Luke DeCock

RailHawks’ fate raises questions about Triangle’s soccer future

The Carolina RailHawks' Nazmi Albadawi (5) and Ottawa Fury's Carl Haworth (17) battle for control of the ball in the RailHawks' season opener at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. on April 4, 2015.
The Carolina RailHawks' Nazmi Albadawi (5) and Ottawa Fury's Carl Haworth (17) battle for control of the ball in the RailHawks' season opener at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. on April 4, 2015. newsobserver.com

The Carolina RailHawks were at WakeMed Soccer Park on Wednesday, hosting a U.S. Open Cup match against a team from Charlotte. Now that they have been unwittingly swept up into a massive, international probe into soccer corruption, it’s fair to wonder how much longer they’ll be there.

Traffic Sports USA, which owns the RailHawks, and its Brazilian parent company were named in indictments unsealed Wednesday morning, the result of an international investigation into corruption at the highest levels of soccer, charged with allegedly delivering millions of dollars in bribes to secure media rights to various competitions.

While the RailHawks aren’t implicated in any way, Aaron Davidson, the president of Traffic Sports USA and the de facto owner of the RailHawks, was indicted as well, along with some of the top executives in FIFA and CONCACAF, the governing bodies worldwide and for North America respectively.

It may not be the biggest scandal in soccer – the open bribery that delivered the 2022 World Cup to Qatar may top that list – but it’s the biggest one where anyone has been arrested, and the investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice goes back more than two decades.

Davidson and Traffic are almost entirely isolated from the day-to-day operations of the RailHawks, trusting team President Curt Johnson with considerable autonomy. And the RailHawks were a very different part of the Traffic operation from the arm that handled media rights, to the point where there was occasionally some grumbling that Traffic didn’t do more to bring in foreign teams and players – grumbling that turned into sighs of relief Wednesday morning.

But Traffic pays the bills. Or did, anyway. And now professional soccer in the Triangle is at a crossroads.

The indictments call into question Traffic’s future, and without Traffic, the RailHawks cannot continue to exist in the long term. In the short term, the NASL has stepped in to sustain endangered franchises in similar positions in the past.

At one point, Traffic owned three different NASL teams, including the RailHawks, essentially keeping the nascent league alive. Traffic was able to sell franchises in Florida and Atlanta, and Davidson has openly sought local ownership for the RailHawks for several years, but with no takers on Traffic’s terms – not entirely unlike Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos and his inability to find a buyer for that team on his terms.

There was never any real time pressure, because Traffic seemed content to keep the team operating. Now, the clock is ticking. The Triangle Soccer Fanatics, the RailHawks’ supporters club, even released a statement Wednesday pleading for someone to step forward.

It may be easier to sell the team now, with Traffic likely to step entirely aside and sell the team for whatever anyone will offer. Any potential owner unwilling to partner with Traffic in the past can have the franchise outright now – and at a bargain.

And in the long term, it may be a step toward bringing an MLS team to the Triangle. Traffic was never going to do that, and the Triangle has been left utterly behind as dozens of markets jockey for position, Charlotte included.

If someone were really smart, they’d buy the Hurricanes and the RailHawks, push for an MLS franchise and run both out of the same building – one sales and marketing staff, one human-relations department, one financial operation, two seasons that don’t really overlap.

If pro soccer is important to this marketplace, it’s time to figure out what it’s going to look like in the future. It’s growing all over the country at unprecedented rates, but not at the same pace here as elsewhere, and the Triangle is no longer the leader it once was.

With Traffic exiting the picture, it’s completely up to the Triangle to figure out what comes next.

When it comes to soccer, what do we want? And is someone willing to pay for it?

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

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