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An inside look at the rise and fall of the Carolina RailHawks

From Game Day to eBay

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Groundswell

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 completely—built a good website, put a lot of thought into our online ticket mechanism, etc. Selby and Bob are right—you 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.

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