Aaron Davidson, President of Traffic Sports USA, and Swoops, the Carolina RailHawks' mascot (l-r) ... now closer than ever.
When the Fort Lauderdale Strikers announced last week
that Traffic Sports USA was selling controlling interest in the North American Soccer League (NASL) club to a Brazilian investment group, chatter ensued about the effect this would have on various soccer entities. But besides the Strikers themselves, the group most affected by this sale is the Carolina RailHawks.
Carolina is now the last NASL team owned by Traffic Sports USA, the American arm of the Brazil-based sports management company that not only bankrolled a large portion of the NASL after its breakaway from the United Soccer Leagues (USL), but also once held controlling interest in three members clubs—the RailHawks, Strikers and Atlanta Silverbacks.
Traffic Sports USA reformed the RailHawks brand and assumed majority interest of the team after former owner Selby Wellman dissolved the club’s governing limited liability company in Dec. 2010. Since the RailHawks’ reformation under the Traffic Sports USA umbrella and the arrival of club president Curt Johnson, Carolina has enjoyed a resurgence on and off the field. Attendance has risen annually (although stagnant this year compared to 2013), and Carolina continues to post winning records and success in U.S. Open Cup competition.
Nevertheless, the RailHawks’ overall team budget and player payroll languishes in the bottom half of the league. Local fans have largely overlooked this inequity due to the RailHawks’ on-field success, but also because supporters remain grateful for Traffic’s rescue of the RailHawks franchise and realize that Traffic’s resources have been spread over several NASL teams and the league itself.
Now, however, Traffic’s lone majority interest in the RailHawks means those fans will contrast team expenditures to spendthrift owners in New York, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, San Antonio and now Fort Lauderdale. It’s a new reality Traffic Sports USA and the RailHawks are also cognizant of—last Friday, the same date the Strikers sale was officially announced, the RailHawks published a press release
in which Aaron Davidson, President of Traffic Sports USA, is quoted as saying Traffic Sport USA is now “thrilled to focus our time, energy and resources on professional soccer in North Carolina.”
Davidson, who is also Chairman of the NASL Board of Governors, spoke further to INDY Week
by telephone last Sunday evening. He says Traffic Sports USA is pleased that Carolina is now their sole NASL stake.
“The RailHawks are a lot more similar to our culture and what we want to accomplish in this league than what the Strikers represented,” Davidson claims. “It’s the bottom-up mentality, from the youth leagues to the pros … We know the stadium is fantastic, we know the field is fantastic, we know the team with Colin Clarke is performing well, we know we have a president with lots of experience who is from the local area. And now we've solidified the tie with the local youth clubs. Now it really does look and feel like the type of clubs we want to build.”
Moreover, Davidson asserts Traffic's sole focus will result in increased financial support for the RailHawks moving forward.
“There’s no question that when you have the distraction of diverting resources to multiple teams out of the way as well as our major investments to lay the foundation of the league … there’s no question our team budget is going to increase next year.
"We have a united group of owners [in the NASL] and we all agree we need to be collectively putting in significant resources across the board, much higher than ever before to make this league a success.”
However, while Davidson promises renewed resources in the RailHawks, he says it’s too early to chronicle the size and nature of those resources.
“We’ve got to now focus on the club from A to Z and try to understand where it fits within the entire league,” Davidson says. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to be the highest spending team in the entire league. It means we’re going to be the smartest spenders.”
To that end, Davidson says he and Eduardo Pletsch, Traffic Sports USA’s Director of Finance, hope to visit Cary in the next 4-6 weeks to meet with Johnson and other members of the team’s front office to evaluate what areas of the budget need to be tweaked and supplemented. Davidson says another procedural consideration is the fact that any monetary outlays also have to be approved by Traffic Sports’ parent headquarters in Brazil.
Regardless, Davidson sees much room for improvement in Carolina.
“There are enough soccer events we’ve seen in Carolina that have pulled more attendance than the RailHawks have,” Davidson states. “And we see what’s going on in Indianapolis, San Antonio and what I think we’ll see in Jacksonville next year. We have to do better in Carolina. We don’t have a 18-20,000 seat stadium like in Fort Lauderdale that is difficult to generate a sense of urgency to buy tickets for. In Carolina, we have a high-performing team on the field and a stadium that’s a manageable size for our league that we should be filling a significant amount of the time.
“My number one challenge to management has been, is, and will be where does the law of diminishing returns kick in for our league. So step up and tell me how far you want us to go.”
The most conspicuous budgetary item for fans is player payroll. The top three teams in the NASL—Minnesota, San Antonio and New York—also reportedly have three of the highest player budgets in the league.
Davidson counters that the RailHawks have been able to field competitive teams despite their budgetary constraints.
“You look at the team, it’s pretty competitive where they’re at,” Davidson explains. “[Traffic Sports USA] will focus on the team winning, we believe we already have a base that can win, and we have to look where the spots are for us to fill. We’ll go that process over the next 60-90 days. With a lot more focus than we've had and tapping into the network that we have, I have no doubt we can improve the team dramatically next year.”
Davidson emphasizes that the key component for the RailHawks’ ongoing growth is attracting local ownership partners. He says local ownership isn’t as important from a financial viewpoint, but more for their connections to the community.
“If ownership isn't present, [the team is] never going to drive the needle as much as we need to,” Davidson says. “We need a local owner with vested interest helping Curt [Johnson] and the team out, helping us out on a weekly basis and making sure they’re driving relationships and interests in the community.
“[The RailHawks are] one of the highest performing teams in the league, both on and off the field, and we’re an absentee owner. As connected as Curt is to the community, and that was the key to us hiring him, he knows and we all know it’s not the same as being an owner. We have to go to that next level.”
What does appear to have outwardly changed after the Strikers’ sale is the status of that potential local RailHawks ownership, as well as Traffic Sports USA's long-term relationship with Carolina. Traffic wants to preserve a presence in the NASL, the league they helped form and finance. And there’s only one real way to maintain that foothold.
“Clearly for us to continue being a leader in the league,” Davidson says, “it’s important for us to continue being a majority owner in one of the clubs.”
The Carolina RailHawks' next home match is Saturday, Oct. 18 against ... the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Davidson, who attends the vast majority of Strikers' match in Fort Lauderdale, says he's uncertain at this time whether his schedule will permit him to attend the game.
"That'd probably be the most appropriate time for everyone to challenge my emotional ties," Davidson says with a chuckle.