Although it’s unclear what will happen if the USSF affirms its decision to rescind Division 2 sanctioning at this weekend’s annual general meeting, the RailHawks’ first game of the 2011 season is scheduled for April 9 at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Like many of the ideas within the Carolina RailHawks organization, fan “theme nights” were usually last-minute whims spawned during spitballing sessions held a day or two in advance of home matches.
One recurring go-to gimmick was “Hawaiian Night,” which usually consisted of playing Beach Boys tunes over the loudspeaker and inviting ticket buyers to wear Aloha shirts. But there would usually be no marketing tie-in or giveaways for fans at the gate. No theme décor. Not even a lei.
According to a former Railhawks staffer, in 2009, a woman who frequently brought her grandchild to matches, seeing a sign outside WakeMed Soccer Park advertising the latest Hawaiian Night, approached a RailHawks employee and asked how early she should arrive to make sure her grandchild got the free promo material she presumed would be given out.
Embarrassed and unwilling to keep up the ruse with this regular customer, the staffer sheepishly responded, “Don’t worry about getting here early. We won’t have anything to give out.”
The mantra “overpromised and underdelivered” was a familiar refrain throughout the offices of the RailHawks during their four-year history. On one hand, this still-fledgling lower division professional soccer franchise has clawed its way to tremendous successes on the field. A two-year playoff run was capped this past season by a run at the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) Division-2 Pro League championship. At least three players from last season’s roster have migrated to Major League Soccer. The team boasts some of the best training and playing facilities in the United States, a strong selling point for recruits being courted by the club.
However, precision on the pitch contrasted sharply with endemic dysfunction and mismanagement at WakeMed Soccer Park. The same ambition and hubris that propelled the RailHawks to reach great heights also contributed to their slow decay, culminating recently with the dissolution of the club by its two-year majority owner, Selby Wellman, and the peddling of the team’s brand, logo, Internet domain name and even its mascot on eBay last month.
Left in its wake are an estimated 50 front-office personnel who rotated in and out of the RailHawks organization. Today only four staffers remain as another ownerTraffic Sports USAattempts to nurture the RailHawks back to health in a nascent league that boasts a 2011 playing schedule but still awaits official imprimatur by the USSF.
We spoke to a dozen current and former RailHawk executives, employees and playersmany on the record, some on the condition of confidentialityto dissect the so-called rise and fall of the RailHawks. We approached some; many reached out to us on their own. Virtually all share a similar story of hope, enthusiasm, frustration and regret.
In many ways, the hatching of the RailHawks traces back to the days of the Carolina Courage, the Women’s United Soccer Association franchise that called WakeMed Soccer Park (formerly SAS Soccer Park) in Cary home until the league folded in 2003. Many staffers for the Courage eventually took positions with the RailHawks. More important, the Courage fostered a loyal fan base that continued to pine for professional soccer in the Triangle even after the team disbanded.
Brad Myers worked for the Courage for three years before taking a job with the Town of Cary as a director of SAS Soccer Park. One of the goals of the town was finding another pro tenant for the park. Myers and the town eventually reached out to Chris Economides, then a front-office executive with the Rochester Rhinos of the United Soccer Leagues.
Myers spearheaded an effort to woo Economides into planting a new USL franchise in Cary. In January 2006, Economides and his Rochester-based investment group announced the formation of a new Cary-based USL franchise. Myers was hired as one of the club’s initial employees, a post that eventually turned into vice president of marketing. However, Myers’ primary job was developing the team’s brand and identity in advance of its debut in the spring of 2007.
“It was exciting,” Myers remembers. “I’ve been involved in soccer for about 20 years here, so I had a great knowledge about the market … We were severely undercapitalized during that time. I knew that, and it did worry me some. I knew Chris was going to have to go out and find some additional investors in order to keep the team going past year one. But I was willing to make this [leap of faith] to see if we could make this thing work, because I had very high hopes for it.”
On July 19, 2006, the club announced its new name: Carolina RailHawks FC. Although the team was operating on a shoestring budget, the struggle to foster marketing relationships led to productive media partnerships with Time Warner Cable and Curtis Media Group. During this time, the club adhered to a tangible marketing strategy, what Myers called “a living, breathing document.”
