With just weeks to go until the 2023 National Women’s Soccer League season begins, one team is looking to dance all over the competition.
A founding member of the NWSL, the Chicago Red Stars have been part of the league since 2013. But the team has undergone several tumultuous years, finding themselves at the center of two separate investigations of widespread abuse in the league, resulting in a coach getting banned for life and a majority owner pledging to sell the team.
Heading into this year’s season, Red Stars players and staff saw a unique opportunity to reposition the club’s brand and center it in the heart of Chicago sports.
The NWSL is notorious for releasing its schedule only weeks before the beginning of the season, kicking off March 25 this year. The Red Stars stole the show Feb. 8 with a viral video featuring club players recreating Jenna Ortega’s iconic dance from Netflix’s Wednesday—with a soccer twist to boot.
“From a brand perspective, our number one goal is building brand trust,” Rachel Parrish, the Red Stars’ director of marketing and communications, told Adweek. “With brand trust comes engagement, comes support, and with this, it was a really fun way to show that we are working in a new environment and working towards a new kind of purpose.”
According to the Red Stars, the social media announcement pulled in nearly 650,000 Twitter impressions, over 84,000 Instagram impressions and nearly 230 million earned media impressions after a round of local media coverage followed by a national pickup from Bleacher Report and Yahoo News.
For a brand that only has just over 42,000 followers on Twitter, that’s impactful ROI.
In addition to a brilliantly-executed idea from the Red Stars, the numbers show the power of Wednesday, which is still paying dividends for the streaming giant. In the fourth quarter, the show became Netflix’s third most-watched series of all time, surpassing one billion hours viewed.
“You’ve seen just incredible cultural impact in terms of Wednesday [and] Stranger Things,” Greg Peters, now co-CEO of Netflix, said during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call last month. “The ramifications that these shows have in terms of the popular culture are significant, and that’s going to get bigger, too.”
Red Stars defender Arin Wright, a self-professed Wednesday Addams fan and a member of the Red Stars squad since 2015, came up with the entire concept for the club’s viral video.
After dressing as the character for Halloween, Wright was delighted to discover the immensely popular Netflix series would debut just a few days later.
“I was beyond obsessed, and it was just insane how much publicity the show was getting,” Wright said. “And then it became a TikTok trend, and I was like, ‘Holy shit.’”
Wright immediately texted Parrish and began recruiting players to make her vision come to life. But in the past, players didn’t necessarily feel comfortable approaching the front office with ideas on how to best display the Chicago team.
“I think we’d be remiss not to address the elephant in the room in that I don’t think this was an environment that was set up before and created. That’s what actually makes this so much more special,” Parrish said. “It was truly supportive of reflective in how we intend to move on in this new era of the Red Stars.”
“We were like a separate entity,” added Wright, referring to the club’s front office. “There was no relationship there.”
After practicing for six weeks, eight players, including national team stars Tierna Davidson and Alyssa Naeher, spent four hours shooting the spot, which comes in at just over a minute. In addition, Dakota Sillyman, senior videographer and content producer; Gretchen Schneider, manager of photography; and social media manager Tyra Hunt were integral to the project, according to Wright.
“We have a new approach to how we want to create content and how things are going to come about, and this was a collaboration between the players having a really amazing idea and the front office being willing and able to do it,” Parrish said. “We do have to address that this is a change of the tides, and that it wasn’t necessarily this way before.”
The organization thought it would have a month from filming until the scheduled release to turn it around, but the league moved up the announcement by two weeks, giving the Red Stars 48 hours. The drop came, fittingly, on a Wednesday.
“I don’t want to say our hands are wiped clean, and everything is perfect because, as an organization, we’re going to continue to build that brand trust, and it’s going to be in a way that’s authentic to our voice and authentic to our team,” said Parrish. “This drove brand awareness and impressions and growth significantly for us.”
The team plays at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., and averaged 5,863 attendees in 2022—eighth in the league of 14 teams. But the organization said it saw an immediate impact from the viral video, including an increase in ticket sales.
“As we continue to build that brand trust and deepen our engagement with our audiences, that’s really what we aim to see,” Parrish said. “Growing a fan base here, because just as fun as that Wednesday Addams video was, our players are even better athletes on the field. I’ve been very adamant in my marketing direction that we are going to lead with the fact that we are badass athletes, and everything else will come.”
With the league preparing to enter its eleventh season, teams are gearing up for the biggest yet.
In the past several years, the NWSL has seen a host of new sponsors enter the fray and seen an increase in media investment, including Ally Financial teaming up with CBS to put the 2022 championship game in primetime for the first time.
And that paid off. The Oct. 29 match-up between the Portland Thorns and the Kansas City Current averaged 915,000 viewers, the most-watched game in league history and up 71% over 2021.
As the Red Stars march towards March 25, Parrish has a whole host of further marketing efforts planned, beginning with a new kit reveal.
“Take high fashion mixed with Chicago grit, and that will land you into where our lane is going,” she said.
In partnership with a local Chicago fashion designer, expect a high fashion streetwear line designed to “freshen the brand.”
As for Wright, she’s hoping to hear from Jenna Ortega.
“If she needs a jersey, I’ve got one for her,” Wright said.