Fielding the Advantage: Attendance and the Charlotte Knights

BB&T’s outfield before the game

Earlier this summer, I took the opportunity to attend a Charlotte Knights game. I sat right behind home plate, so that I could get the best possible view of both the players and that spectacular view of the Charlotte skyline. In doing so, I accidentally found myself sitting in the middle of a group of baseball scouts. During the calmer moments of the game, we stuck up a conversation, talking about the Knights, the new ballpark, and baseball in general.

“Talent in baseball hasn’t really changed,” says Matt Gaski, professional scout for the Miami Marlins. What was new, however, was the state-of-the-art ballpark that the Knights have been playing in since 2014. Professional scouts are required to cover specific organizations from the majors to their minor affiliates (the Knights are AAA Affiliates for the Chicago White Sox). The players they examined get about 1–3 looks per year, and a single look consists of about 4–5 games. In short, being a scout means watching an awful lot of baseball. And a nicer facility helps.

It also helps the players. Baseball players can be “victims of the teams they’re drafted to,” says Gaski. “Lots of AAA players are called up to and called down from the big leagues, and if the stadiums aren’t great, then the crowds aren’t great, and that affects the players.” Well, crowds aren’t a problem in Charlotte. The Knights have led the minors in attendance every year since the opening of BB&T Ballpark. And that attendance is having a positive effect. The Knights have consecutively higher win/loss ratios throughout the 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons.

New, state of the art minor-league stadiums aren’t unique to the Knights, either. They’re part of a nationwide pattern: Since 2000, over sixty minor league ballparks have opened across the United States, and the eight that have opened for AAA affiliates have seen similar jumps in attendance. When the Nashville Sounds moved to their new home at First Tennessee Park in 2015, their average attendance jumped by almost 3,000. Still, none have had as drastic a change as the Charlotte Knights, whose average attendance soared from 3,803 in 2013, to 9,686 after BB&T opened a year later.

The Charlotte Hornets baseball team lasted from 1892–1937

There are a number of reasons for that massive jump: First, the Knight’s relocation was heralded as the “return” of baseball to Charlotte, and the first professional game played in Uptown in 25 years. According to North Carolina baseball historian Mark Cryan’s Cradle of the Game, the Knights have been playing minor league baseball in the Queen City for a very long time, since 1892 — back then they were the original Charlotte Hornets. In 1985, the Knights (then known as the Charlotte Orioles) were forced to leave uptown when their ballpark burned to the ground. In 1988 the Charlotte Orioles would become the Charlotte Knights, and would play in Knights Stadium, their home in Fort Mill, until 2013.

Cal Ripken Jr.’s baseball card from his time with the Orioles

Second, the construction of BB&T caused a local commotion. Jerry Reese, a personal injury attorney with a passion for baseball, sued the city seven times in an attempt to prevent the construction of BB&T ballpark. Way back in 2006, Reese had instead proposed a $600 million, 40,000 seat, retractable roof ballpark that was designed to entice the Miami Marlins, then considering relocation, to give Charlotte it’s first Major League Baseball team.

Of course, the Marlins remained in Florida, Reese’s proposal never materialized, and the Knights relocated. Ever since, the games have drawn consistent crows, and the Knights are currently the most valuable MiLB team on the east coast — second in the nation. And yet, the Knights; revenue (approximately $15 million in 2015) and attendance is less than half than that of the Tampa Bay Rays, currently the least valuable and least attended team in the MLB. And when “Sweet” Lou Pinella visited BB&T Ballpark , he noted the beauty of the facility, but still stated “Charlotte…is not a minor league town.” Reese may have had a point.

So the Knights are something of an anomaly. A major-minor league team, located just next door to a sports franchise that went to the super bowl last year. But Charlotte’s kind of an anomaly, too. The city has national ambitions, but still prides itself on the “Big City, Small Town” feeling currently on display in local Google Fiber ads.

2016 Ad Campaign for Google Fiber’s arrival to Charlotte

“I envision Major League Baseball coming here in the not too distant future” said Sweet Lou. I agree with him. Yet I still remember the night I sat with the scouts. The sun was setting and the skyline was lighting up. The heat had dissipated, and all around me were families, or groups of friends. Despite the divisiveness in the state and the nation, here were people, sitting and enjoying themselves, watching a team that played just for their city.