“We certainly made mistakes along the way, but we had a good, solid marketing plan in place as we were heading into year one,” he says.
Over 14 home league matches during their inaugural 2007 season, the RailHawks averaged 5,124 fans per game, ranking fifth out of the 12 clubs in USL Division 1. They brought in another 13,705 fans for midseason friendlies against Chivas USA and Mexican powerhouse Cruz Azul. On the field, the team finished with a sub-.500 record in regular-season play, but it made the league playoffs and advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup, defeating MLS side the Chicago Fire before losing in extra time to the New England Revolution. (Reported attendance figures are an imprecise gauge of success because they don’t reflect the proportions of paid, discounted and free tickets.)
“We generated the most revenue and had the most fans,” says Myers. “But that’s typical of how any sports team is going to be. During the first year of the product, people are going to be excited and want to see what’s it’s about. What’s important then is maintaining longevity.”
Economides of scale
Despite a heady debut season, Economides knew he needed to land local investors to improve the RailHawks’ financial viability. Furthermore, the Rochester investment group was facing lawsuits back in New York related to the construction of the Rhinos’ new stadium. As a result, the group’s ongoing capital investment in the RailHawks began to dry up.
Brian Wellman was already serving as the RailHawks’ assistant general manager under Economides when the issue was broached of whether Selby Wellman, Brian’s father and a former Cisco Systems executive living in Cary might be interested in investing in the club. After months of negotiation, Selby agreed to become majority owner, with Economides and others remaining as minority owners.
Trouble brewed from the start. “Because of our severe undercapitalization, the investment that Selby was making was a little more than he realized when he got into it,” says Myers.
Myers says a power struggle ensued between Economides and Brian about who was really in charge, “which necessitated Selby having to become more involved on a day-to-day basis, something he didn’t want to do. He had to become mediator between those two.”
The RailHawks finished 2008 with their second consecutive losing season in league play and did not make the playoffs. Attendance decreased sharply to an average of 3,869 per game, although the team drew less than 3,000 fans in only three out of 15 home matches. It was at this point that the staff began to hear rumblings about a major front-office upheaval.
The first indication was when Selby Wellman sacked head coach Scott Schweitzer, an N.C. State alumnus who enjoyed a close relationship with Economides dating back to Schweitzer’s seven seasons with the Rochester Rhinos.
“With Scott around, Chris could help pick players for the team as general manager,” says Myers. “When Scott left and a new coach came in, Chris lost a lot of control over who plays on his team. That scared Chris because all he ever knew was being a GM: picking players, signing players, etc. When a new coach comes in who wanted his own players, Chris lost his identity.”
Schweitzer’s departure proved a harbinger of Economides’ eventual exit. Speculation persists over the reasons Economides ultimately sold his ownership stake to Selby Wellman after the 2008 season.
“My personal opinion,” says Myers, “is that when we weren’t hitting our numbers in year two, when the player budgets were growing and the revenue coming in was lower than expected, Chris saw the end in sightfor him and the teamand covered his rear end and needed to do something different or he’d be out of a job.”
Economides, who is now an executive with the USL Pro league, declined to comment for this story.
The choice to let Schweitzer go continues to be debated among the RailHawks faithful. On one hand, his ouster seems perfectly reasonable, even wise. Despite some success, the team largely floundered on the pitch, with two consecutive eighth-place finishes in league competition and a reputation for goonish play, earning the moniker “JailHawks” from opposing supporters. The team’s accomplishments in 2009 and 2010 under the Wellmans’ new coach, Martin Rennie, further validate the decision.
While Myers acknowledges these justifications, his opposing opinion is grounded in other factors.
“Those who agree with Scott’s firing are looking at it from a soccer perspective. I’m not looking at it from a soccer perspective,” he says. “Scott works for a very successful academy [Next Level Academy] in Raleigh that has about 600 families involved. A big portion of our fans on game day was this group of parents and kids that wanted to see Scott and [former assistant coach] Damon Nahas and other local players they knew and could connect with.
“When Scott exited, there wasn’t a directive that said, ‘Don’t go to RailHawks games,’” Myers says. “But people felt a little betrayed by that … In my opinion, if Selby and Scott had been able to work together back then moving into year three, we’d be having a very different conversation right now.”
