View from atop the new upper deck at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC (click photos to enlarge)
  • Neil Morris
  • View from atop the new upper deck at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC (click photos to enlarge)

‘Twas the Thursday before Christmas, when all through WakeMed Soccer Park executives for the Carolina RailHawks were stirring about, some getting their first look inside portions of the three-level addition to the east side of the main stadium, officially designated “Building C.” With the Town of Cary recently completing official inspections of the east tower, team President Curt Johnson, Senior Vice President Pete Sciandra and Aaron Davidson, CEO of the North American Soccer League and Vice President of Traffic Sports USA, the majority stakeholder in the RailHawks, were taking a tour through the new facilities. It’s the final step in a two-part, $6.3 million expansion that launched in November 2011. Part one, the addition of bleachers to the north end zone, was completed in time for last May’s U.S. Open Cup match against the L.A. Galaxy.

Completed construction at WakeMed Soccer Park
  • Neil Morris
  • Completed construction at WakeMed Soccer Park (click photo to expand)

Sitting atop the newly minted upper deck, the sylvan vista makes one forget that, as the crow flies, Raleigh-Durham Int. Airport is only six miles away, Cary Towne Center Mall is less than a mile to the south, and I-40 is a scant 1,500 ft. due east. Averting my gaze for a moment, I asked David Vaught, the RailHawks’ director of operations, whether the club would be able to sell the nearly 3,000 additional tickets created by the entire expansion, which gives WakeMed Park a dedicated seating capacity of nearly 10,000, making it one of the largest soccer-specific stadiums in the United States outside of Major League Soccer.

“We don’t have a choice,” Vaught responded. “We have to sell them.”

Cary’s expansion project was mostly motivated by a desire to regain the NCAA College Cup, once a perennial fixture at the facility. Expansion has already paid off in that regard, as the Women’s College Cup will return to WakeMed Park next December. However, the new construction also affords opportunities for the RailHawks, the park’s professional soccer tenant.

From obstructed concourses to shuttered concession stands, park patrons enduring a myriad of inconveniences last season during construction of Building C. However, the 2013 campaign promises to include a number of amenities for RailHawks’ supporters.

Third-level concession stand at WakeMed Soccer Park
  • Neil Morris
  • Third-level concession stand at WakeMed Soccer Park

Starting at the literal top, the third level of the elevator-accessible edifice boasts nearly 1,500 seats, including an unobstructed front row that provides arguably the best vantage point in the stadium and is being offered as premium Terrace Tickets. Of the five sections in the upper deck, the middle three have already been pre-sold for the season as part of a cooperative arrangement with the Capital Area Soccer League (CASL). Seating in the remaining two sections is available to the general public. A new concession stand is located along the third-level concourse, although its use will depend on how many upper deck tickets are sold for a particular game.

View inside and outside new east tower suite space at WakeMed Soccer Park
  • Neil Morris
  • View inside and outside new east tower suite space at WakeMed Soccer Park

The second level features the most intriguing additions. Elevated above the old concourse used to access the field-level grandstands, the centerpiece of this section is a large multipurpose room that can be partitioned into four individual suites, each outfitted with closed-circuit televisions and access to outdoor seating. The RailHawks plan to configure three suites for most games, including a new president’s suite and a larger space for corporate and sponsorship groups. The original hospitality suites above the west grandstands have been repurposed for 60 upper-tier “Suite Season Tickets” that are already sold out for the 2013 season.

Area for proposed open-air party deck at WakeMed Soccer Park
  • Neil Morris
  • Area for proposed open-air party deck at WakeMed Soccer Park

At both ends of the suite space are two covered, outdoor areas the RailHawks intend to convert into open-air party decks complete with a bar, seating, stereo system and televisions broadcasting the game. While details of the party decks, including food and drinks sponsors, are still being sorted out, the club hopes to make the one located at the north end of the tower available to official supporters, season ticket holders and others who purchase access through a membership system that must be established in order to comply with the vagaries of liquor license regulations. Johnson hopes this party area will open a couple of hours prior to kickoff and remain accessible after matches as a place for supporters to congregate and socialize with fellow fans and even players.

The existing concession stand along the old concourse, which was closed last season due to construction, will be open every game this season to serve patrons seated in the east grandstands.

New team facilities at WakeMed Soccer Park, including central corridor, home locker room and field access
  • Neil Morris
  • New team facilities at WakeMed Soccer Park, including central corridor, home locker room and field access

The ground level contains new team facilities, including locker rooms, coach’s office, referee space and a small media room. Both the RailHawks and visiting clubs will use these new locker rooms, which are located along a center corridor that’s directly accessible from a secure parking area located behind Building C and leads straight onto the pitch.

Johnson says other changes around the stadium are still in the works. The club may rent the five sections comprising the south end zone grandstands as space for banner signage that can be removed for games requiring the additional seating, like last season’s matches against the Galaxy and Chivas USA. Meanwhile, the new north end zone stands will be available for every game and remain $10 general admission seats. In addition, a redesign of the RailHawks’ home and visiting kits is also under consideration.

Beyond a survey of WakeMed Soccer Park’s expanded facilities, Davidson was in town principally to meet with potential merchandisers and, more significantly, several prospective local investment partners. Traffic USA has owned the RailHawks since former owner Selby Wellman dissolved the club at the end of 2010, a season in which the club’s average home regular season attendance was just 2,210. Since Traffic purchased the club and Johnson came on board, the average attendance for regular season games has increased to 3,353 in 2011 and 3,883 in 2012. When all competitions are considered, including U.S. Open Cup matches, last year’s average attendance increases to 4,161.

While Davidson says the RailHawks’ financial fortunes have steadily improved over the past 24 months, the club needs local owners, including minority stakeholders.

“[Traffic has] shown the last couple of years the level of our commitment to the team and the league,” Davidson says. “And I think now everyone’s a lot more comfortable with the direction the team is headed in terms of losses going down and the league adding the [New York] Cosmos. The story is a lot clearer than it was a couple of years ago. So, we need more ambassadors, we need more people locally to join us in our outreach … It’s a little hard to be an absentee owner.”

In addition to the RailHawks, Traffic has largely bankrolled both the NASL and several member clubs over the past couple of years. One, the Minnesota Stars, was recently purchased by former UnitedHealthCare CEO Bill McGuire. However, Traffic still retains large stakes in the RailHawks, the Atlanta Silverbacks and their base club, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

It’s widely presumed that Traffic is seeking to divest its holdings in every team except Fort Lauderdale. However, when asked whether Traffic wants to sell its entire ownership stake in the RailHawks, Davidson’s answer is a bit surprising.

“I think in a lot of ways, among the three [Traffic-owned] teams, Carolina is the best performing team,” he says. “I think it has a lot of upside. We’ve shown that with a strong management group, continuity and a strong ownership group … that you can take the team in the right direction. I don’t just want to take credit ourselves. The Town of Cary has stepped up on the facility; that’s a huge vote of confidence for the community as well as for the team and ownership.

“Right now, the RailHawks by a significant margin looks like the best investment for us of the three teams,” Davidson continues. “Now we need local ownership … We need people vested in this community above and beyond season ticket holders and management. We need people in this community to take an active ownership stake, whether it’s minority or more. I think we’re doing a good job in Atlanta, we’re doing a good job in Fort Lauderdale, but I think in Carolina we’re doing a great job.”

The east stand tower at WakeMed Soccer Park