Steve Malik is nothing if not blunt.
Take, for example, his answer to a question about whether he’s thinking of moving his newly acquired soccer franchise, the Carolina RailHawks, out of WakeMed Soccer Park, the Cary stadium the team has called home since its inception, maybe to downtown Raleigh or somewhere else in the Triangle. Most sports team owners would be evasive, so as not to offend their hometown. Malik is not.
“Yes,” he says.
Such a move is probably inevitable, he adds, given soccer’s rising popularity and Raleigh’s desire to erect a stadium in its urban core. “I expect Raleigh to have a twenty-five-thousand-seat stadium, expandable to fit forty thousand people,” he says. “I’m telling you, it’s going to happen.”
His enthusiasm is palpable. So is his ambition. Malik’s goal is to bring the RailHawks to the “top tier” of professional soccer. Whether that means as a contender for the second-tier North American Soccer League championship or as a Major League Soccer franchise remains to be seen. Given the RailHawks’ history, either would be a momentous achievement.
Throughout their ten-year existence, the RailHawks have been plagued by broken promises, scandal, mismanagement, and shady dealings, from one owner who auctioned off team assets on eBay to another who was indicted last year as part of the notorious FIFA scandal. And while Malik, a millionaire who bought the team in October, has pumped much-needed money into the team and its facility, it’s unclear whether that will boost the RailHawks’ lackluster average attendance, which hasn’t exceeded five thousand since 2007.
In other words, there’s a massive chasm between where the RailHawks are now and where they’d like to end up.
And yet, Malik professes optimism.
“We’re spending millions and millions of dollars ahead of the curve,” he says. “I’m doing it because, over a period of time, I’ll recoup that.”
The question is, however, whether that optimism is tethered to reality—and whether Steve Malik, through deep pockets and sheer force of will, can make the RailHawks a premier Triangle institution.
A quick recap of the team’s tumultuous history is in order.
In 2006, Chris Economides, a former executive with the Rochester Rhinos, a United Soccer League team, founded the franchise. Like the Rhinos, the RailHawks competed in the USL. They got off to an inauspicious start in 2007, posting losing records the first two seasons. Two years later, Economides sold the franchise to a minority investor, Selby Wellman. Two years after that, Wellman joined eight other USL clubs in a migration to the new North American Soccer League. In the meantime, average attendance plummeted, down to just 2,241 in 2010. Wellman began looking for investors to prop up his floundering enterprise. The team’s coffers were drained. By the end, even the free stuff the team promised guests on promotional nights was gone, leaving embarrassed staffers to explain that they had nothing to give away.
That December, to protect himself from creditors, Wellman stepped down and liquidated the team’s assets on eBay and Craigslist. Afterward, just four RailHawks staffers remained.
Then, soccer management company Traffic Sports USA and its president, Miami lawyer and NASL CEO Aaron Davidson, bought what was left of the RailHawks for $14,999, making the team one of three NASL clubs in which Davidson had a controlling interest.
“They propped us up,” says Jarrett Campbell, founder of Triangle Soccer Fanatics, one of the two RailHawks supporters’ groups. “At the time, we were really thankful for Traffic Sports saving the franchise, because we were staring at the possibility of not having a team the following year.”
He’s not exaggerating: this sort of ownership drama has killed several American soccer teams, including the MLS’s Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny and more recently the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks and San Antonio Scorpions.
But under Traffic Sports, things improved. Attendance crept up, even though the franchise had a skeleton front office and team salaries were so low that players left for law school and unpaid marketing internships. And despite Davidson’s relatively meager investment in the team, Carolina outperformed expectations, even besting the MLS juggernaut Los Angeles Galaxy three years in a row at the U.S. Open Cup.
Then came May 27, 2015.
Davidson and Traffic Sports, along with more than a dozen international soccer powerhouses, were indicted in federal court on charges of racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, as part of the FIFA corruption scandal. Davidson’s arrest sent shockwaves through American soccer—and the NASL.
Campbell started a campaign to force Davidson out, arguing that, even before the scandal broke, the ownership had shirked its duty to the team and fans; his efforts garnered the attention of The New York Times.
“Our frustration with Traffic as an owner was pretty high before this happened,” Campbell says. “They kept promising they were going to invest in the team, but the reality is, the team really hadn’t grown.”
Before the FIFA scandal, reports circulated that Traffic was looking to sell. Afterward, that became inevitable.
Although Campbell says the situation was less dire than at the end of Wellman’s tenure, the RailHawks were still facing an ownerless purgatory.
“Being league-owned was by no means our desire,” he says. “What we were staring at was somebody keeping the doors open and the lights on and probably not having a very competitive team. It wasn’t that I thought there wouldn’t be a team here, but I was concerned about the long-term health of the team if no one stepped up.”
But someone did step up.
On October 30, the same day the RailHawks defeated the Indy Eleven to wrap up an otherwise middling season, the team announced Steve Malik, a fifty-one-year-old medical-technology entrepreneur, as its new owner.