Once the Wellmans assumed near-total control of the RailHawks, the changes were immediate and dramatic. They brought in new minority investors in former Red Hat CEO Bob Young and Dr. Paul Singh, a physician living in Cary. Besides hiring an entirely new coaching staff, Rennie retained only a handful of players from the 2008 season.
Moreover, the offseason preceding the 2009 campaign saw a chain reaction of front-office departures. David Cieslinski, the club’s VP of sales operations, returned to Rochester a few months after Schweitzer and Economides left. Then Myers stepped down from his post in March 2009.
“I was starting to get some pushback on how I felt our events should be run,” says Myers. “Brian wanted to go back to a soccer-centric product, while I wanted to keep game days as more of an event. You can’t rely on the product on the field to bring fans into the game.
“We can’t all be purists of the game,” Myers continues. “I love soccer, but that’s not why we go. I don’t go to Hurricanes games necessarily for the hockey. I go to drink beers with my friends up in the club level and spend time with my family, and they have an incredible product. That’s what I was trying to replicate at the RailHawks.”
Beyond game-day atmosphere, Myers said he made many other suggestions that were discounted, such as additional TV and radio spots.
“I wanted to buy 10,000 squishy balls with the team’s logo for us to give out at events and to kids that would have cost $2,000 to produce. I would get asked, ‘Well, how much money is that going to get us in return?’ Well, nothing necessarily from giving them out, but what you’re doing is promoting your brand in the community. That request was refused.”
In contrast to the previous two years, Myers says, “[t]here was no marketing budget in 2009. We essentially had zero money to work with from a marketing perspective.
“Selby tightened the purse strings; if you weren’t bringing revenue into the company then you weren’t deemed as needed. Salespeople turned over hand over fist, and when you don’t have those consistent folks working in the office, you start to have some distrust from employees over whether they’re going to have jobs or not.”
By contrast, Myers says the budget for player personnel began to “skyrocket,” ballooning to approximately $650,000 during 2009, a payroll that was at or near the top in the league.
“When you have ownership that’s not really interested in hearing your ideas anymore and wants to go in a different direction, you can see the writing on the wall,” Myers says. “So I got to a breaking point and I needed to make a decision to move on.”
By March 2009, Dean Linke, the RailHawks radio and TV play-by-play announcer and sponsorship salesman, had taken over the club’s day-to-day operations.
The post, Linke admits, “was not something I ever asked to do.” He accepted the position, he says, because he “wanted soccer to succeed and I was hoping that it would.”
In turn, Linke recruited John Dilts, a former corporate marketing executive, to take the job of VP of ticket sales and corporate partnerships.
Dilts, a passionate soccer fan, was eager to embark on what he viewed as his “dream job.” Starting with the club on March 14, 2009, Dilts was given the task of procuring sponsorship sales from businesses and organizing the ticket office.
According the Dilts, the job was daunting from the beginning. Already encumbered by an ailing economy and not having an offseason to cultivate corporate sales, Dilts also discovered that the team had an identity crisis.
“One of the biggest challenges that the team had was nobody knew who they were,” says Dilts.
“My real estate agent, who found me a home down here in 2006, has lived here 24 years. I went to her and [asked] if she’d like to sponsor the team. She said, ‘What soccer team?’ She had no idea there was even a professional soccer team in Cary, and she’s a professional relocation expert.”
Echoing the frustrations of Myers and other staffers, Dilts also encountered delay or rejection whenever he requested funds for marketing and promotion. Even a simple request like a soccer ball to present at halftime to a business owner who had given thousands of dollars in sponsorship met resistance.
“I repeatedly made requests about doing billboards across town,” he says, “putting the face of the team out here … and papering the I-40 corridor, where you’re getting 100,000 impressions driving by RTP every day.”
Dilts estimates the cost would have ranged from $1,800–$9,000 per year for each billboard. “That idea was just dismissed out of hand, like it was something they ‘just didn’t do.’
“There wasn’t [a marketing plan],” recalls Dilts. “It was done week-to-week. There was no formal plan that was presented to me that showed what we were doing six weeks out. Everything was done by the seat of their pants, which puts ticket sales at a severe disadvantage.”
Speaking publicly for the first time since his father divested ownership in the club, Brian Wellman admits that mistakes were made in marketing.
