The North Carolina Triangle has long been considered a viable candidate for a Major League Soccer franchise.
Yet as Orlando City, New York City FC and David Beckham's Miami franchise kick off the next generation of the United States premier soccer league, Raleigh's prospects seem to be dimmed by the growing soccer fever encompassing all of the nation's biggest cities.
However, the Triangle's athletic scene, long dominated by collegiate football and basketball, is diversifying almost as quickly as the metropolitan population is booming.
The NHL's Carolina Hurricanes draw relatively well in one of hockey's smallest markets; the International League's Durham Bulls are re-establishing their identity as the model franchise of minor league baseball; the North American Soccer League's (NASL) Carolina RailHawks are coming off an undefeated 2013 home schedule and repeatedly proving their ability to contend with upper-level competition.
If critics find it easy to describe the riskiness of MLS expansion into the Raleigh area, it may be even easier to explain why such riskiness could very well lead to a success of Portland Timbers-esque caliber.
As the league approaches an inevitable explosion of expansion, the Raleigh area's dedication and passion for soccer should not be overshadowed.
The Current State of MLS Expansion
Atlanta has jumped suddenly to the top of the expansion leaderboard, with MLS commissioner Don Garber raving about Georgia's biggest market in a Q&A earlier in March.
The Twin Cities area of Minnesota also seemed to be a favorite of Garber, while top NASL draw San Antonio remains in the mix. St. Louis and Indianapolis stand out as locations in the Midwest, another region under-tapped by MLS.
Indeed, the league is on the cusp of blossoming from a 19-team group to a 30-some-club conglomeration capable of competing with the NHL and NBA for market share.
Wrote Jonah Freedman of MLSsoccer.com in his March 15 column:
But there’s another big reason to enjoy 2014: It’s the last year of MLS as you know it. Because this league is changing forever after this season, and all that talk about slow, controlled growth is about to speed up in a hurry.
MLS will be the largest top-flight league on earth. And it’s not even close. No country in the modern era of the game has successfully dealt with that kind of size and scope at the top-flight level.
If the 1990s marked the rebirth of American soccer and the 2000s followed its ascendance as a secondary sport, the 2010s could soon become the decade of its proliferation into the American cultural mainstream.
How Soccer Performs in the Triangle
The Carolina RailHawks will begin their eighth season this April.
The RailHawks have had tremendous success on the field, posting the best regular-season record in the NASL (one tier below the MLS) three of the last four seasons, and respectable success in the local market.
Their average attendance of 4,708 in 13 NASL home matches in 2013 ranked third in the league, exceeding both Atlanta (4,677) and Minnesota (4,406), among others. The Charlotte Eagles, playing in the lesser USL-Pro, averaged a mere 807 fans per game.
In their first season in the expanded WakeMed Soccer Park, which added a new upper level on the eastern sideline to increase capacity to 10,000, the RailHawks set a club attendance record in a 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup. The team defeated Chivas USA in the following round but was eliminated by eventual MLS Cup runner-up Real Salt Lake in the quarterfinals.
The Cary/Chapel Hill region is also heavily invested in collegiate soccer. WakeMed Soccer Park hosted the Final Four of the 2013 NCAA Division I Women's Soccer Championships, while the University of North Carolina won the 2011 men's soccer and 2012 women's soccer national championships.
Arguably the most impressive component of the Triangle's soccer following, however, is at the youth level. Almost 9,000 children from ages 4 to 18 participate in the Capital Area Soccer League, which celebrates its 40th year of existence in 2014.
What the Critics Say
Said commissioner Garber about N.C. earlier in March, per Richard Farley of NBC Sports:
Even in my early days—back in 2000—we’ve always looked around it, because it is a hotbed of soccer. We’ll monitor it. We’ve said we need to get south of Washington, D.C. Atlanta is a southern team. Florida…is south of D.C. I’m not sure North Carolina is coming anytime soon.
Wrote Freedman in his ranking of the top MLS expansion candidates last May:
No, it’s not a huge place, it’s not big name and it’s spread out over three-plus counties. But “The Triangle” has a wildly passionate fan base, thanks to three ACC schools within a half-hour from each other.
Soccer does well here, both at the men’s and women’s levels, and the NASL’s Carolina RailHawks...are a decent draw and have made a little noise about aiming higher. Could all those disparate parts be brought together?
If they were, one MLS player from the area tells me he’d “play there for free.” If it were done right and to scale, this could be an East Coast "Portland" in the making. Eventually.
