Luke DeCock

DeCock: New RailHawks owner has ‘upper echelon’ ambitions

The Railhawks’ Nazmi Albadawi (left) and Charlotte’s Patrick Slogic race for a loose ball on May 27, 2015.
The Railhawks’ Nazmi Albadawi (left) and Charlotte’s Patrick Slogic race for a loose ball on May 27, 2015. newsobserver.com

As a businessman, Stephen Malik describes himself as “an accelerator.” He made his fortune creating software that aggregates online medical records for patients, something he thought should have happened a long time ago.

“Things that everybody knew were going to happen, if I could make them happen sooner, that’s what I put my shoulder into,” Malik said.

As the new owner of the Carolina RailHawks, Malik sees something else that should have happened a long time ago, a process he thinks needs to be accelerated: pursuing an MLS franchise for Raleigh.

It’s difficult for Malik to come out and say it, because he is genuinely excited about the NASL, the RailHawks’ current league, and its plans for growth. But when he throws around phrases such as “upper echelon” and “top tier,” he leaves no doubt about his meaning.

“There’s been a lot of support for us taking it as far as we want to go,” Malik said Thursday, working out of a makeshift office in a suite at WakeMed Soccer Park. “As a community, we have some decisions to make.”

The Welsh-born, Kinston-raised, UNC-educated software entrepreneur said he believes strongly in the Triangle as a soccer market. He said he has been surprised by the depth of support for the RailHawks from fans and sponsors, enjoying the pent-up enthusiasm of constituencies that had started to tune out while former owners Traffic Sports let the team wither.

Malik said he’s going to invest in marketing, in salaries, in facilities, in entertainment, in merchandising – all the things Traffic never would – to make the team truly competitive on the field and in the market. All of which may be the first step toward a much bigger investment.

The RailHawks had been for sale for years, even before Traffic was ensnared in the FIFA bribery scandal, but Malik bought the team two weeks ago for two reasons: His company, Medfusion, had become relatively self-sufficient, and he could see the window closing fast on any chances of putting an MLS team in Raleigh. Buying the RailHawks, Malik thought, was the best first step toward that goal.

“We’re going to be a competitor for the top tier in the country,” Malik said. “And we need to be. I do feel a sense of urgency about that. I felt like the RailHawks are a great asset toward that, and I was excited to get involved with that and spend some money on that. Let’s see what we can do. All the environmental conditions are there.”

As an MLS market, Raleigh has been, and remains, a no-brainer. There’s no summer competition, soccer runs deep in the Triangle’s sports DNA and the wave of kids who grew up playing soccer now have jobs and disposable income (and kids of their own). It’s also a market of discerning soccer consumers, which is why the RailHawks have struggled at times to build a fan base beyond their hard-core supporters but regularly draw five figures for games against MLS or Mexican teams.

Despite those favorable conditions, the two main barriers to bringing MLS to Raleigh have been, for years, an owner and a stadium. No one was willing to step forward with the more than $100 million needed to begin the pursuit. And WakeMed, while a top-class facility, would need considerable upgrading to meet MLS standards, to the point where it might make more economic and logistic sense to build a new stadium in Raleigh.

The situation has lingered so long there’s now a third barrier: time. MLS is adding four teams over the next few years to grow to 24 teams, although the viability of David Beckham’s Miami bid is questionable at best. Any further expansion is likely to be limited, and other cities are scrambling into position.

Malik said he’s willing to lead an ownership group in any expansion effort and has the financial wherewithal to begin the process, so long as the RailHawks are successful enough to prove the viability of the market to MLS.

For the first time, the conversation about MLS isn’t only happening in bars and on soccer fields. It’s a real conversation now, one that needs to proceed quickly or it’ll just be talk.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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