RailHawks owners discuss search for new investors | Sports

RailHawks owners discuss search for new investors

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The Carolina RailHawks ownership group is looking for a new minority investor, the team announced today, citing a need to expand sales and marketing efforts to double the paid attendance and make the club profitable.

The Carolina RailHawks have spent heavily in the last two years to bring in a host of new players. Only one member of this May 14 starting XI, Matt Watson (standing second from right), was with the team in 2008.
  • YCJ/Andy Mead
  • The Carolina RailHawks have spent heavily in the last two years to bring in a host of new players. Only one member of this May 14 starting XI, Matt Watson (standing second from right), was with the team in 2008.
Majority Owner Selby Wellman, who owns 60 percent of the Cary franchise, says the RailHawks have lost money in each of the first four seasons and need to grow faster. He also said that a decision on the future of second division soccer in America could be made next month.

A fresh infusion of funds—$1 million is the target—would allow the team to add a director of sales and four other sales and marketing positions.

“We built a winning team, and that didn’t produce the crowds,” says Wellman, pointing to last year’s roster overhaul and second-place regular season finish. “We’ve got to go out and do the selling ourselves.”

The team has averaged 2,285 fans per home contest in five regula-season matches this year and Wellman is targeting 3,000 to 3,500 a game by the 2012 season. WakeMed Soccer Park, which the team rents from the Town of Cary, seats 7,000.

Wellman points to other second-division teams such as the Portland Timbers, which draw 7,658 per game and the Rochester Rhinos, with 6,454 fans a contest, and says his team can have the same success. Portland and Rochester both have stadiums downtown, while the RailHawks are tucked away in Cary, across the train tracks.

“There’s no reason why we can’t do what Portland and Rochester are doing,” Wellman says, citing population totals.

The team needs to ramp up group sales efforts to achieve those numbers, he says, and that requires having enough staff to make direct sales calls and in-person pitches.

In addition to selling 50 tickets at a time, group sales lead to co-workers bringing their friends and those friends returning for future matches.

Bob Young, who owns the second largest part of the team but declined to quantify his stake, says he wants to bring in a partner who can connect the team with other industries. Both Young and Wellman are American technology executives.

“We’d really rather have a broader experience than our current board represents,” Young says. “There are lots of smart guys in my Rolodex, but I think we would be better served by getting manufacturing guys or agricultural executives.”

The team is hoping to better connect itself to the Latino and European communities in the Triangle, and Young hopes a new owner could achieve that goal. Wellman also wants someone who can help run the day-to-day business operations and says the team is trying to cast a wide net in hunting for a partner, making a public call for investors rather than operating behind the scenes.

Young is concentrated on growing Lulu.com. He is also the co-founder of Red Hat and part-owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats from the Canadian Football League.

Wellman, a retired Cisco Systems executive, is building a home in Naples, Fla., and wants to begin reducing his role with the team.

Any new owner would be buying into an uncertain future. The RailHawks joined with several other lower-division ownership groups in breaking away from the United Soccer Leagues, with the intention of forming a new league, to be called the North American Soccer League (NASL), in homage to the original league of that name.

However, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) declined to immediately sanction the new league, ordering the dissident owners and the USL loyalists to play together for one season under the jurisdiction of the Federation, in a provisional league called USSF-D2 Pro League.

So far, NASL-affiliated clubs in the USSF-D2 have had some struggles. In May, AC St. Louis had to fold its women’s team and rethink its USSF-D2 strategy. Crystal Palace Baltimore’s coach and co-owner stepped away from the field to hunt for finances in mid-April. Inside Minnesota Soccer, a widely read and reliable blog about lower-division soccer, reports that the team still is in jeopardy.

“There’s no question without a doubt that St. Louis and Baltimore were curveballs for us, and it made us take a step backward in dealing with the (U.S. Soccer) Federation at same time we’re very committed to this owners-controlled league and the Federation wants that as well,” Wellman says.

On Aug. 9, the D2 owners will determine the future of the league at a summit meeting in New York, which will coincide with a friendly match at Meadowlands Stadium between the USA and Brazil.

Wellman says that meeting fits with his timeline for a new owner. He’s hoping to capitalize on the World Cup excitement and find a new partner in the next 90 days. The league issues should be resolved by then, he says.

Asked what the team will do if it can’t find a new investor, Wellman replied, “Bob and I will keep plugging along. We have a strong belief in professional soccer and where professional soccer is going in America. We think we can make a go of it in this area.”

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