The Carolina RailHawks, now re-branded as North Carolina F.C., announced plans Tuesday to pursue a Major League Soccer franchise in the Triangle and to build a new 24,000 seat stadium.
Local entrepreneur Stephen Malik, who bought the RailHawks 14 months ago, unveiled the new brand during a press conference at City Market, saying the goal is to get the club in the MLS in the next 12 to 18 months along with a new stadium that he believes will take two to three years to build.
“We love putting the ‘North’ in front of ‘Carolina Football Club,’ you know, none of our other professional sports franchisees do that,” Malik said, in reference to the Carolina Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes. “We do feel like we’re a representative of the state.”
Malik, 51, said there are eight sites he’s considering for a new seat stadium, which could cost $150 million, but didn’t hint as to where. The club currently competes at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.
Malik said there is more than enough people to support another professional sports team in the area. The Hurricanes play at PNC Arena.
“All along I intended to bring us to the highest level,” he said. “One of the analyses the leagues do is on a per pro franchise basis. We rank extremely high in that basis ... there’s room in our market. We love the ‘Canes, but there’s room for another franchise.”
Malik said he and his investors are prepared to pay for the stadium out of pocket, but “at the same time, to win a bid … we need to have the best long-term stadium situation and I think that at the same time we’d need some public support on infrastructure and parking at the least.”
Raleigh spokesman John Boyette said he was unaware of discussions about building a stadium in the city. Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said he had just seen the team’s announcement and was awaiting more information, but was pleased to see efforts to add sports revenues after the loss of events due to the dispute over House Bill 2.
Malik said that he believes the stadium could have an economic benefit to whatever area were to get a new stadium.
“We have such a growing area with the development that’s being put around it that the stadium could be a centerpiece,” Malik said. “The economic impact as a lot interest coming our way.”
Despite the two to three year timeline it would take to build a stadium, Malik mentioned the team could start MLS play before it’s done.
“We have a unique situation … if you look at how some things have gone in the past, maybe we could play sooner rather than later,” Malik said. “It all depends on the (MLS) and what they’re ready for.”
With public money needed to make a serious bid to earn a spot in the MLS – St. Louis and Cincinnati are among other cities competing to join the league – teamwork was a theme repeated by the speakers at the event.
“If we want to attain a franchise, we need to gain community support, governmental support and corporate support,” Malik said. “We need to show that we deserve a franchise.
MLS released a statement about North Carolina F.C.’s expansion bid on Tuesday.
“Major League Soccer appreciates North Carolina FC and Steve Malik’s interest in bringing an MLS expansion club to the Triangle,” said MLS Executive Vice President Dan Courtemanche. “We recently met with Steve and he discussed his exciting vision for growing soccer in the area, including his ambition for an MLS expansion team. We look forward to learning more about his plans as they develop.”
MLS commissioner Don Garber, who is scheduled to give his “State of the League” address Friday in Toronto, has said he plans to cap the league at 28 teams, but Malik isn’t worried about the competition.
“We’re going to turn all our tumblers before (the other clubs do) and that’s a big part of it, being ready first,” Malik said. “We have an owner, a local owner and a stadium plan.”
In the meantime, North Carolina F.C. will continue to compete at WakeMed Soccer Park. It’s likely it’ll join the United Soccer League for the time being due to the rumored end of the modern-day North American Soccer League.
The USL, which is the home to many of the MLS’ developmental squads, is has been a launching pad for some of the the top-tier league’s most successful clubs in terms of attendance, such as the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers.
“We feel good about the NASL, but as you know, there’s a lot going on,” Malik said.
The club also announced intentions to bring a National Women’s Soccer League to the area within the next six months.
It won’t be the first time a women’s soccer team has competed in the Triangle. The Carolina Courage competed from 2001 to 2003 and recorded attendance numbers that surpassed the RailHawks’ average. The Courage folded due to its league’s struggles.
A new badge
North Carolina F.C.’s new badge is aimed at hitting key points of North Carolina’s legacy, according to the team.
COLORS: Atlantic Blue, Cardinal Red, Southern Gold
FIRST IN FLIGHT: The wings next to “FC” pay tribute to the Wright Brothers’ flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
TRIANGLE: The bottom right point of the star is a Triangle, a reference to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.
OAK CITY: The badge is supposed to be shaped like an acorn, in honor of “The City of Oaks.”