North Carolina FC Has Come a Long Way in Two Years. But Is Raleigh Ready to Be an MLS Town? | News Feature | Indy Week

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North Carolina FC Has Come a Long Way in Two Years. But Is Raleigh Ready to Be an MLS Town?

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Steve Malik moves quick.

Less than two years ago, in the fall of 2015, the enthusiastic, blunt-spoken founder of Cary's Medfusion bought the Carolina RailHawks, an eight-year-old soccer team plagued by mismanagement and scandal and trying to shake off perpetually mediocre attendance. But Malik had ambition, money to spend, and a vision.

Last December came a rebranding; the RailHawks became North Carolina Football Club, giving the team the internationally cool "FC" abbreviation. In January, the North American Soccer League squad partnered with the National Women's Soccer League's Western New York Flash, which became the North Carolina Courage. That same month, the team submitted a bid for one of two Major League Soccer franchises—a gambit that would have seemed ludicrous back in 2010, when the team was flat broke, its assets were being liquidated on eBay and Craigslist, and it had to be rescued by the NASL's CEO.

That notion would have seemed equally ridiculous in 2015, when the team's owner was indicted as part of the FIFA scandal and the RailHawks stood on the precipice of a very uncertain future.

How fast things change.

Last Wednesday, Malik simultaneously welcomed MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott and pitched a $150 million mixed-use stadium for downtown Raleigh. A motivational video spoke of North Carolina as "the new state of soccer" and unveiled a model for a glamorous, open-roof twenty-two-thousand-seater, expandable to accommodate twenty-eight thousand people.

The proposed site is on thirteen acres of state-owned land at the northern end of the city's downtown, home to the state government complex. Unlike Charlotte's competing MLS bid—which has sought as much as $120 million in public funds—Malik isn't asking for taxpayers to subsidize his stadium, which won't be completed until 2020 at the earliest. He'll build it through a combination of loans and private investments, though he'll need to negotiate a lease for the state property and he may ask for help with as-yet-unspecified infrastructure upgrades. (In doing so, he is following the lead of recent MLS joiners Orlando City Soccer, which in 2015 privately financed its $115 million stadium after years of negotiations with local and state leaders.)

Developer John Kane, who built North Hills and is currently constructing The Dillon in Raleigh's Warehouse District, is touting 1,200 multifamily residential units, public parking, retail, hotel rooms, and 750,000 square feet of office space, which will include two new buildings for state government workers.

Members of North Carolina FC warm up ahead of Saturday's match. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Members of North Carolina FC warm up ahead of Saturday's match.

MLS was in town to assess whether North Carolina FC should be one of the two new teams joining American soccer's top tier. Twelve markets are under consideration, many of them larger than Raleigh-Durham, including Sacramento, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, and St. Louis. (Raleigh isn't a top-20 media market, but MLS does have a 650-mile gap between D.C. United and Atlanta United FC.) The expansion will take MLS, founded in 1993, from twenty-four teams to twenty-six; sooner than later, MLS will aim for twenty-eight.

Abbott called North Carolina FC's plan "a compelling vision," praising the city's rapid growth and Malik's work with the franchise. He said he was "overwhelmed" by his visit, which was occasioned by a boisterous march from the London Bridge Pub to City Market, where hundreds gathered at a rally in support of the team.

At one point the MLS head was swept up enough to ask the pumped-up crowd at City Market to shout exactly how much they wanted his league to come to the Triangle.

Raleigh roared.

In a June Sports Illustrated article, Abbott warned against underestimating fans' power to overcome tricky stadium plans. The league's history, he said, shows "when you have committed groups in communities interested in attracting MLS teams, they find a way to get those projects done."

"I'm glad that he could feel the energy, and boy, we brought it," Malik told the INDY before Saturday's friendly against Swansea City AFC, a Welsh team that competes in the English Premier League. Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary welcomed a crowd of 7,268, more than 2,000 more than 2016's average attendance. (The game ended in a scoreless tie.)

That energy needs to be quantified and harnessed to get the movement, dubbed #919toMLS, past the potential legislative, community, and monetary obstacles that could quickly snuff its flame.

"I think it's the fit with Raleigh that's so critical," Malik says. He points to North Carolina FC Youth, which recently conjoined the Capital Area Soccer League and the Triangle Futbol Club Alliance to become the nation's biggest youth-to-pro soccer program, with nearly fourteen thousand participants. They've got one readymade hometown role model in Nazmi "Naz" Albadawi, North Carolina FC's twenty-five-year-old superstar captain, an alum of both youth organizations as well as N.C. State.

"That puts your roots pretty deep into the community," Malik says. "And I think this is a soccer town, so this is the right fit for us. Certainly the future of the sport is bright. I've said it's not a matter of if, it's when."

Midfielder Saeed Robinson enters WakeMed Soccer Park. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Midfielder Saeed Robinson enters WakeMed Soccer Park.

He's not the only one who feels that way. At the Swansea City match, Malik said he had an inbox full of people eager to contribute to #919toMLS and its dream home. And that's just the beginning: "Tonight, when I leave here, I'll be talking to new potential sponsors, big ones that are stepping up to the plate to help support it."

But there are several hurdles between where the team is and where he wants to be. To reach his goal, he'll have to not only sell investors and lenders on his stadium and MLS on his franchise's potential in this fast-growing market—the area's only other major-league sports franchise, the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, suffers from anemic and still-declining attendance—but also potentially resistant state and local politicians and residents concerned about stadium-related traffic and parking downtown.

"I think it's reasonable that people have questions, which is why we did it this way, soliciting public support, not trying to put too tight a window on it," Malik says. The flashy rendering for the stadium was ready six months ago, he says, but the team sat on it while gauging the community's readiness.

"You know, it's so obvious for people how beneficial it can be, but they're weighing those benefits against issues like parking and traffic," Malik says. In addition to hosting no-brainer events like concerts and conventions, Malik says the new downtown stadium could also accommodate lacrosse and rugby matches as well as other college sporting events in need of better venues.

As part of its sales pitch, North Carolina FC included an economic development study by Economic Leadership LLC projecting that the stadium would create or support 1,960 North Carolina jobs (1,470 in Wake County), plus $262 million in economic activity and $5.6 million in state tax revenue. Over a seventeen-year time frame, the report said, the stadium is expected to generate $2.8 billion for North Carolina.

Economists tend to distrust such studies. Stanford sports economist Roger Noll, who studied the impact NFL stadiums created versus what communities were promised, has discounted the idea that stadiums spur economic activity: "NFL stadiums do not generate significant local economic growth," he said in 2015, "and the incremental tax revenue is not sufficient to cover any significant financial contribution by the city."

Because the public has grown skeptical of stadiums' benefits, Noll continued, sports teams have increasingly declined to seek large public incentives. So far, that's the case here.

"In my mind, Steve Malik is handing this city a gift on a silver platter that will only help further grow Raleigh," says Oak City Supporters founder Ryan Jernigan. OCS organized Wednesday's #919toMLS march and has amassed more than two hundred paying members in less than three years. Proposing a stadium outside the city, or upgrading WakeMed Soccer Park, "would have been the easier play," he adds, "but not the one with the most positive impact toward our bid or our city."

OCS hosts all-are-welcome tailgate parties before leading Sahlen's Stadium in chants and cheers for ninety minutes, in full regalia and with a collection of bright flags. In the past year, OCS members have also rented sold-out charter buses to matches in Greensboro and Charlotte—bringing, Jernigan says, "more support than the teams had in their own home."

We'll know by year's end whether that support is enough to woo MLS; the league announces which teams it's adding in December.


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