enjoy the flexibility of driving two hours to the mountains or two hours to the beach.”
The Courage play in Cary, part of the Triangle Matt mentions. In a state as large as North Carolina it can be hard to find a way to get people from across the state engaged, especially when attending home games can still take hours of driving for some. The jerseys work to bring folks from across the state together. Matt continued, “I also think there are different kinds of people that live in the mountains, or in the Piedmont, or at the beach, and we wanted to try to give all our fans the opportunity to have a jersey that represents where they live and makes them feel just as part of the club as someone who lives in Cary.”
I asked Matt about the details of the jerseys, and the way they depart from the designs we’ve seen from the Courage in the past. “I think with the home [kits] we had a couple years of jerseys that were effectively navy monoliths with some small accents and we wanted to make a bit more of a statement while keeping the thread going with regard to general simplicity. On the away [kits], we opted to try to keep it ‘light’ and breaking up the mountains a little really helped achieve that.”
When you’ve shown as much dominance as the Courage has for the past few years, simplicity makes a certain sense. The team says all they need to say on the pitch. The new jerseys pay tribute to this trend of the past, but the added details mean they look to the future of the club as an active part of their community, from the mountains to the sea. They also mean, for aesthetic and symbolic reasons, I want at least one of each.
Maybe most importantly, Matt talked about getting the support of the whole organization before moving forward with the jerseys. “Another huge point of engagement for us was making sure we presented everything to our players and technical staff before going to production and soliciting their feedback. We wanted to make sure they were 100% bought-in since they’d be rocking it every week!”
Finally, as a massive tennis fan, I had to ask Matt about the jersey reveal. “We are so excited to have Naomi become part of our club as an owner and the stars just kind of aligned for her to wear the shirt at The Australian Open, so naturally we decided to build our reveal around that. It’s always a little nerve-wracking to have the shirt go live and see if people like it or not, and I was so pleased that the designs really resonated with the fans, and we saw a lot of energy around the unveil.”
The jersey reveal seems to embody the potential for the full reach of the club. The design grounds it in community, celebrating North Carolina and the Courage’s role in representing all of its fans. While Naomi Osaka’s new presence in the club, based in a mutual winning mentality and the importance of outreach and support, promises the Courage’s extended presence on the global stage.