Steve Malik is a man on a mission. The owner of North Carolina FC wants to put his home state firmly on the soccer map. He’s already set the wheels in motion to, submitting a bid to take his fledgeling soccer club into the top tier of the American game, Major League Soccer. If Malik were to be successful, he might just transform soccer within the Carolinas.
On January 31st, 2017, Malik submitted a bid for the Cary-based club to become the latest member of the United States’ top-tier division. There are four spots available and eleven other cities have submitted bids, too: Charlotte, Sacramento, Indianapolis, San Diego, Detroit, Nashville, Austin, St. Louis, Phoenix, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Cincinnati, and San Antonio.
It’s an ambitious bid. Of the twelve cities, only Nashville has a smaller market than the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, known as the Triangle, which the club operates within. The Triangle has only one professional sports team, the sparsely-attended Carolina Hurricanes ice hockey side, who play their home games just down the road from the soccer club. There is an appetite for sports in the Triangle, but traditionally it’s more the college kind, particularly football and basketball, that draws the crowds with North Carolina State University, UNC Chapel Hill, and Duke University all competing within the same marketplace. The soccer club currently operates in the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL) and draws an average of just over five thousand to its home games, halfway filling its modest WakeMed Stadium.
When the Premier League’s West Ham United came into town for a pre-season friendly last July, the club sold out, setting an attendance record of 10,125. That particular number supports Malik’s assertion that there is a greater appetite for soccer in the area than the regular attendances would attest to. But the locals, outside of the diehard support, aren’t drawn to the peripheral nature of the NASL league and the opponents that come into town. In an area that has produced a combined total of twelve NCAA winning basketball teams, the soccer club is kept firmly in the shade.
Malik believes that can change: “We’re a soccer city,” said the self-made healthcare IT entrepreneur and native North Carolinian. “We have that history of supporting the sport and being one of the best places in the country for the sport,” said Malik, who also owns the National Women’s Soccer Leagues (NWSL) North Carolina Courage. “What great women’s player hasn’t played at WakeMed Soccer Park? We’ve got that history of youth soccer, tremendous numbers and a history of success.”
Malik has a point. The Triangle area’s Capital Area Soccer League is an established entity going back to the seventies and is home to more than 10,000 youth players at this point. Walk onto any college campus in the Triangle and you’ll see students heading to classes wearing soccer jerseys, but it’s usually the Premier League kind that they’re following and actively supporting. When a European giant roll into town for a pre-season friendly, interest is piqued. In 2014, Liverpool and AC Milan sold out the 70,000 seater Bank of America stadium in Charlotte for what was a non-competitive match. Bayern Munich and Inter Milan drew 55,000 last year for their fixture at the same venue. Malik believes that having an MLS club in their own backyard will tap into a greater level of interest. Attendances like those above underline that belief.
While the market they’re currently operating in might only be the twenty-ninth largest in the country, Malik may hold an ace card in the form of the Triangle’s ongoing growth. It’s booming. There’s now over two million people living in what the U.S government deems the Raleigh–Durham–Chapel Hill, NC Combined Statistical Area. Cary, where the current stadium lays, is regularly featured as a location in Forbes and Money Magazine's best places in the U.S to live. It’s easy to see why. Cary, west of Raleigh, is a growing cookie-cutter town of 150,000 people with low crime, good schools, and home to large employers such as SAS, Fidelity, and Verizon. Out of towners, attracted to the affordable housing, and opportunities for further growth, are pouring into the area to the extent that some locals have coined Cary the Containment Area for Relocated Yankees such is the growing number of those from the North-Eastern U.S that have relocated there.
The boom is far from just confined to Cary either. The United States Office of Management and Budget reports the the Raleigh–Durham–Chapel Hill, NC Combined Statistical Area as growing at a rate of 10.7%, placing it third in comparable populations of 1,000,000 plus, in terms of growth, since 2010. It's showing no signs of stopping there either. The Raleigh-metro area is becoming a haven for tech start-ups. Entrepreneurs are drawn to potential of the area, recognizing the cost-effectiveness of doing business, the easy access to the talent of the area’s three main universities, and a lower cost of living for their employees. A recent New York Times article cited the Raleigh-metro area with a 38.5% increase in the number of tech jobs in the area between 2010-2015, second behind only San Francisco. The area’s established Research Triangle Park, a 7000-acre research, development and tech hub, has over two hundred companies, including IBM and Cisco, performing its business there. These are numbers that are making people sit up and take notice of the Triangle’s potential.
Against this backdrop, Malik's idea of the area being able to support a MLS team in the longer-term doesn't appear as outlandish as it might initially seem. But it’s going to cost him. An MLS expansion fee alone would set him and any potential investors back $150 million, and the current WakeMed Stadium would be unfit for purpose. MLS guidelines demands a minimum 20,000 capacity from its member stadiums. Not to be deterred, Malik’s bid includes the proposed $150 million development of a new 22,000 all-seater stadium on a site still to be determined. Malik said he and his consortium have narrowed eight identified sites to three, with local rumours talking of a Downtown Raleigh site potentially being one of them. Redevelopment of the existing WakeMed Stadium is also believed to be on the table. Outside of the $300 million required for the expansion and stadium cost, Malik would like to draw upon the public purse strings to fund the parking and general infrastructure costs a new stadium build would incur. A new build is likely to be within the boundaries of Wake County, the second largest county in North Carolina, behind Charlotte’s’ Mecklenburg. Crucially, he’s got the Wake County Board of Commissioners onside. “We love soccer in Wake County,” said Sig Hutchinson, Wake board chairman. “It’s huge, with the women’s team in Cary and with soccer growing the way it is. To me, we’re a soccer city.”
