The NWSL was the first American professional sports league to return to play, and chose to do so without fans in the stands. So supporters groups — whose members typically spend game days tailgating, cheering, beating drums, waving flags, and generally hyping up their teams and other fans — needed to adapt their traditions to something completely new: a tournament that they can’t attend.
The Spirit Squadron is the supporters group of the Washington Spirit, with members throughout the DC, Maryland, and Virginia region. These members have found new ways to stay involved with the sport during the pandemic. Angie Kanellopulos is Squadron’s president and helped to coordinate sending a handmade banner for the Spirit to have while they play the Challenge Cup in Utah.
Like most other NWSL supporters groups, the Squadron is part of the Independent Supporters Council. Members of the ISC emailed back and forth with the NWSL in order to get guidelines about ways that they would be able to participate in the tournament. That’s how Angie Kanellopulos, the Squadron’s president, learned that the league would allow groups to send banners.
After that, she was left with the matter of reaching out to the Washington Spirit’s front office to coordinate the details.
“[The Spirit] actually reached out to me right as I was reaching out to them about things we might be interested in doing, so it was kind of a mutual thing” Kanellopulos said. “We talked together about what we’d like to do and how they could facilitate that.”
Individual teams chose to display banners at locker rooms or hotels, instead of the stands where they would normally be displayed in by supporters groups standing in designated sections.
For members of the Squadron, being able to send a banner was an opportunity to send a message of solidarity to the team in a difficult time, while also emphasizing the group’s values.
“One person had the idea, and then three or four of us worked together to really nail down the exact language we wanted to use,” Kanellopulos said.
When it came time to decorate, things were also different from normal: instead of getting a large group together to paint, only two members worked on it in order to follow social distancing protocol.
Among the other groups that have sent banners is Cloud 9, the supporters group of Sky Blue FC. Their banner focuses on their dedication to their team despite the distance.
Other teams shipped along their usual game banners to Utah with their teams. This one was sent by The Uproar, a group supporting the North Carolina Courage.
The groups’ efforts haven’t stopped with the banners, because each one has its own additional traditions that needed to be adapted to work remotely. For the Squadron, that includes an honor that they typically bestow on players in person.
“We have a tradition where we choose a ‘Player of the Match’ at the end of each game, and the team is working with us so we can still do that,” Kanellopulos said. “This time, we’re sending them our little trophy that gets handed to the player after the game, and coordinating a fan vote.”
Groups have also started to host video chat watch parties during matches. For the Squadron, these events also include virtual tailgates co-hosted with the team itself.
But adapting old traditions isn’t the only thing that these groups have focused their attention on. Some of these fans also wanted to use the Challenge Cup as an opportunity to make a difference. In order to meet those goals, eleven supporters groups have come together and created an initiative titled Activating Communities Through Support (ACTS).
Throughout the tournament, supporters groups will be honoring this initiative by donating money to the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake. Fans pledge a specific amount of money to donate to the organization each time their team scores a goal.
On their fundraising website, these groups write that they are using their platforms in this way in order to give back to the local community in Utah, because the NWSL teams participating in the tournament will be playing on traditional Indigenous lands.
The pandemic also shaped the initiative’s direction. In a press release, Maggie Dziubek of Chicago Local 134 (a Chicago Red Stars supporters group) writes that “public health concerns, including the COVID-19 pandemic, often have an outsized impact on Native American communities.”
The initiative raised more than $5000 during the tournament’s first week of play, and will continue throughout the Challenge Cup. So although the tournament isn’t the same experience that fans have come to love in years past, it’s also driven them to find new ways to support their teams and the communities around them.
“That whole game day experience— it’s hard to imitate that when you’re not actually there,” Kanellopulos said, “But for right now, we’re just focused on doing what we can.”