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

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Fantasy soccer

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 situation—playing 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."

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