RailHawks 2.0 – a concerted effort to invest in the Carolina RailHawks and improve the fans’ game-day experience – already has resulted in success and increased attendance, less than a year after the team changed hands.
The RailHawks set a club record of 9,032 fans – a nearly sold-out crowd – at WakeMed Soccer Park on East Chatham Street when the team played Deportivo Toluca FC of Mexico in March.
And the club expects to have its largest turnout yet on July 12 when the RailHawks face English Premier League team West Ham United FC in an anticipated sold-out stadium.
These new attendance records come amid recent changes, including field seating, enhanced concessions and a bus that picks up fans from designated Cary and Raleigh locations to take them to the game.
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But within the coming years, there could be further changes, including more Premier League rivals, a soccer school and possibly a second professional sports team at the park.
This vision for Cary’s North American Soccer League team could come to fruition with the team’s new owner, Steve Malik, who purchased the RailHawks last October, and team representatives, as well as a recently approved lease with the Town of Cary.
The Cary Town Council unanimously approved May 12 a three-year lease with an option to renew two more years. The town’s first sublease with the team was in 2006, according to a staff report.
“I would love to see the stadium full every time the RailHawks play,” Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said in an interview. “(Malik) is making things happen.”
The agreement includes different options that the club may want to pursue this year or in the future. This season would net the town $145,000 to $253,077, depending on what options, if any, are selected.
One option the club can pursue is leasing various meeting spaces at WakeMed Soccer Park to run a soccer academy school. This would allow elite players to train and go to school at the same time.
Curt Johnson, team president and general manager of the RailHawks, said a soccer school could open at the park as early as August, though he said he couldn’t be more definitive.
“I think it’s inevitable that in the Triangle, like many of the other soccer marketplaces in the country, that it will happen,” he said.
Also included in the lease is an option to establish another professional team at the 150-acre WakeMed Soccer Park.
“Steve (Malik) has challenged all of us in the organization and the community in a way to have a dialogue about what we want,” Johnson said.
While adding another professional team would not be a short-term endeavor, he said, there are a variety of possibilities on the radar, including a rugby, lacrosse or National Women’s Soccer League team.
“We are open minded as to what might come in the future,” Johnson said. “I think it makes sense for us as well as the community to explore those opportunities.”
In the future, club representatives, including Johnson, want to continue to improve the game-day experience “from the time you leave your home to the time you get back at the end of the game” to ensure that fans who attend a Carolina RailHawks game want to return.
One way to do this is by improving traffic issues around the stadium. Fans no longer can leave their home less than a half-hour before the game and arrive on time like they could when crowds were smaller, Johnson said.
Fans now will be encouraged to come early and extend their time at the venue through many of the stadium additions, including a family zone with inflatables, and other activities.
Future plans also include investing more money in traffic control and traffic solutions, Johnson said.
“I think one of the next steps is to have another point of entrance and exit off of Cary Towne Boulevard,” he said.
Johnson said club representatives are most excited about the possibility of mixed-use, high-density developments in the area. A mixed-used development with a Wegmans has been proposed at a 90-acre site directly south of the soccer park that’s across from Cary Towne Center.
He imagines new development in the area – restaurants, shopping and more – being interconnected with the soccer park by streets, as well as bike and pedestrian pathways.
“It’s going to take Cary to the next level,” he said. “It creates a critical mass of people and a lot of entertainment options and a lot of fun for people.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608, @KTrogdon