“That’s where Selby and I disagreed … heavily, heavily disagreed,” Wellman says. “There were a lot of tense moments from our very first year in 2007 until recently. [Marketing] is where I saw a glaring need and that’s what I thought we needed to put a lot more effort into. But there was a lot of pushback from the top to invest in that.
“Selby and Bob Young came out of the tech rush of the 1990s, [and they told me] there’s a lot going on ways to be effective without spending a whole lot of money in legacy advertising like TV and print advertising, etc.,” Wellman says.
“And I agreed with that and went after it completelybuilt a good website, put a lot of thought into our online ticket mechanism, etc. Selby and Bob are rightyou can save probably one or two job positions by doing your Internet right. We did that, and we did it well.
“But I still believe there’s a transition period in the midst of this new emerging advertising world where people still watch TV and pick up a newspaper,” Wellman continues.
“I thought we still needed to do more legacy advertising while developing our online presence.”
Even as the RailHawks were enjoying their best season yet on the field, ticket sales and revenue plummeted during 2009. The team averaged only 2,730 fans per regular-season home match, third-lowest in the 11-team USL-1.
During this period, the RailHawks office was literally and figuratively a house divided. The operational staff was located in the main office beneath the grandstands adjacent to the locker rooms. Meanwhile, the sales staff was housed inside the ticket booth on the opposite side of the stadium. So stark was this divide that the ticket office did not even have a fax machine; anyone wanting to transmit a facsimile had to walk across to the main office.
Behind the scenes, the morale in the office was eroding. For some, the work atmosphere was oppressive and, at times, demoralizing. Sources recount fellow employees being openly insulted during staff meetings. Dilts, who by this time was repeatedly clashing with Linke and other management over faltering sponsorship sales and other matters, was fired in August 2009. Dilts countered by filing a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the club, which remains pending at this time.
Linke says such episodes stemmed from the high expectations that were placed on everyone inside the company, including himself.
“When you’re running a show like that under that kind of pressure, there’s not many COOs who are going to be able to please everyone,” he says.
“You could have easily talked to four or five other people who said that there wasn’t a more giving person,” he says. “I don’t think anyone, myself included, ever meant to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
In early 2009, Selby Wellman presented staffers with copies of a book called Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, a business title published by Harvard Business Press about adapting to an online marketing landscape. Wellman required his staff to read and write a report about the book. Some staffers enjoyed the read; others questioned the utility of Wellman later stopping operations for a half day to discuss their reports.
After the 2009 season, Wellman brought each employee into his office for a one-on-one meeting and demanded they each bring another report, this one justifying his or her job with the club.
In the midst of the post-2008 player purge, all Latino players from the previous year’s roster were released or signed elsewhere, including Santiago Fusilier, a fan favorite who had starred at N.C. State, and Martin Nuñez, a flashy forward who had just been a league rookie of the year finalist.
These departures sparked one of the most pervasive complaints about the RailHawks in recent years: their failure to make marketing inroads into the soccer-stoked Latino community. (Rennie says the team tried to bring back Nuñez, but he chose to sign with the Puerto Rico Islanders, a league rival and Caribbean power.)
The club did work to foster relationships with various members of the local Spanish-speaking media. However, according to multiple staffers, the attitude of the RailHawks management was that the Hispanic market would support any team that was local, regardless of the roster.
The most infamous quick fix to the lack of a Hispanic presence on the roster came just before the 2009 season with the signing of Marcelo Romero, the former Uruguayan international who spent six seasons with Málaga CF of the Spanish first division La Liga, where he played against such global superstars as Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham. Dazzled by Romero’s résumé, the club signed him to a sizable contract and fronted other related expenses, including transportation and a translator. Romero’s arrival was highly publicized in the local media in advance of his debut in a March preseason friendly against the New England Revolution.
However, it was only after Romero arrived in camp that the team learned what due diligence should have discovered before signing him. The 32-year-old was out of shape and, more significantly, suffering from severely injured knees. He appeared as a substitute against the Revolution before being quietly released in April 2009 without ever appearing for the RailHawks in a league game.
With the burgeoning player payroll came a dramatic increase in the size of the roster. This trend reached its zenith during the 2010 season, when the RailHawks at one point had nearly 30 players under contract despite being allowed to dress out only 18 per match. Staffers quipped to each other that the whole enterprise seemed like “Brian’s fantasy soccer team.”
