Is North Carolina Soccer Ready for Prime Time? | News Feature | Indy Week
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Is North Carolina Soccer Ready for Prime Time? 

Fans at a Carolina RailHawks game

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Fans at a Carolina RailHawks game

If Steve Malik gets his way, the Triangle will leap into the first tier of American soccer by the end of 2018.

Last Tuesday, the Carolina RailHawks owner got his push started with a huge coming-out party. At an event at City Market in downtown Raleigh, Malik announced that the club is rebranding itself with a new name—North Carolina FC—a new logo, and big plans. Plans to secure a franchise in the National Women's Soccer League within six months, plans to build a twenty-four-thousand-seat stadium, and the crown jewel: an "aggressive public campaign to pursue a Major League Soccer franchise," and to get it within the next twelve to eighteen months.

So far, city and county officials are hesitant to throw their full support behind a plan that's big on ambition but, at least publicly, short on particulars.

"I would like to see another major league team in Wake County," says Wake County commissioner John Burns. "I appreciate the ambition of North Carolina FC and the ownership, but the devil is in the details, and I will wait to see those when they come out."

Malik's goals are lofty, but par for the course for the native Welshman who grew up in Kinston and made a mint on Medfusion, a medical software company. Malik made his objectives clear when he bought the team a year ago.

"I said we wanted to play at the highest level," he says. "I think with most things, it's not how fast you start, but how fast you get there."

Malik bought the team from Traffic Sports, whose owners were swept up in the FIFA global corruption scandal that saw former team and North American Soccer League president Aaron Davidson plead guilty to bribery.

In Malik's first season, the RailHawks started to turn things around. The team broke its attendance record twice this season, and attendance was up 25 percent year over year.

Team president Curt Johnson, who played soccer at N.C. State and was later the general manager of MLS's Sporting KC in Kansas City, says that conversations about a jump to MLS and the NWSL—NCFC does not currently have a women's team, though in September it trademarked the name NC Courage, a callback to a women's team that used to play in Cary—started "in earnest" when Malik purchased the team. Since then, the club has been in talks with both leagues, "about a dozen" officials from Triangle municipalities, and countless local business leaders about the move, Johnson says.

Part of the accelerated timeline is due to the fact that time is running out for MLS. League commissioner Don Garber has said that he wants to cap the league at twenty-eight teams; currently there are twenty, and four more—in Atlanta, Minnesota, Miami, and a second team in Los Angeles—are set to join by 2018. That leaves four spots, with stiff competition from San Antonio and Cincinnati. By announcing its intention to join MLS, NCFC got a jump on other markets.

Malik said at the announcement last week that a feasibility study showed "a perfect set of demographics" in the Triangle to make an MLS franchise happen.

"One of the things that was very successful for the [Carolina] Panthers in their NFL expansion bid," Malik said, "was to draw a circle two and a half hours around the market. When you do that for us, we have six-point-five million people, and we're one of the top six or seven markets in the country."

Beyond that announcement, however, details are sparse. An NWSL spokesman says it is "premature to discuss specifics." An MLS statement released to the press said the league might release more information about its expansion process after a board meeting on Thursday. "We recently met with [Malik]," the statement read, "and he discussed his exciting vision for growing soccer in the area, including his ambition for an MLS expansion team. We look forward to learning more about his plans as they develop."

Last week, Malik said he and his investors are prepared to privately finance both the $150 million stadium and the MLS franchising fee, which could reach up to $200 million, but that the team would look for a public investment in infrastructure and parking.

Malik and Johnson say the team is looking all over the Triangle for a potential location—not just in Cary, where it currently plays. Sources peg North Hills and downtown Raleigh, possibly on South Wilmington Street, as potential locations.

"MLS is a big advocate of an urban setting—that's where the biggest success stories have been," Johnson says. "I don't think you're ruled out if you don't have that, but it's certainly something that will help position our bid in the best possible way."

Gerry Cohen, a longtime legislative aide, says that the public contribution to the project would have to come from the municipality that hosts the new stadium, but the county could allocate money from hotel- and food-and-beverage-tax revenues—though there's a "long list of requests."

Local officials say they've had no formal conversations with NCFC; officials from Cary, including Wake County commissioner Jessica Holmes and Cary mayor Harold Weinbrecht, say they'd like to see the team stay put—Weinbrecht says there could be room for a new stadium as part of the town's Eastern Greenway project—while the Raleigh-based Burns and Raleigh city council member Mary-Ann Baldwin wanted to see more details before commenting further.

Still, NCFC says it has the support of the business and political communities.

"I've been in communication with business leaders in the Triangle for twenty-plus years, since 1995, which is when I first raised the subject," Johnson says. "This isn't something that has been thrown together haphazardly. It would have been ahead of its time twenty-plus years ago, but now the fact is that so many of the leaders in the Triangle are advocates for this. That's why the time is right."

This article appears in print with the headline "The Big Pitch."

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