How The Triangle Boosted Its MLS Expansion Bid
Soccer fans throughout the Triangle can't help but feel a little more euphoric this summer.
Steve Malik, a health-care-technology-entrepreneur-turned-professional-soccer-club-owner, pumped millions of his fortune into North Carolina F.C. and thrust Raleigh onto Major League Soccer's map.
MLS will expand from its current roster of 22 teams, and Malik really wants them to choose Raleigh for one of those new franchises. NCFC plays in the North American Soccer League, which is like Triple-A Baseball, except the teams aren't affiliated with any major league teams. He also owns N.C. Courage, the women's team that plays in the National Women's Soccer League, the top domestic league.
In late July, Triangle soccer fanatics gathered in downtown Raleigh to support Malik. It was a big day for the club. This was the day MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott came for a site visit.
A fan group called the Oak City Supporters attends every game, and was out in full force on the day of the rally. Member Chuck Givens said the time is right for the MLS to look Raleigh's way.
"It would just mean a lot to the region. Right now we only have one major professional sports franchise in the Hurricanes, and Raleigh is clearly big enough to have two," Givens said. "I've been in Raleigh my entire life, I've grown up here, so I've seen it not have any professional sports team, to possibly having two major professional sports teams would be huge for the city. And I know they could support it very easily."
NCFC and NC Courage both play at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. At a capacity of 10,000, it's a good size for now, but not big enough for a major league men's team.
Malik partnered with local developer John Kane. They proposed a stadium project in the north part of downtown Raleigh. The state owns the land of the proposed site, but John Kane believes that area is underutilized. Although the General Assembly seems like it would never agree on anything, Kane said he hopes this stadium project might prove the exception.
"It's a great economic development play. It improves an area where the legislators live every day and the governor is every day with his office in the administration building, that is quite frankly pretty depressing," Kane said. "I mean, all those buildings are obsolete, they're in horrible shape, they cost a lot of money to operate, and it could give us a chance as a state and a city and state capital really to improve that area in such a way that would make their lives much better, quite frankly, and be a better showcase for people that are coming in for other economic development opportunities."
But talking about the stadium plan is getting the cart before the horse. Twelve cities put in MLS bids. Only two will be awarded this year.
Oak City Supporter Ryan Jernigan was pretty confident in Raleigh's chances.
"I think we've got a good shot," Jernigan said. "Steve Malik has made a lot of promises and he hasn't broken one yet."
But others aren't so sure 2017 will be the year.
"I think we've got a great shot, to get one of the four franchises. I don't think it's going to be this go-around. I'm pretty sure that Steve Malik and company don't expect it to be this go-around," said Adam Gold, who hosts a local sports talk radio show in 99.9 The Fan. He points out there are other really strong bids in the mix.
As for the competition, Gold believes Sacramento is a mortal lock to get one of these first two teams. After that?
"Tampa, Phoenix, San Diego. St Louis might have been a mortal lock until their stadium situation fell apart," Gold said. "Raleigh is way ahead of Charlotte. Charlotte might as well just drop out. I think Charlotte recognizes that now. Because their stadium bid, their whole plan just fell apart. And MLS didn't even meet with city officials."
The Charlotte bid is backed by Marcus Smith, the son of Motorspeedway owner Bruton Smith. But they have asked the city and county taxpayers for $100 million. Mecklenburg County leaders appear ready to approve their part, but the city council likely won't. Malik has promised to finance everything with private money, something MLS commissioners have said is important.
It's far from a slam dunk that Raleigh will win an MLS franchise. But Malik has made believers out people like John Kane.
"I think that Steve Malik will get an MLS team," Kane said. "It's a matter of when he gets it. He's determined, he's got the wherewithal, he's got the grit to go get it done. He's doing all the things that need to be done. So I'm betting on Steve, obviously, and I think he's a really good bet."
Now, everyone just has to wait until the MLS makes its announcement in December.