John Gilkerson was a two-year starting fullback for the RailHawks, signing with the club at the start of Rennie’s first year with the club. Gilkerson says revolving lineups and expanding roster size contributed to an inconsistency that fostered some resentment inside the locker room.
“At times I would play seven or eight games and then get banished for no reason,” Gilkerson says. “That rubbed some players the wrong way … Some players felt like they were being misled, and that started [manifesting itself] towards the end of the 2009 season.”
In response to this complaint, Rennie told the Independent that issues of playing time are common in locker rooms of every sport. In lower-division soccer, some players signed midseason are brought in to compensate for injured starters, and if those replacement players perform well and the team is winning, it isn’t always easy to reinsert the old starter without disrupting team chemistry.
Gilkerson says that by the 2010 season, “I got fed up with the whole situationplaying and not playing … there was no consistency.” His relationship with Rennie suffered as a result, and the two agreed that he would not return to the RailHawks for 2011, a fact Rennie confirmed to Triangle Offense, the Indy‘s sports blog, last month.
Another big issue in the locker room, Gilkerson says, was the funding shortage for one particular player benefit. In January 2009, the club formed the Spread Your Wings Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation that was advertised at the time as an avenue to encourage players to provide charitable work and other assistance in the community.
Gilkerson says each player’s contract stated that he could earn up to $1,000 per month for charitable time, contingent on funding being available through the foundation. The pay for players ranged from several thousand dollars a month for better, more experienced performers to playing solely for free housing, in the case of at least one marginal player.
Given the prospect of earning extra money through the foundation, many players, particularly at the lower end of the pay scale, eschewed part-time jobs in favor of volunteering through Spread Your Wings. Gilkerson says this supplemental pay was also used as an incentive for some players to sign for a lower overall guaranteed monthly salary.
By the end of 2009, however, the players discovered that the foundation was running out of money. The club began to restrict the days of the week players could work through the foundation and pressured some players, particularly those with higher salaries, to cut back their overall volunteer hours. Some players complied, while others continued to volunteer without compensation for organizations with which they had already developed a relationship.
The road not taken
After the 2009 season, Dean Linke had stepped down as COO. His replacement, Jim Houghton, did not start until January 2010, despite interviewing for the post the previous fall. In the meantime, Martin Rennie acted as the de facto head of operations during Brian Wellman’s frequent absences.
Indeed, it was at this time that another pursuit had captured the Wellmans’ fancy. Selby Wellman’s decision to spearhead a group of dissident USL-1 owners who wanted to split off and form their own league, later branded the new North American Soccer League (NASL), was one of the most fateful in the team’s history. Even Wellman’s critics concede that the USL power structure was flawed and inequitable. Team owners had little or no control over the direction or operation of a league that charged annual franchise fees ranging between $75,000 and $150,000 per club. The league’s television contract with Fox Soccer Channel was a “pay to play” arrangement in which individual teams had to pay for the right to have their home matches broadcast.
Brian Wellman recalls that at the start of the 2009 USL-1 playoffs, the league sent an e-mail to teams informing them that the two that advanced to the two-game championship finals would be required to pay upward of $30,000 to the league for FSC coverage, as well as airfare and hotel rooms for USL officials flying in for the matches.
Staffers recall that Selby was ebullient and confident during this time, boasting to anyone within earshot that the New York Cosmos and new teams in Los Angeles and San Antonio would soon join the reincarnated NASL.
But the decision to leave USL created uncertainty that crippled the team from a marketing standpoint. Staffers struggled to sell season tickets and sponsorships to people and companies that were uncertain if the team would even play the following season.
Gilkerson remembers that “[s]ome guys were getting e-mails from USL saying they were free agents, and then the club was telling them they weren’t free agents. No one knew what they could do and what they couldn’t do, or if there was a league or wasn’t a league.”
“In my opinion, I don’t think there should have been a battle between USL and the new NASL,” says Brad Myers. “What that did was cause division in the league and a lot of confusion in the market. But Selby decided that was a road he needed to go down with this team.”
Even Brian Wellman concedes a tiny degree of second-guessing.
