After an eventful offseason that has resulted in a plethora of changes to squad personnel, the Carolina RailHawks announced unprecedented changes coming off the pitch as well.
The club is making alterations to enhance the game day experience at WakeMed Soccer Park, internal investments in an expanded coaching staff and analytics and a new TV deal that will make it easier for fans to keep up with the team from home.
In a press release, the RailHawks announced changes to the game day atmosphere, including a section reserved for supporters groups, a “Far Post Beer Garden” with a FIFA 2016 video game station and a wide array or local beers, enhanced concessions services, free Wi-Fi, improved traffic patterns into and out of the park, $1,000 in cash in one match day guide at every home game, a “Duck Donuts Family Zone” with activities and inflatables, a new season-long fireworks plan and a “Fan Bus” that is partnered with local bars and an expanded merchandise display.
Ryan Jernigan – the founder of “Oak City Supporters,” an independent RailHawks supporters group – is eager to see how the fan bus unites WakeMed Soccer Park with the surrounding area.
“We’re really excited about how this update improve the connection with the city of Raleigh,” Jernigan said. “Having a free bus committed to taking people from downtown out to the stadium and back is a huge step in bringing the momentum of a supporters’ culture to the RailHawks.”
Along with the stadium upgrades, team president and general manager Curt Johnson told the News & Observer that the club has increased its advertising budget by 10 times what it was in previous years.
“We have a good facility, a very good product on the field. From the time fans enter the facility until they leave, we’ve invested a lot in their experience,” Johnson said. “We’re still providing a traditional soccer match, it’s not all ‘razmataz.’ It’s entertainment, certainly, but still staying true to what the sport is locally, nationally and internationally.”
The club is also making an effort to make WakeMed Soccer Park more of a unique venue in terms of the structure and signage.
“Criticism I’ve had of our home experience in the past is that it’s a bit generic in terms of the look and feel of the stadium. Lot of concrete, a lot of steel,” Johnson said. “What you’re going to see in 2016 is a stadium, that when you walk into it, you know who the home team is and you know what the colors are, a much more professional feel.”
With the improvements that the club is making to the game day experience, Johnson cited three of the main demographics the club wants to attract to home matches: millennials, youth soccer families and the Latino/international population.
The RailHawks’ friendly with 10-time Mexican champion Toluca FC on March 26th is more than just a tough test for the team before league play opens up a week later; it’s also a marketing tool.
“Folks come from countries or family culture that may support other teams or international teams, but this is their local team,” Johnson said. “We’re connecting us to them and to the broader world game.”
A new TV deal with the Capitol Broadcasting Company will broadcast all games on WRAL2 and WRALsportsFan.com – as opposed to the past when just away games were broadcasted on WRAL2 – with the hosting of Toluca FC on and the league opener against Minnesota United FC on April 2 going on FOX 50.
“In order for us to grow as an organization, we have to get more exposure and put our team and game day in front of as many people as possible,” Johnson said. “You can look at it as an infomercial, each two-hour game is an infomercial to a lot of people that may not be familiar to what we’re doing. It’s for our fans, of course, but also to grow interest in the RailHawks.”
Less than two weeks before the league opener, the team also announced a multi-year deal with Time Warner Cable what will have all league games broadcasted live in the majority of both North and South Carolina – by far the largest outreach the team has ever had.
As the players look to earn their first NASL championship in club history, the club is making encouraging decisions behind the scenes to aid that goal. The club is expanding the coaching staff, having already promoted Dewan Bader to full-time, and investing in analytics.
Note that the RailHawks analytics investment is separate from the NALS’s recent partnership with OptaSports, which will provide improved data for fans and media to track and follow.
“Analytics is something we’ve wanted to do for years,” Johnson said.
It hasn’t been long, but all the promises that new owner Stephen Malik made to fans are starting to take shape.
“Malik reached out and promised a commitment to growing the supporters’ culture into something we could truly be proud of,” Jernigan said. “These steps have put us well on our way to that. In OCS’s short year of existence, the relationship, expectations and commitment level from the RailHawks is miles ahead of where it was.”
For an analysis and list of the RailHawks’ fixtures in 2016, click (http://www.newsobserver.com/sports/soccer/carolina-railhawks/article56804278.html).