North Carolina FC has had a short, yet somewhat turbulent, history, since its founding as the Carolina Railhawks in 2006. Malik is the soccer club’s fourth owner, arriving in 2015 and promising investment in what was then an undernourished club. Until Malik’s arrival, the team’s players didn’t even have health insurance offered through the club. The year before the businessman’s arrival, two players left the team halfway through the season to study law at university. Upon assuming the reins, the UNC Chapel Hill graduate, was honest on the subject of the club’s short-term financial health: “We are going to lose a lot of money this year. It’s not a traditional investment in that sense,” he said. “I think this is going to take a tremendous amount of investment,” said Malik. “We’re going to put a pretty big divot into the investment side before we start making money.”
The self-made millionaire is no fool. After founding the Cary-based medical software company, Medfusion, in 2000, Malik sold it for $91 million in 2010. The lifelong soccer fan has got his eye firmly on the long game as far as his North Carolina FC is concerned; “I look at [this as] an investment because I see it as a long-term plan. We are looking to build a club.” Malik added that they would need to draw in an average 8,000 supporters per home game “before the bleeding stopped.” Attendances are creeping up slowly, but they still remain some way off achieving that figure. But Malik is not looking for a quick fix; “I’m in it for the long run. I’m not looking to flip it and sell it for more. I think the area has a lot of potential for soccer, and I want to see it achieve it,” he said. “I think we have the opportunity to take soccer to the highest level with the demographics we have and the growth we have.”
Following fervent speculation about the clubs pending submission to join the MLS, Malik moved to rebrand the club. The Carolina Railhawks became North Carolina FC, something that won’t have gone unnoticed in nearby Charlotte who themselves are preparing an MLS bid, and the club’s badge was redesigned to something more in keeping with a club that aspires to be seen as a major league outfit. It’s a smart move on Malik’s part. The Railhawks name is not one that screams bigtime and establishing themselves as the North Carolina club will hopefully draw further interest from those who previously looked upon the Railhawks as too area-specific. “This is a brand restatement,” Malik said. “We aspire to be at the top level of both men’s and women’s professional soccer. We made a conscious decision to brand ourselves as North Carolina’s professional club. A united soccer community will be one of the keys to reaching these goals.”
Malik’s home state needs to start making headlines for the right reasons again. North Carolina made national news in March 2016 for the passing of the controversial HB2 law, or the “bathroom bill” to give it it’s more well-known title. Amongst other things, the bill forbade transgender people from using public restrooms of the gender with which they identify. The public fallout from the bill cost the state an estimated $400 million dollars, a plethora of cancelled high-profile sporting events, and arguably years of progress. The governor, Pat McCrory, the public face of the bill, paid for it with his job come the vote for his reelection in November. Though some believe the ban will eventually be repealed, it does call into question whether MLS will want to get into bed with the Tar Heel state at the present time.
Malik, an arch-opponent of the bill, can point towards opinion polls that show that the majority of the state’s citizens do not support HB2. He believes that the league will look past the controversy and focus on his track record in supporting diversity. In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, Malik addressed the difficulties that HB2 might present to joining the MLS; “we believe absolutely that the cultural diversity of soccer is a great part of its strength, how it brings the community together, and we’ve supported that in every way—not just being open to everyone on a gender basis, but for all minorities and socioeconomic levels. I think our track record shows we’re part of the solution,” Malik said. “There’s a lot that we can do to help fix something that is clearly broken … This state has always been the most progressive of the Southern states, bringing around many of the changes that needed to appear in society and accepting them before anywhere else in the South was prepared to do that. That’s the real North Carolina.”
Given the level of competition from other U.S cities, the odds are currently against Malik being successful in his quest to secure his club admittance to Major League Soccer - at least at this stage. However, it’s hard to ignore that he’s identified a clear gap in the market for a club to succeed. North Carolina FC would be the only professional soccer club in the 650 miles between Washington DC and Atlanta. It’s reasonable to expect interest from outside the local area too. North Carolina is a driving state, eighteenth in the nation for miles travelled per driver, with a yearly average of 15,375 according to the Federal Highway Administration. If Malik builds a stadium in Wake County, as appears likely, he’ll have on his doorstep, one million residents of which, according to the U.S Census Bureau, 12.9% of its population born were overseas - the vast majority from soccer-loving countries elsewhere in the Americas. It’s not unreasonable to assume that this is something Malik would be keen to exploit.
The MLS commissioner, Don Garber, seems impressed with the potential of the Triangle to support a soccer club: “We all know what the interests in soccer is in Carolina generally,” he was quoted as saying in December 2016. “And it is one of the places that has enormous soccer participation and support. I look forward to spending a little more time in finding out more about what their vision is.”
Steve Malik, it’s fair to say, will be hopeful that the league remains keen to take a coup d'oeil into that vision when the time comes to make a decision on his bid this fall.