“Do I regret not being in USL? The answer is no,” Wellman maintains. “I actually do think that USL PRO has a good model they’re working with now.”
Wellman keeps in touch with an executive of the Charleston Battery, a team loyal to the USL. “I say, yeah, that’s a model that may be a little better if you’re only averaging 2,000–3,000 fans per game. Maybe [it] does make sense.
“But what I’m sure of is that even though that might be the right model, the right people aren’t in charge of it. That hasn’t changed.”
According to multiple insiders, once Jim Houghton arrived to take over as COO, he discovered the same bitter reality as Myers, Dilts and others before him. Promises of a robust marketing budget were yanked out from under him. Ideas about giveaways at gates, tattoos or water bottles for kids, professionally made promotional literature and business discount cards were summarily dismissed.
Although paid attendance in 2010 actually increased 15 percent from the previous year, according to Brian Wellman, the average per-game home attendance sank to 2,241. No league match at WakeMed Park drew more than 3,000 fans. However, the RailHawks set a record for wins, finished atop the NASL Conference and won their first-ever playoff match before losing the league championship to the Puerto Rico Islanders. After the final match of the championship series, the RailHawks players unfurled a homemade sign that read, “Thank You Fans.”
After the season, with the NASL in a battle for Division 2 sanctioning from the USSF, Wellman unceremoniously dissolved Triangle Professional Sports, LLC and Carolina RailHawks, LLC on Dec. 31, 2010.
After a year of taking depositions and exchanging discovery, a trial date for Dilts’ lawsuits was already tentatively scheduled for April 25, 2011. It remains to be seen whether his complaint holds merit, but the dissolution of the limited liability companies dramatically decreases the chance Dilts or any other creditors can recover money owed by the now-defunct entities.
Curt Johnson, recently named president of Traffic Sports’ new Carolina RailHawks, remains excited about the future of soccer in the Triangle.
“I’m pleased the transition from old ownership to new ownership has taken place,” says Johnson. “In Traffic Sports, we’ve got a global soccer company that believes in the Raleigh market, as I do.”
In terms of the identities of the new team’s managers, it remains to be seen how much transition will take place.
“The Wellmans are pretty clever people,” says Dilts, expressing a sentiment born equally from experience and mistrust. “I don’t see them walking away from this without having some stake in the new team. They were always very passionate about soccer … I can’t see them putting all those millions of dollars in a team and walking away like this.”
Last weekend, the NASL held its first annual player combine in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Two representatives traveled on behalf of the new RailHawks: Martin Rennie and Brian Wellman, who at this time is an unpaid advisor and consultant for the new RailHawks.
The rise of a phoenix?
As the USSF’s final decision on NASL sanctioning looms at this weekend’s annual general meeting in Las Vegas, Johnson appears to recognize the RailHawks’ previous troubles.
“Stability and continuity have been the shortcomings,” he admits. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of money invested in pro soccer over the past 16 to 17 years. We’ve had a tremendous amount of fan support and great group of players. And we’ve had owners with incredible resources. The problem is we haven’t harnessed all that, or even a high percentage, at one time.
“The key problem we’ve had over the past few years is reinventing the wheel too often. I believe that the resources necessary will be provided. It has to be a long-term, sometimes grinding process.”
Linke says the Wellmans should receive credit for their commitment of resources to soccer in Cary. “I truly believe the Wellmans deserve a great deal of praise and even some gratitude from anyone who believes in pro soccer in this market for going into their bank account to keep that dream alive.
“It’s a tough, tough road, and I commend them. I think they deserve our praise, not our anger.”
Despite all the difficulties, Brian Wellman feels a sense of accomplishment.
“Walking away from being president of the RailHawks and leaving behind this great team and atmosphere and giving it the opportunity to succeed, I couldn’t be more proud,” he says.
Myers takes a more wistful approach. “I don’t dislike the Wellmans at all,” he says.”I think their hearts were in the right place and I think they wanted to do the right thing in this area. They just struggled to connect with the market, they struggled to connect with people they wanted to come to their games and they struggled with the direction they wanted the team to go.
“I took a lot of pride in that brand,” Myers says. “I took a lot of pride in that logo; I took a lot of pride in those colors. I helped create all of them. To see it failing now makes me sad.”