Supporters are a major part of the beautiful game. They bring passion and enthusiasm to stadiums around the world. They dedicate their life to their club and are far more than casual or “fair weather” fans. Supporter is a fitting term as they support and serve as the true foundation of any club.
Supporters have made the news in recent years for a load of good things: supporting a cause, donating to charities, or even saving their club. FC United of Manchester is the classic example of supporters that care. They created their own club, built their own stadium, and are currently working their way up the English football pyramid with a supporter-owned model.
Very few clubs in America boast those kinds of credentials as it is an amazing feat. But there is hope in the form of clubs large and small that are working ever so closely with supporters. Nashville FC, an NPSL side in the league’s Southeastern Conference, is one of the few supporter-owned organizations in American sports.
Detroit City, another NPSL side in the Midwest Region, is another success story due to the strong support of their Northern Guard. That club is rolling out a community investment program, renovating a local stadium, and hosting the aforementioned FC United of Manchester in May.
Yet Triangle Soccer Fanatics (TSF), an independent group dedicated to the NASL’s Carolina RailHawks, have earned an even higher profile. Their work for the community and club has made the Cary, NC franchise one of the strongest in American soccer. The group’s commitment and dedication made them a model for others to follow and many have done just that.
The picture wasn’t always so rosy. Earlier this year TSF launched a massive protest campaign aimed at the disgraced Aaron Davidson and Traffic Sports, the former owners of the RailHawks. The group didn’t want their club to be associated with the corruption scandal currently embroiling FIFA. And they certainly didn’t Davidson’s and Traffic’s uncertain legal status to put the club at serious risk. So TSF took action.
The club’s five-month long protest included in-stadium demonstrations, distribution of handbills to inform RailHawks fans of the situation, a call upon the NASL to strip Traffic Sports of its franchise and take league ownership of the team, and interviews with both local and national media to bring awareness to the issue.
People took notice of the efforts from TSF and for good reason. TSF represents the largest block of the team’s season ticket purchasers and therefore had some serious leverage with the front office and ownership. They had a voice, a big one.
“When we first started the campaign, the goal was to make sure NASL did not sweep this issue under the rug and to express our frustration with Traffic Sports for not addressing their fans at all,” TSF President W. Jarrett Campbell stated. “When it became clear the team would have to be sold due to the Department of Justice orders, we turned the purpose of our protest to be one of attracting the attention of potential owners. We wanted someone looking at the team to know that there was a solid core of very invested, passionate fans that were eager to work with a new owner who had a vision for professional soccer in our local community.”
It was a challenging time, one full of uncertainty and difficulty. Yet TSF pushed on and even more people took notice of their work.
“Throughout the protest, both NASL and RailHawks team officials listened to our concerns, and while I know neither were in a position where they could directly endorse our actions, they both encouraged us to participate in a public discourse about what we felt, in our opinion, was the direction the team needed to go,” Campbell continued. “More importantly, I was told many times by other fans of the team, and by some players and staff privately, that they deeply appreciated our activism advocating on behalf of our community.”
Protesting a difficult situation is one part of the process, but finding that “right” owner was another. TSF now believe the RailHawks have found their man in entrepreneur and Raleigh resident Steve Malik.
When the announcement was made that Malik had acquired full interest in the RailHawks from Traffic Sports USA, TSF ended their protest and put their full support behind Malik. #TrafficOut had finally become a reality.
“We are finally able to close the books on one of the darkest chapters in our team’s 10-year history,” Campbell declared in a statement to media.
This is not the end of TSF’s advocacy, but rather just the beginning of working together to grow the club and its programs. The independent supporters’ group has big plans. Those plans don’t involve giving up on community or supporter ownership as TSF continues to explore that option.
“At one point in the process, we believed the most likely suitor was a foreign investment group and we began to explore the community trust option in earnest,” Campbell explained. “Our goal at that time was to approach a new foreign investor with the intention of partnering with them to have a local minority element to ownership. Through one of our players, Nacho Novo, who is member of a community trust building an ownership stake in Glasgow Rangers, we made contact with some of the leaders of Rangers First and started learning about their history and approach. We have also reached out to the Sounders Community Trust looking for information on how they are set up.”
Campbell added that they continue to explore the idea of a community trust partnership with the new ownership. They plan to discuss this with Malik in the coming months, adding that he seemed very receptive to listening to their ideas.
So this story has a happy ending. The Carolina RailHawks benefitted from the strength of their supporters and they have emerged an even stronger organization.
The next steps will be very positive ones. RailHawks President/General Manager Curt Johnson, one of the most respected and influential leaders in the American game, was quick to praise the club’s supporters for their complete dedication.
“We are very proud of our level of support,” Johnson added. “They are important to taking the next step. We love their enthusiasm, organization, and all the new faces they bring.”
He has many plans for improving the club even further; enhanced marketing, increased staffing, and improving the on-field product are all part of future plans for the RailHawks. Making the pyramid and youth development stronger is a huge priority.
“We expect to be a bigger player in youth development,” Johnson concluded. “We are very excited about our academy programs and our plan is to be back in the NPSL.”
The team’s U-23 side, a key part of the development pyramid, has been a top program in the NPSL after joining the national league in 2014.
Additions, enhancements, and improvements are all good news for a club that experienced such uncertainly. And none of this would have been possible without the efforts of TSF. Their dedication and commitment helped turn one of the game’s most difficult situations into a massive success story.