“I’m going to have to spend a considerable amount of money. And I’m willing to do that,” Malik said when he was introduced. “I want to win. We are going to win. … I’m not doing it to make money. I’m doing it because I love soccer. I want to see Raleigh reach its full potential.”
“I‘ve always wanted to own a pro team,” Malik says. “But if you asked me when I was a kid, it wouldn’t have been a soccer team. It would have been a baseball team.”
Don’t get him wrong: Malik—a Kinston-raised UNC graduate who founded the Cary-based medical technology company Medfusion in 2000—loved the game enough in 1978 to start his high school’s soccer team. Baseball may have been his first love, but the RailHawks mark his first foray into the world of pro sports. The team’s supporters embraced him—owing in part, he acknowledges, to the manner in which Traffic Sports exited.
“It was a low point for the soccer business and [cast] a shadow on our local team,” he says. “It was easy to go up from there.”
But that’s not the only reason Malik has engendered goodwill. As soon as he took over, he did something Traffic never did: invest. He moved the team’s front office out of a small, cramped environment at WakeMed into the Medfusion offices in Cary and fully staffed the club for the first time in years. This season, which began on Saturday with a 2–1 victory over Minnesota United FC, the players will wear a new custom jersey and—more important—have group health insurance for the first time.
At WakeMed, the team has added amenities for families (the Duck Donuts Family Zone) and millennials (a beer garden). It’s also inked a multiyear broadcast deal with Capital Broadcasting Company; all RailHawks games will be televised on either WRAL and Fox 50 and stream online via WRAL’s website.
“We have listened to what millennials want, what families want, what international fans want,” says team president and general manager Curt Johnson. “We’ve addressed some of it over the past five years, but now we actually have the resources to address it.”
Johnson, who played on the ACC champion N.C. State team in 1990 and later was the general manager of MLS’s Kansas City franchise, has been with the club since 2011. Malik, he says, has brought new energy to a previously moribund organization.
“Budgets have been small, staffing has been small, and that’s why we’re so excited about Steve,” says Johnson. “He’s a breath of fresh air from an ownership standpoint, and his desire and willingness to spend more in key budget areas will help us over time to grow.”
Malik kept the team’s leadership largely intact, retaining both Johnson and Colin Clarke, a former MLS coach who has managed the team since 2011. In Malik’s view, Johnson and Clarke performed well despite resource constraints, finishing in the top half of the league every season except one. He also pumped money into the team’s roster; although NASL teams keep contracts under wraps, a WRAL report last week said that the RailHawks “dramatically increased” the player budget, though it remains in the bottom half of the league.
Even with Malik’s investments, the RailHawks still have a way to go to keep up with their competitors, especially the New York Cosmos, the reigning NASL champions, who’ve made a habit out of luring top names like Spanish striker Raúl and Croatian midfielder Niko Kranjar. Not coincidentally, the Cosmos attract big crowds, even on the road: a RailHawks-Cosmos match drew 7,217 people, WakeMed’s highest attendance last year.
Still, it’s a start—and, considering how low the team has been in the past, a welcome change.
The Malik era began on a warm Saturday in late March, when Carolina kicked off the unofficial start of its 2016 season with an exhibition against Deportivo Toluca, a famed Mexican club that will celebrate its one-hundredth season next year. The packed crowd was split between Toluca’s green and the RailHawks’ orange. When RailHawks forward Brian Shriver made a screaming run down the left side of the field, the Carolina side roared. When Toluca’s Carlos Esquivel made a saving tackle, the green side roared louder.
Toluca won 3–0, but that didn’t really matter. What mattered was that the RailHawks broke their attendance record, drawing over nine thousand people.
Malik knows the RailHawks won’t always play international powerhouses—or even NASL teams with legitimate star power, like the Cosmos had in Raúl. Most RailHawks games will be played against teams with talent unknown to everyone but diehards. Putting butts in seats will be more difficult.
But ignore that and assume they’re successful, that better players and better exposure and more stadium amenities attract the kinds of crowds that make the soccer world take notice. What comes after that?
“Steve’s long-term vision is for us to play at the highest level,” Johnson says.
Does that mean MLS?
“Well, that means different things to different people,” he says. “But ultimately, there’s no reason that in North Carolina, and specifically the Triangle, that we can’t be a top-ten marketplace for soccer. We have a history of being a top-ten marketplace, but a lot of marketplaces have passed us by. They’ve been better funded, they’ve built better facilities, and they have larger average attendance as a result.”
To some degree, this MLS question is premature. After all, this is a club that twice over the past five years came perilously close to shutting down. But it nonetheless seems a logical outgrowth of Malik’s ambition. The NASL is the minor leagues; perhaps a jump to the bigs is where the RailHawks’ “full potential” can be found.
There’s a precedent for NASL or USL teams making that leap. Orlando City Soccer recently did so from the USL, and the team that the RailHawks opened their season against, Minnesota United FC, will follow suit next year.
