An interesting look at the sports event industry in Greater Raleigh, N.C.

Update: On April 8, it was announced that Cary, N.C. was chosen as a host city for the 2018 Concacaf Women's Championship first round. The Concacaf Women's Championship qualifies teams for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup in France. The U.S. Women's National Team returns to Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park to compete in Group A, and games will take place on Oct. 4, 7 and 10. Read the full release here.

U.S. Women's National Team - courtesy of ISI Photos

In 2017, WakeMed Soccer Park hosted the U.S. Women's National Team
in an International Friendly with Korea Republic.

Photo credit: ISI Photos

The phone call from Chicago came in Jan., just after the holidays.

It was Paul Marstaller of the U.S. Soccer Federation dialing Curt Johnson, president and general manager of North Carolina FC (NCFC), the franchise formerly known as the Carolina RailHawks.

The U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) was looking at potential dates to play international exhibitions, and Marstaller, U.S. Soccer’s director of events, had a serious question: Would North Carolina FC be interested in hosting such a match at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park?

That call set into motion many other calls, conversations and emails, and eventually, a deal was reached. About a month after the call, on Feb. 12, details were announced: Paraguay’s national team would visit Cary to play the USMNT on Tues., March 27.

It’s yet another marquee game for the facility, which includes practice fields and the game venue, Sahlen’s Stadium, both of which are run by the Town of Cary. The venue has been the site of 11 College Cups for men and women, the most of any site for the NCAA semifinals and final. It has hosted club teams from England, Italy and Mexico, as well as national teams from Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.

Of course, it is the home of North Carolina FC, which opened the season last weekend, and the North Carolina Courage professional women’s team, who open their season on Sat. That game is three days before the U.S. and Paraguay meet before a near capacity crowd and FS1 cable audience.

Each game such as Paraguay-U.S. adds to the region’s soccer reputation, boding well for the future. Just as the grass is monitored and groomed nearly year-round by public works staffers from the Town of Cary, it’s work done in the past that enables strong relationships with national and international partners.

Think about that Jan. phone call. It doesn’t happen without tireless work by many in advance. That’s the goal of North Carolina FC and the Town of Cary, according to William Davis, the town’s sports venues manager for the past 14 years. “Between our staff and Curt and his staff, we try to stay in constant communication” with organizations such as USSF or the NCAA. “We say, ‘We want you back, come on back.’ When they have an opening, we want them to think, ‘Hey, let’s go to Cary.’”

That cooperation between soccer team and municipality help not only Cary but the rest of the Triangle. The USMNT will train at WakeMed for more than a week before the game, providing direct economic impact in the form of hotels and meals. The stadium will be full or very close to it (a few tickets remained available as of this article’s posting). And a generation of soccer-playing youth will get a chance to have an up-close look at some of the top players in the world.

And, of course, Greater Raleigh gets to demonstrate the type of hospitality it’s known for, as well as its love for soccer. “This region, first and foremost, I think has got the passion for the sport,” Dave Sarachan, the USMNT’s interim head coach, said.

USMNT Press Conference - Feb. 28

(L-R) Dennis Edwards, president and CEO, Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau; Coach Dave Sarachan, USMNT; Steve Malik, owner, North Carolina FC/North Carolina Courage; Lori Bush, mayor pro tem, Town of Cary; William Davis, sports venue manager, Town of Cary; Curt Johnson, president and GM, North Carolina FC/North Carolina Courage

Johnson and Davis lead groups that are passionate about putting on first-class events. There is a marketing team that puts a ticket promotion plan into effect. There is security to hire, traffic and parking arrangements to be made, food and beverage vendors to be contracted.

Davis said one of his first phone calls was to the employees who manage the playing surface. Before the U.S.-Paraguay match came about, the plan was to have North Carolina FC and the Courage play on still-dormant Bermuda turf and let the field green up naturally, around mid-April, as temperatures rose.

That plan changed when the international friendly was added–and these teams, unfortunately, have time for such matches because neither qualified for the World Cup, which begins in June in Russia. Davis said the new plan included overseeding the Bermuda with rye, a cooler-weather grass that would produce more green earlier for that national and international TV audience.

The world’s top players are used to world-class turf, so other amenities also matter. Cary and the surrounding area are able to supply them, both at the practice field and away from it.

The stadium itself is a draw, but the venue is far different than the one that opened as State Capital Soccer Park in 2001 as the second soccer-specific stadium in the U.S. (Columbus Crew Stadium was the first, in 1999). Johnson grew up on soccer in the area. He played in school at Ravenscroft and also for a club team in the Capital Area Soccer League before going on to play at North Carolina State University. He’s now in his eighth season with the North Carolina FC/RailHawks franchise.

Some of the venue’s changes over the years are part of the reason soccer organizations continue to schedule games here, Johnson said. For that, he credits the work of the Town of Cary.

“Since our stadium opened, there have been billions of dollars spent to build stadiums for pro soccer in the U.S.,” Johnson said. “There are a lot more very good, if not world-class, soccer stadiums than there were in (2001).”

“The grounds, the upkeep of the stadium, additional suites and seats the video board–all of that has helped keep the facility competitive and able to host games like this. They wouldn’t be coming to a facility if it had not had the upgrades and the level of investment from the Town of Cary. I think that value is returned to the community with the national team coming.”

Other partners, such as hotels, the youth soccer community, and the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, also help make events such as Paraguay-U.S. happen, Johnson said.

“In the national landscape of events, this community is viewed as a friendly host,” Johnson said. “It all adds up, the contributions from so many, and it all feeds upon itself.”

2017 USWNT crowd - courtesy of ISI Photos

The community's support of the sport is noticed on a national level.
Photo credit: ISI Photos