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How the Orlando Pride turned a curse into a blessing

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The Pride had to withdraw from the NWSL Challenge Cup, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

Twitter block parties. A sage ceremony. Poll rigging.

Ahead of the NWSL Challenge Cup semifinal matches, teams and their fans were doing everything they could to avoid the dreaded #PrideStan curse. In doing so, they were talking more about the Orlando Pride — a club that wasn’t even in the tournament — than they were about their own team.

Just five days before the Challenge Cup was set to kick off, the Pride withdrew from the tournament after players and staff tested positive for COVID-19. It was a rollercoaster of emotions for the players and Pride staff who had worked so hard to prepare for their trip to Utah.

“It was of course disappointing that we wouldn’t be playing, especially because I’ve seen all the work that’s been put in, both in the preseason and the offseason, and I really had high hopes for the team. But the health and safety of the players and the staff were our biggest concerns,” said Jackie Maynard, director of communications for Orlando.

For Maynard and the entire Pride communications team, it was back to the drawing board in a year that had already forced them into a number of strategic shifts. At the start of 2020, they set their vision for Orlando’s 2020 content and were excited to launch the season. Then, a few days into preseason, the league was put on hold as the severity of the coronavirus pandemic snapped into focus in the U.S. The communications team quickly adjusted to capture content virtually.

With the team now out of the tournament completely, however, Pride staff had a new decision to make. Duda Pavao, the team’s digital video host, was the first to suggest Orlando should continue to promote the tournament. That kicked off the brainstorm. Maynard was partially joking when she said the team should “go full stan,” but Ed Cahill, the club’s senior director of content, loved the concept.

#PrideStan was born.

From all levels of the Pride organization, people were encouraged to get creative and see what was possible. They might not be in the tournament, but the Pride still wanted to be the best team on social media. From memes to polls to video updates, it’s been hard to miss the #PrideStan content.

Maynard was quick to credit all her colleagues in embracing #PrideStan to its fullest. She laughs when I bring up the Pride Stan Curse — the teams Orlando chose to stan haven’t fared well — but Maynard loves how Orlando’s content took a life of its own organically. She gladly welcomed the mainstream media personalities who were talking about it, and Racing Lousiville even reached out about carrying the #PrideStan concept into their club’s brand launch.

“We were given the opportunity to do something outside of the box and unconventional — and fortunately, it worked. We got the engagement that we expected from women’s soccer fans, because they are so tuned in on social, and engagement rate in women’s soccer social media is crazy,” Maynard shared with All for XI.

The data backs up Maynard’s statement. A report from digital analytics company Zoomph notes that the Pride had the most engagement of any team on Twitter and the second-highest engagement on Instagram and Facebook.

Data provided by the Pride further confirms their success. Orlando experienced a 153% increase in social media impressions and a 114% increase in profile visits over the previous 28-day period. In fact, the club managed to get 4.4 million more impressions than during last year’s World Cup, a tournament that featured nine Pride stars. To Maynard, these numbers should be a reminder to brands not to sleep on women’s soccer and its passionate fanbase.

“Partners and sponsors and businesses need to stop sleeping on women’s soccer. There’s an opportunity for people to jump on board and expand their reach and connect with some people and markets that they aren’t traditionally tapped into, because the passion and the attachment is really there from women’s soccer fans,” Maynard said.

In a press conference before the NWSL Challenge Cup final, new league commissioner Lisa Baird echoed Maynard’s comments. Commenting on the league’s engaged fanbase, Baird pointed to the fact that the NWSL, unlike more established leagues, was formed during a time when everyone was active online.

“We grew up with social media. We were born on social and digital media, so I love the fact that our fans — and you see this by their avidness, engagement and their influence — are active online. I think that that bodes really well for us as a league, even though we’re really young.”

Whatever fans did ahead of the semifinals to break the curse seems to have worked. Both teams who won the #PrideStan poll won their matches, defying all odds. As the Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars head into their NWSL Challenge Cup final match, fans will once again be turning their attention to the Pride.

Maynard hopes that, first and foremost, everyone enjoys the conclusion of an entertaining tournament. But her goal in the long term is to help the Pride retain this attention and excitement for the next time the club steps onto the field.

“Ultimately, we try to have fun. Our players are a lot of fun. I hope that after this, it translates into people paying attention to the Pride when the time comes for us to get back on the field. The players deserve that as well.”