In fact, several teams that the RailHawks started out with in the USL—the Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers, and Montreal Impact—are now established MLS franchises.
Malik knows they’ve got geography in their corner. There’s a six-hundred-mile gap in the Southeast between Washington, D.C., which has an established MLS franchise, and Atlanta, where an MLS team begins play next season. North Carolina—either the Triangle or Charlotte—would be an obvious choice for an expansion team.
And it’s no secret that the MLS wants to expand. MLS vice president Dan Courtemanche says the ultimate goal is to grow to twenty-eight clubs; right now there are twenty, with expansions coming in Atlanta, Miami, Minnesota, and Los Angeles.
Courtemanche says MLS expansion depends on four factors: local ownership with strong financial backing, an owner-controlled stadium, the strength of the local market and geographic location, and a history of support for sports in the area. The RailHawks have at least two of those, with a fast-growing market rabid for college basketball. (In fact, as Malik points out, a recent soccer-market study ranked the Triangle as more attractive than several cities that have MLS teams, including Philadelphia, Boston, and Orlando.)
At a RailHawks luncheon commemorating the team’s tenth anniversary on March 23, however, Malik was uncharacteristically cagey when asked about his aspirations to join MLS. Instead, he waxed lyrical about the positive response he’s received since assuming ownership.
“There’s a lot of things that could happen, that’s all musing,” he later told the INDY. “We’re in the NASL. We have a great league. I like the model. … So if NASL can reach its potential, NASL is a very viable path to top tier.”
Still, it’s difficult to see how the NASL gets there. Popularity chases talent, and talent chases money. For the foreseeable future, MLS will have a lot more of both talent and money.
Though the NASL doesn’t disclose its players’ salaries, MLS’s league minimum is $60,000 a year, well above what most NASL players make. (The Tampa Bay Rowdies recently signed a top forward to a reported two-year deal worth $150,000, which indicates that even the best NASL players don’t make much more than MLS’s benchwarmers.)
MLS interest would also help Malik make the case for a new stadium. It’s not hard to understand why he wants one. There’s not enough seating or parking at WakeMed, which was built for the WUSA’s Carolina Courage before the women’s soccer league folded in 2003. And WakeMed is currently nowhere near MLS standards. The league requires franchises to have facilities with a capacity of between eighteen thousand and twenty-five thousand seats, more than double WakeMed’s space.
Then again, a stadium that size doesn’t make sense if you’re only drawing forty-five hundred people a game.
Malik thinks his team will get there, sooner rather than later. He points to the increased marketing and operations budget, as well as his focus on local youth academies for young players, which he hopes will improve the RailHawks brand.
“I think that when all of those other things turn, we’re an undeniable top-tier market,” Malik says. “At the rate we’re growing, anyone who has a TV contract is going to want exposure to our market, and we’re going to be the team. … When you talk about soccer in Raleigh, you’re going to be talking to me. So, whatever happens with our market, we’re going to be the club.”
A Home for the Beautiful Game in Durham
David Fellerath and Kosta Harlan started Durham Atletico in January 2015 with a simple question: How can we play soccer in the winter?
Fifteen months later, the Durham Atletico adult futsal league is set to kick off its fourth season and also recently started its first kids’ camp. In that time, it has grown exponentially, from 6 teams with 50 players in that first year, to 16 teams and 160 players now, as well as sponsorships from the RailHawks, J.D. Service Now, Cocoa Cinnamon, and more.
The league was so popular last season that they split it into two divisions.
Futsal, which translates from Spanish as “indoor soccer,” is meant for small, tight spaces, with five players on each team and a ball that’s smaller and denser than a regulation soccer ball. Invented in Urugay in 1930, the game is hugely popular in the urban centers of South America, southern Europe, and Asia, where fields are in short supply. Fellerath—a former arts and culture editor at the INDY—says that Durham has a similar problem.
“We were both interested in public access to facilities and programs,” Fellerath says. “Around the world, soccer is known as the people’s game, something that elites tend to look down on. In the United States, it was pitched as a suburban children’s game, so adequate spaces for people of lower incomes who live in urban environments is hard to come by.”
Progress has been made in Durham, Fellerath says, but there’s still a lack of good public fields downtown apart from Old North Durham Park on Geer Street.
To make the league more diverse, Fellerath went to churches and organizations in Latino areas to advertise. It worked; last season featured players from two dozen countries and six continents, including two former Duke All-Americans who play on professional teams in Iceland and Boston. (Fellerath says that beginners are welcome, too.)
Durham Atletico has room to grow, as well. The W.D. Hill Recreation Center is looking at converting an unused roller rink space into a proper futsal area, and, along with Durham Atletico, it’s seeking a public grant to do just that.
“We have aspirations to become a more inclusive community club with cheap children’s programming,” Fellerath says. “We’re just trying to create a home for soccer in Durham.”
For more information on the league and kids camp, visit durhamatletico.com.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Game On”