The newly renamed North Carolina F.C. will face stiff competition to join Major League Soccer.
Owner Steve Malik bought the team a little more than a year ago, when it was still named the Carolina RailHawks. He quickly set his sights on making a bid to move from the North American Soccer League, a minor league soccer league, to the MLS, the highest professional soccer level in the United States.
Earlier this month, Malik announced his desire to pursue an MLS bid, but at the time, the league had not officially said it would consider Raleigh/Durham as an expansion market. Then, in mid-December, MLS announced it would add a 25th and 26th team to the league, and put Raleigh/Durham on a list of 10 cities under consideration for those two spots. "We were pleased to be on the list. We're pleased they put a process together. And we’re ready to compete," Malik said.
While Malik and the club will make a strong push to make the leap, it's far from a breakaway that Raleigh/Durham will win the bid. In fact, NCFC will face strong competition even from within the state, as an ownership group with backing from billionaire racing enthusiast Bruton Smith put Charlotte in the running as well.
Other cities under consideration include Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa/St. Petersburg.
There is at least one reason to believe the Triangle will receive strong consideration: there exists a strong soccer culture locally, and fans have shown willingness to pay to watch the sport. Area universities have historically strong soccer programs, including the UNC women’s program which has won 21 Atlantic Coast Conference championships since 1987 and 22 NCAA national championships since 1981. The College Cup – soccer's version of the Final Four – has regularly played at WakeMed Soccer Park, and Capital Area Soccer Club (CASL) in Raleigh is one of the largest and most competitive youth soccer clubs in the nation.
Joining the MLS will come with a $150 million entry fee, which didn’t give Malik any sticker shock. "Not at all. You know, in some of the media the reported the number as $200 (million), so I was glad to see $150 (million)."
The MLS board of governors had previously speculated the entry fee for expansion teams could be as high as $200 million, but settled on the lower figure. To be considered, the bid must include plans for a stadium. Malik has said he has plans to build a 24,000-seat privately financed stadium – which could also run into the nine figures – somewhere in the Triangle, though has not publicly given more specific geographic preferences.
The MLS has placed a high value on local ownership, and Malik, who owns the health care software company Medfusion, said he has worked to drum up more local support. The previous owner of the club was Traffic Sports USA, a firm based in Florida with limited local connections. That group became entangled in a FIFA bribery scandal after its president, Aaron Davidson, was named in the investigation. The FIFA ethics committee later banned Davidson from soccer related activities.
Malik bought the club shortly after the investigation became public and has pumped money into the club, both on and off the field. Making a bid for the MLS, however, will require a good bit more capital. "To compete with those other scenarios we needed to add additional resources. And (from) the people who are capable of doing that, the response has been fabulous," Malik said. "If you look at how MLS laid out their criteria, it is helpful to have a local owner who is involved in the franchise."
Malik quickly adds that a successful bid will require input from the entire Triangle. "It's definitely not my name, it's the community. In fact, for this to work for us, we need to get everybody behind the effort and get members to join our club and buy season tickets and show that we are a worthy competitor because there are a lot of good names on that list," he said.