There's no denying that the Triangle is a spread-out place and hardly boasts the mass-population statistics to overcome that dilemma. Raleigh's city limits population of 423,000 ranks 42nd in the U.S., while its metropolitan population of 1.2 million ranks 47th.
Nonetheless, Raleigh was ranked by Forbes in February as the second fastest-growing city in America today, and much of that growth is now occurring in the long-neglected downtown area.
The Carolina Hurricanes Example
The relocation of the NHL's Hartford Whalers to North Carolina in 1997 was far from an overnight success. In time, though, the 'Canes have established a niche in Raleigh.
Initially, few believed the Triangle—a region most in the sports universe then wrongly assumed to be fully annexed by NASCAR and college basketball—could tolerate, much less support, the NHL. Wrote Gerry Callahan of Sports Illustrated after the club's first three weeks in N.C.:
Their season has been reduced to one long, strange 82-game road trip. They are like some down-on-its-luck country band playing in front of small crowds, in a small city, with no home and no hope.
Their nickname, the Hurricanes, is the only thing about them that makes sense, because thus far the NHL's incursion into tobacco country has been a natural disaster.
But 17 years have revealed the versatility of the sports interests of Raleigh.
In a Southern city defined perhaps most clearly by its lack of a Southern feel, a secondary sport with foreign roots has been embraced. Today, the Hurricanes steadily and significantly attract larger crowds than N.C. State basketball in their shared home at PNC Arena.
Downsides to Competing Cities
When MLS expands into its gaping hole between Florida and D.C. (and yes, that is a "when," not an "if"), Atlanta and Charlotte seem slated to receive the greatest consideration.
In population alone, the preferential treatment of both over Raleigh seems warranted.
Historical support for professional teams, conversely, paints a more complex image.
The critics of the NHL's movement into the Southeast in the '90s, if incorrect about the fate of the 'Canes, can certainly take credit for predicting the Atlanta Thrashers disaster. The Thrashers scraped along on woeful attendance for two decades, but the ownership group had finally had enough in 2011 and sent the franchise to Winnipeg.
Both the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA, moreover, place in the league basement in attendance. Although both have experienced moderately successful 2013-14 campaigns, currently occupying the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots, they rank 28th and 25th, respectively, in average crowd size.
The Knights, Charlotte's Triple-A baseball club, ranked dead last in the 15-team International League in 2013 attendance as well. Their 3,803 average was less than half of the Durham Bulls' average and only slightly higher than the Single-A Carolina Mudcats, based on the edge of Wake County.
Dilemmas to Raleigh Expansion
Two major issues stand in the way of Raleigh's bid for an expansion team: lack of a highly prominent potential ownership group and lack of a suitably located and sized venue.
The latter concern can be resolved with time and money. Wrote Luke DeCock of The News & Observer last year:
An MLS franchise would need a stadium with at least 18,000 seats, not to mention more luxury suites, more press and multipurpose facilities, more parking and better access from Interstate 40. WakeMed Soccer Park has provisions for a 25,000-seat stadium in its master plan, but a stadium in downtown Raleigh might make more sense.
It has been speculated that city planners have been casually contemplating a stadium location just south of downtown. WakeMed Soccer Park is fine as a temporary facility; after all, it boasts roughly the same capacity as the San Jose Earthquakes' current home.
Of greater worry and less resolution is the lack of ownership. Raleigh is a city known for its generally high living conditions but is not flush on billionaires with money to temporarily waste on establishing a MLS franchise (in addition to the $30 million expansion fee, as DeCock also noted).
The Triangle's Soccer Passion
Every weekday evening, thousands of cars congest Capital Boulevard, heading home from downtown Raleigh to upper-class northern suburbs in Wakefield, Wake Forest and Rolesville.
At the spotlight at Durant Road, north of I-540 and a good portion of the way home, they run into another logjam of congestion headed the perpendicular direction.
Is it another popular commute route? No, it's the daily soccer-practice rush hour, where traffic regularly backs up 20 to 30 minutes outside of WRAL Soccer Park each afternoon.
Indeed, the Triangle's wide-scale soccer movement is most evident among its youngest participants, a generation growing up with soccer listed first on physical-exam forms, with soccer instead of baseball the quintessential summer-night spectator sport, with soccer matches in Barcelona, Manchester, Munich and elsewhere in Europe on national TV in America.
It's the generation that will inevitably carry soccer into the U.S. professional-sports spotlight in the coming decades. It's the generation that will do the same locally in the Triangle.
They deserve a MLS team to carry, too.
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