by Neil Morris
The all-afternoon affair—which began around noon at a packed Backyard Bistro in Raleigh and finished around 5 p.m. three miles away at WakeMed Soccer Park—actually comprised three activities. First was a fan forum, which included lunch and an hour-long question-and-answer session between supporters and three visiting soccer executives: Mark Abbott, president of Major League Soccer; Aaron Davidson, vice-president of Traffic Sports USA, the majority owner of the RailHawks; and David Downs, commissioner of the NASL, the second division league in which the RailHawks compete.
That was followed by a meet and greet with various members of the business and civic communities, and then a media round table and interview sessions at WakeMed Park.
In the days leading up to today’s visit, social and other traditional media were awash with speculation over the Triangle’s feasibility as an MLS market. Pro and cons of the market’s merits were compared and contrasted. Supporters’ spirits were stoked, potential investors were wooed and members of the local media—some of whom have never covered a RailHawks game—parachuted in looking to break the news that MLS is moving to town. “When I was looking at the MLS website on the way over today…” was the actual preface to a question posed during the media round table.
From that perspective, there was a kabuki dance aspect to the spectacle, since anyone with a working knowledge of the American soccer landscape or, I dunno, access to Google knew before the sun rose this morning that the 19-team MLS has openly stated their desire to add a 20th franchise in New York City and then hold off further expansion for the near future. That sentiment was expressed no later then last September by … Mark Abbott in an interview with The Sporting News.
Indeed, when this fan forum was announced last month, MLS spokesperson Dan Courtemanche told MLS Reserves that, “(w)hile we applaud the success of the RailHawks, we remain focused on securing a 20th team for Major League Soccer in New York and are currently not in discussions to bring a future expansion team to North Carolina.”
So, what was the purpose of today’s events? Abbott, who visited WakeMed Soccer Park for the first time ever this morning, provided the diplomatic answer.
“Today was about coming down and getting a deeper understanding of soccer in this community,” said Abbott, “and to do it in three ways: meet with fans, meet with members of the business community and meet with people from the media, who from what I can tell seem very aware, knowledgeable and understanding of the sport.
“We came today to learn about soccer in this community and come away with a great feeling. It’s a very professional organization, playing in a very solid division two league, and obviously a lot of fan, business community and media support. We’re not currently in the process of trying to outline a timeline or specific path for clubs coming into the league on an expansion basis.”
The truth is this event was geared toward marketing and brand building for the RailHawks. A year removed from the dissolution of the club’s corporate entity, the auction of its brand on eBay and being rescued from extinction by new owners, the RailHawks are now able—through the considerable influence of club president and former MLS general manager Curt Johnson, credited by both Abbott and Davidson for spearheading today’s events—to procure a visit from the president of Major League Soccer and other national dignitaries of the sport.
A couple of other issues were addressed that have a more pertinent bearing on the RailHawks and their league. Both fans and media asked about the hot topic of future cooperation between MLS and NASL, and whether a more formal relationship—including the NASL possibly becoming a full-fledged reserve arm for MLS—might be an option.
Again, Abbott provided the diplomatic response.
“We have a very good working relationship between [MLS] and the North American Soccer League,” Abbott said. “I’ve known David [Downs] for almost 20 years and Aaron [Davidson] for over 10 years … So, even though we don’t currently have a formal relationship doesn’t mean we don’t have a good working and cooperative relationship.
“With respect to what ultimately happens with player development, whether it’s a reserve league or some other model, those are all ongoing discussions, and it’s too early to predict what the outcome of those discussions will be.”
In an interview with Indyweek Sports, however, Davidson was more direct.
“We not interested in being a reserve league,” said Davidson. “Can we work with MLS to help their second-tier players? Sure. But not as a reserve league.”
Indeed, throughout the day both Downs and Davidson sought to promote the accomplishments and vision of the NASL, a sound tactic given that Traffic Sports Marketing, the financial backer behind the league, is a soccer marketing organization that sometimes directly competes with Soccer United Marketing (SUM), a private sponsorship company wholly owned by MLS.
“What I expected to get out of this today was to start educating the marketplace about what’s really going on in terms of the differences and relationships between MLS and NASL,” Davidson explained. “The reality is four of their last five [expansion] teams have come from our division. Do they owe us anything? I don’t know … that’s for someone else to decide. Do we owe them anything? I’m proud of what second division did … we sent them four of our greatest teams. All those teams had 10, 15, 20 years of experience at second division. Right now is the next cycle for second division, the teams that have between three and seven years in the league.”
Part of that next cycle is also expansion of the NASL, which currently comprises eight teams. While Abbott avoided any definitive statements about future MLS expansion, both Downs and Davidson were more bullish, telling Indyweek Sports that the NASL is poised to announce two expansion franchises within the next 30-45 days. The league has finalized contractual terms with one club and is in the latter stages of negotiations with the other.
Neither Downs nor Davidson would presently disclose the identities of the expansion markets. However, Downs said one is an existing soccer club while the other is a startup franchise. Moreover, Davidson indicated one will be stationed in the western U.S. while the other will be located within the NASL’s current main geographic footprint. Davidson also said the NASL hopes to add two more clubs before the 2013 season, bringing the league total to 14. However, according to Downs, they will not include Ottawa, an already-announced NASL expansion franchise which Downs now says apparently will not begin league play until 2014.
However, today was primarily a mechanism to generate fan buzz, reward investors and other government backers, and garner media attention for the Carolina RailHawks two days before the team’s home opener this Saturday against the Atlanta Silverbacks. And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that.