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Life under Traffic has given way to a Carolina RailHawks revival

Photo: NASL.

Ambitious local ownership has revitalized an organization that was left in limbo. Scott French reports:

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Carolina RailHawks president Curt Johnson was sound asleep in the early-morning hours last May 27 when his phone rang. He knew, with a glance at caller ID, that something was wrong.

“We need to talk,” NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson told him.

The news was bad. Traffic Sports, the RailHawks' Brazilian owner, and its American division's president had just been indicted, along with dozens of others, in the FIFA corruption scandal. How it would impact the club was anybody's guess.

It was a blessing in disguise that we were able to get an owner, and an owner that was local. We're reaping the benefits from that right now.

- Colin Clarke

The RailHawks were among the poorest teams in the second-division league, getting by on a slender budget. This looked like it might kill the Cary, N.C.-based organization.

Eleven months later, things have never been better. The RailHawks have a new owner with deep pockets and big aspirations, and the team, bolstered by an offseason signing spree, is racing toward the NASL's Spring title.

Without one, there isn't the other. FIFA's worst moment was, for the RailHawks, a way forward.

“You could put it that way ...,” said head coach Colin Clarke, who in his fifth season in charge has his team 4-0-0 in the 10-game sprint that starts the NASL's split season. “You could say it was a 'blessing in disguise' that we were able to get an owner, and, more importantly, an owner that was local ... we're reaping the benefits from that right now.”

One meal, one spark

Photo: NASL.

Focus is back on the field in Cary. (Photo: NASL.)

Steve Malik, a medical software entrepreneur who stayed in the Triangle region after graduating from the University of North Carolina, had always wanted to own a professional sports team. As a youth coach and booster of his alma mater's powerhouse men's and women's teams, he was involved in local soccer, but he'd never been to a RailHawks game. He knew the name but little else about the club, yet an offhand remark at a dinner last summer sparked something. The club was his by October.

Steve has energized everyone with the vision and the resources to get us where we all want to go, which is the highest level ...

- Curt Johnson

If pro soccer becomes big in North Carolina, as Malik envisions, that was the kickoff.

“It's an exciting time,” Johnson, a former Sporting Kansas City general manager who has run the club since 2011, told FourFourTwo. “I hesitate, in a way, to say the word 'new,' in the sense that we've had professional soccer in the Triangle area for most of the last 20 years. So new owner, a new energized vision with the resources that those of us who have followed closely pro soccer in North Carolina have dreamed about ...

“It's so exciting for all of us -- the fans, the front office, the players, etc. -- that Steve has energized everyone with the vision and the resources to get us where we all want to go, which is the highest level ...”

Malik, 51, has, by all accounts, the energy, vision and wherewithal -- he founded in 1996 the medical software company Medfusion, sold six it years ago for $92 million, then bought it back for a concealed sum three years later -- to take the club places. When he stepped in, an overhaul was required.

“Short answer,” he said, “I changed everything.”

Photo: NASL.

Fan experience has been a point of focus under Malik. (Photo: NASL.)

The front office, notoriously short-staffed -- the club's accountant also was in charge of game-day and team operations -- has grown to nearly two dozen employees, and they've been moved from space underneath WakeMed Soccer Park's stands to Medfusion's luxury digs in Cary. The marketing budget has, according to Johnson, increased “tenfold.” Part-time coaching positions have become full-time, and player expenditures have increased by about 30 percent.

A new television contract has made every RailHawks game available throughout the state, there's been a transformation of the game-day experience for fans, relationships within the community have been fostered or strengthened, and connections have been made with youth soccer clubs surrounding Raleigh.

“We have looked in every corner of the organization, from a budgetary standpoint, from a programming standpoint, and reevaluated everything,” said Johnson, a former North Carolina State soccer star. “It's been an exhaustive process, but one that has helped us to address the deficiencies. We've been a professional organization for many years; pockets of what we've been doing have been very professional, and pockets of what we've been doing have been less than professional."

Next: Taking change to the field