About 40 miles from the North Carolina coast, Kinston is better known for its barbecue and the star basketball players it produces about once a decade than soccer.
It did not even have a high school soccer team until Steve Malik started one with his friends in 1978, soldering posts for the goals on their own. It was the first organized soccer team Malik was ever a part of, and the experience solidified his interest in the sport he wants to bring to the Triangle at the highest level.
“A few other guys and I petitioned the school, and they agreed to do it,” Malik said. “We were one of the first high school soccer teams in that part of the state.”
Malik, 52, is now trying to be a trail blazer on a much bigger stage. The medical technology entrepreneur bought the North American Soccer League’s Carolina RailHawks in October 2015 and rebranded them as North Carolina F.C. last December, when he announced the team’s bid to become North Carolina’s first MLS franchise.
In January, Malik also bought the National Women’s Soccer League’s Western New York Flash and relocated the team to Cary as the North Carolina Courage, transforming the Triangle’s soccer scene in a matter of months.
“His confidence alone has given soccer in the area a boost,” Cary mayor Harold Weinbrecht wrote in an email. “If he is successful with his vision, then this area will transform to be a greater place than it is today.”
“It’s a lot easier and a lot more exciting to be involved with a club that the leader, the ultimate leader, is there and passionate and involved day in and day out,” said North Carolina F.C. president and general manager Curt Johnson. “It’s obvious that he enjoys what he’s doing.”
A technological mind
Malik was born in soccer-crazed Swansea in Wales, but moved when he was 4 to Kinston, where his father was a chemical engineer at DuPont.
“Some of the owners were laughing at me. They were like, ‘I expected you to have an accent,’” Malik said. “I was like, ‘I do – southern.’”
The small town in the coastal plain was where he spent his childhood until he moved 100 miles west to college in Chapel Hill.
He graduated from North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School in 1985 with a degree in business administration, but he was always drawn to technology.
“My class was the first class that went through college with the IBM PC being a reality for us,” Malik said. “I was that kid that knew how to run Lotus 1-2-3.”
The then-revolutionary spreadsheet program he is referring to was soon supplanted by Microsoft Excel, but Malik parlayed his grasp of technology into a job at Dataflow in Durham out of college. He soon moved to Baltimore and started working with a company based in Salt Lake City on managed care solutions and early electronic health records.
Malik is now the executive chairman of Medfusion, the medical software company he founded in Cary in 1996, sold to Intuit for $91 million in 2010 and reacquired in 2013.
“If there’s any particular challenge or strategic hurdle that we’re trying to overcome, he’s the first person I’d ask for his two cents,” said Medfusion CEO Kim Labow, who first met Malik in 2007 and assumed her current role in 2016. “He’s not afraid to try stuff, not afraid to win or lose, and I think that’s helped him both through Medfusion and parlays into everything that he’s doing right now with NCFC.”
As Malik’s success in the industry continued, the thought of owning a professional sports team at some level crept into his mind, but not in soccer.
“I grew up as more of a baseball fan,” Malik said. “Before the Internet, I’d wait for the paper every day to see the scores, and I could tell you every stat.”
Malik followed his beloved Baltimore Orioles from pitcher Jim Palmer to shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., but his interest in baseball waned during the steroids era of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Soccer filled that void, especially when he moved back to the Triangle to start a family in 1995. He has four children.
“I’ve lived going to tournaments on weekends with your kids and all the craziness of youth soccer,” said Malik, who coached some of his kids’ teams in the Capital Area Soccer League for eight years.
Malik’s influence as North Carolina F.C.’s owner stretched to the youth ranks in March when he helped orchestrate the merger of CASL and Triangle Futbol Club Alliance to form North Carolina F.C. Youth, now the largest youth-to-pro soccer club in the U.S.
Malik is also a member of the Rams Club, North Carolina’s athletic booster club, and endows a $500,000 men’s soccer scholarship.
A local commitment
Miami-based Traffic Sports USA owned the RailHawks until the summer of 2015, when its president, Aaron Davidson, was indicted on money laundering and wire fraud charges as part of a widespread FIFA corruption scandal. The embattled company put the team up for sale, and RailHawks president and general manager Curt Johnson and executive vice president Pete Sciandra, impressed by his ties to soccer, set up a meeting with Malik to talk about the sale process and gauge his interest.
“What most struck me is how passionate and hard-working they were with very limited resources,” Malik said. “I really did feel like if I could come in and help them with resources, that they could take it up a couple levels.”
