I was concerned in 2013 when I learned that majority ownership of the Wilmington Hammerheads soccer team was being sold to George Altirs following the conclusion of the 2013 USL PRO regular season. Majority owner Bill Rudisill had been an amazing asset and enjoyed a history with the Hammerheads dating back to 1998. He and other stakeholders in the team had built the brand to be a mainstay in the community through the years, and to be Wilmington’s only professional sports team. Altirs lived in New Jersey and ran the Cedar Stars Academy, a youth soccer program, and was owner of the Capelli Sport Center, an indoor facility that offers leagues and private lessons. Would he feel the same commitment to Wilmington that local-resident Bill had shown? Or would the Hammerheads involvement in the community wane…and perhaps even disappear altogether?
I’ve watched with interest since that time and am pleased to say that my initial concern was unfounded. In fact, the Hammerheads’ ties to the community and the strength of the brand have grown even stronger. The two most notable changes have come through expanding partnerships. One year ago, the Hammerheads merged with Cape Fear Youth Soccer, becoming the Wilmington Hammerheads Youth FC. This long-term strategic partnership supports the growth and development of youth soccer throughout the region, and builds on the ever-growing soccer culture in the region. With over 3,000 annual participants, the reach is significant and creates an enviable synergy between the youth and the pros.
Several Hammerheads Youth players have already had the opportunity to
train and scrimmage with the Hammerheads’ professional players. New programs provide game-day passes to all of the Hammerheads’ home matches so they are able to watch the action up close and learn from the professional players. Many of the players act as coaches for Hammerheads Youth teams, creating a great dynamic off the playing field when they get to work with kids one-on-one or in a smaller group setting. These youth, at an impressionable age, also benefit from having a new set of role models. They develop both as players and as people.
Other notable pairings occurred in January 2014 and 2015. In January 2014, the Hammerheads formed an affiliate partnership with Toronto FC of Major League Soccer. As the official USL affiliate of Toronto FC, the Hammerheads received a minimum of four MLS-contracted players for the 2014 USL regular season. The partnership benefitted both teams with player development. For Toronto, getting first team players sufficient match experience required for their development during the course of a season was a challenge. By playing with the Hammerheads, it allowed those players to earn valuable match minutes and continue their growth during the season in a professional environment in USL, filling a developmental gap within the club. For the Hammerheads, the level of play was elevated even more, and business practices are shared between the two clubs. Toronto FC had an open door policy that allowed Hammerheads coaches to be present at matches and training sessions for observation.
As of 2015, the Hammerheads are now the exclusive official affiliate with New York City FC, an expansion MLS team that started this year and is owned by the NY Yankees and Manchester City, two of the biggest sports businesses in the world.
While these new alliances have strengthened the organization, the Hammerheads have continued to give back to the community. They support several non-profits in the area—Habitat for Humanity, Special Olympics NHC, and Good Shepherd—by volunteering staff time or having the players make appearances and volunteer. The organization hosted a 5K race prior to the start of this season that helped raise money and canned goods donations for Good Shepherd. They have hosted online jerseys auctions to benefit the Battleship North Carolina’s restoration fund and New Hanover Regional Medical Center Foundation’s Pink Ribbon Project.
As they continue to give back, the Hammerheads build community spirit and show that they are just as pleased to be here as we are pleased to call them our team. And if you haven’t enjoyed a game lately, that enthusiasm shows. Hammerheads General Manager Jason Arnold and Director of Marketing and Public Relations Danielle Dorantich shared with me the numerous changes that make game night an even better experience. VIP upgrades are available to all of the fans so they have the opportunity to enjoy a catered meal before the match or partake in on-field seating. They’ve incorporated live music in the beer garden and whiskey barrels as bar tops, as well as specialty craft beers for sale. The VIP area has moved alongside the field, with a permanent awning and fencing for a better controlled atmosphere. It’s fun and games for the children too, with a new kid zone with a blow-up Hammerheads’ goal.
Even the in-game giveaways have been upgraded. Each game provides a giveaway to fans, from cowbells to other Hammerheads branded items. Staff toss out free sponsor items into the stands during each game, including Frisbees, balls, and T-shirts.
The Hammerheads have grown to be an internationally recognized organization, playing games overseas and hosting international players on their roster from exotic locales like Cameroon. The team is a boon for Wilmington. The organization is a passionate part of our city that deserves our support as they continue to support the community. Let’s all help them to excel. Go Hammerheads!