Big changes hit the Triangle’s soccer world Tuesday as the owner of the local professional team proposed plans to push for a Major League Soccer bid, form a women’s professional team and seek a new stadium with a capacity of more than 20,000 seats.
The plans are still in the very early stages, and a lot of proverbial dominoes would have to fall in place before these dreams are realized.
Steve Malik, the founder of a successful health care software company Medfusion, bought the Carolina RailHawks a little more than one year ago. On Tuesday, he announced the ambitious goals as well as a change to the name and logo.
Ushering what he called "a new state of soccer," the team is now branded as North Carolina Football Club, or North Carolina FC for short.
More important than just a rebranding, however, Malik also announced he would launch an "aggressive public campaign to pursue a major league franchise." That would mean a men’s side in the MLS and a new women’s side in the National Women’s Soccer League. The RailHawks played in the North American Soccer League. That league is considered a division below MLS, though NASL teams do not have affiliations with MLS teams the way Minor League Baseball teams have affiliations with Major League Baseball clubs.
During an MLS Board of Governors meeting this year, the governing body indicated it could increase the expansion fee to as much as $200 million.
After struggling to gain traction, the MLS has gone through a period of rapid growth in the past decade, spurred at least in part by a men’s quarter-final appearance in the 2002 World Cup and more recent repeated success by the women’s national team, including the World Cup title in 2015. Television broadcast contracts that bring English Premier League and Bundesliga games from England and Germany, respectively, have also added to the sport’s popularity in the United States, not to mention the rapidly growing youth programs.
The MLS will grow to 22 teams in 2017, from 10 teams in 2004, however the closest teams to the Triangle would be in Atlanta or Washington, D.C. If the league were to expand teams further, other markets – including Charlotte – would, no doubt, be in the running as well. Raleigh/Durham ranks as a top 25 television market, according to TVNewsCheck.
Malik has always had a love of soccer, even when it seemed he was one of the few. Although he was born in Wales, he grew up in Grifton. To say that few people played soccer in eastern North Carolina in the late 1970s would be an understatement, but Malik kept his love for the game. He found business success in Medfusion, a company he sold for $91 million, but then acquired back in 2013, according to Triangle Business Journal.
At the end of the 2015 season, the RailHawks were owned by Traffic Sports USA, a company based in Florida whose president, Aaron Davidson, was involved in the larger corruption scandal that surrounded FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. Malik bought the team in late 2015, and has continued to invest in the franchise throughout 2016.
There are still many hurdles before North Carolina FC would play in the MLS. For one, the MLS Board of Governors would have to approve the bid, which would likely require NCFC to find a larger stadium. The team currently plays at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, which seats 10,000 but can be accessed by only from East Chatham Street.
Malik and other team officials acknowledged that they still have a lot of work to do, including rallying enough support around the club's MLS bid, including making financial commitments. Still, Malik called the Triangle a "great soccer market," something he added gave him a "big boost of confidence" when contemplating an attempt to shoot for the MLS.
In the short term, however, it wasn't even clear if NCFC would remain in the NASL. In fact, some notable NASL teams folded and there was speculation that remaining teams would move to the United Soccer League.
"I'm absolutely involved with all the things that are going on in the NASL," Malik said. "There are a lot of moving pieces. I’ll tell you there are conversations going on with USL, as has been rumored. And what's important for us is that we put ourselves in a position that we have optionality."