Malik knew the team had a loyal core of fan support when he went to a game in the rain in the fall of 2015 shortly after attending an early-season North Carolina football blowout in another rainstorm. He remembers thinking almost as many people stayed through the rain at WakeMed Soccer Park as stuck it out at Kenan Stadium.
He bought the team in October 2015 for an undisclosed amount and started investing in it without any other ownership partners.
Traffic Sports had not focused on the team’s marketing budget, which Malik immediately sought to change. He has introduced a beer garden, a “Duck Donuts Family Zone” and free Wi-Fi to games at WakeMed and has helped start a fan bus to games from local bars.
The RailHawks’ attendance jumped from eighth in an 11-team league in 2015 to sixth in a 12-team league in his first season as the owner in 2016. An average of 4,856 fans went to 15 regular-season games last season, adding up to a total attendance in excess of 70,000.
With the MLS announcing plans to expand to 28 teams in early 2016, Malik and Johnson started talking early on in his ownership about putting a bid together to become one of the league’s new franchises, which he thinks would be a perfect fit in the growing community where he has spent most of his adult life.
“When you look to the future and think about this community, we’re not getting a Major League Baseball team, we’re not getting the NFL and I think we’ve got our share of basketball already,” Malik said. “We’ve just got such a soccer pedigree, so many youth players, the college programs. ... There are such obvious benefits to our community, and I think there’s a strong desire for entertainment options downtown as we’ve seen downtown Raleigh boom.”
Malik also works closely with Capitol Broadcasting Company vice president Jim Goodmon Jr., who was enlisted by his father and CBC president Jim Goodmon Sr. to be the chair of the Triangle MLS Committee.
“About seven years ago, dad called me into his office and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to get an MLS team, but it’s not time yet,’” Goodmon Jr. said. “When Steve came into play, I remember going and talking to dad and bringing back up the MLS, and he said, ‘This is our chance...’ He has the guts to make this happen. He is the catalyst that has made this possible.”
The team publicly announced its bid last December, and Malik gathered enough funding and support from community leaders to present plans for a new stadium in downtown Raleigh to MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott and a group of league officials on July 19.
The $150-million stadium at the corner of Peace Street and Salisbury Street would be privately funded, though the team will have to negotiate with the North Carolina General Assembly to build on state government land. It is designed to seat 22,000 people and be expandable to 28,000.
North Carolina F.C. is competing with 11 other markets for four expansion slots, and the MLS will invite the first two cities it chooses to join the league by the end of the year.
“Everybody saw the stadium renderings 10 days ago or so, and I’ve seen those since we put the bid in in January, so I’ve been like a bulldog tugging on my chain,” Malik said. “All these other communities have sometimes been coming forward with things before they’re fully baked and I don’t think that’s worked well, so I think we’ve done the right thing.”
Malik’s favorite moment of his tenure as an owner came during that MLS visit last month. He had worked with North Carolina F.C. executives to carefully plan every hour of the guests’ trip. There was only one part that was unpredictable: the public rally to close the day.
“We knew we had a great corporate VIP meeting in the morning,” Malik said. “We knew the press conference was going to go well, we knew the helicopter tour and the ground tour were going to go great.
“We didn’t know how many people were going to show up.”
A lot of people showed up. Hundreds of fans packed City Market and left hundreds more who couldn’t get into the room to cheer outside.
The supporters marched across the streets of downtown singing, chanting, waving scarves and banging drums. Abbott clapped and sang along with them.
“The opportunity to meet with you, the fans, is really the highlight of the day,” Abbott said on stage at the rally. “You have a wonderful club here that you all in this community should be proud of.”
Since then, Malik has stayed busy on the road. He went to a meeting for three days with the U.S. Soccer board of directors, which he joined in March, spending more time with Abbott and MLS commissioner Don Garber. Then, it was off to Team USA’s Gold Cup victory on July 26 against Jamaica in Santa Clara, California.
“That’s special access and it’s a lot of fun,” Malik said. “I’ll take special access with a lot of fun and getting to meet the right people every time. It’s a pretty good combination.”
On Aug. 2, he traveled to Chicago for MLS All-Star week festivities and went to an NWSL board meeting a day later. Malik may not have as much national name recognition as a lot of MLS owners – a group that includes David Beckham, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank – but nearly 40 years after wearing a Kinston High School jersey for the first time, Malik is on the cusp of joining that group.
If the MLS grants him that opportunity, he will at least know how to make soccer goals, though this time in a much bigger stadium than where he started.