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 owner—Traffic Sports USA—attempts 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 players—many on the record, some on the condition of confidentiality—to 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 sight—for him and the team—and 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."