Like the Queen City itself, the sports scene in Charlotte has taken a giant leap forward over the past three decades.
In 1987, the biggest sports in Charlotte were stock-car racing (commonly called NASCAR) and professional “rasslin” (the fake kind of wrestling). There were no pro sports teams in the four major leagues – NFL, NBA, hockey and major-league baseball. The lack of options often meant that sports fans had to drive 150 miles to Chapel Hill, Raleigh or Durham to see something big-time like a major college basketball or football game.
Those days are long gone, of course. There is rarely a weekend in Charlotte anymore where something big isn’t going on in the world of sports.
The city began to change for good in 1988, when the Charlotte Hornets debuted as an NBA team and led the league in attendance. The NFL’s Carolina Panthers joined the fray in 1995 and now hold the No. 1 spot in terms of interest around here.
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Here’s a conversational tip for newcomers: If you’re tired of starting every conversation about the weather, simply say to the person next to you, “Did you see the latest thing Cam Newton did?” Then wait for the result. Because there’s always something to say.
Here’s a rundown of 10 other things you need to know at least a little about to be conversant about sports in Charlotte:
Their most well-known player is Cam Newton, their quarterback and the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2015 when the Panthers reached the Super Bowl but lost. Their most popular player is middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Tickets are generally hard to get but not impossible, especially if the team starts losing.
Owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan, the Hornets have never reached the heights their owner did during his playing career, but they keep trying. Dazzling point guard Kemba Walker is worth the price of admission, while 6-foot-11 center Dwight Howard is the most notable new addition.
Nestled into a beautiful stadium in uptown Charlotte, the Knights’ roster is always evolving. As a Triple A baseball team, they are a way station for players on their way up to the big leagues or on their way down. The Knights draw good crowds, win or lose, and have been a great addition to the uptown scene since their new stadium opened in 2014. And the skyline view from the seats is unbeatable.
Stock-car racing has long had Charlotte as its unofficial capital. The sport’s glistening Hall of Fame is in Charlotte, and Charlotte Motor Speedway – while technically in Concord – is only about 20 minutes away. Most of the well-known NASCAR drivers, such as Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., live in the area, and the sport spreads its tentacles everywhere in the region.
Hockey fans unite for the minor-league Checkers, who play an entertaining and affordable brand of the sport at Bojangles’ Coliseum near Uptown.
UNC Charlotte 49ers and Davidson Wildcats
Charlotte’s two Division I athletic programs both have their pluses. The 49ers didn’t have college football for years, but now they do. The men’s basketball team at Davidson College – most famously where Steph Curry burst into the national athletic consciousness – is good every year.
The aforementioned Charlotte 49ers are a Top-20 soccer team every year. The Charlotte Eagles have combined good soccer and great community service for years. And the Charlotte Independence are the city’s pro team, playing in the United Soccer League.
ACC football championship
The biggest college football game in Charlotte returns in 2017 after a one-year absence due to the HB2 controversy. This year’s game – pitting the winners of the ACC’s two football divisions – will be played on Dec. 2, 2017, in the Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium.
Charlotte hosted the PGA Championship – one of golf’s four grand-slam events – in August 2017. It also hosts the Wells Fargo Championship each May at the Quail Hollow Club. Past winners include Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.
High school sports
For sports at its purest, check out high school football on Friday nights or go to a steamy basketball gym in the middle of winter. Although the lion’s share of attention in Charlotte goes to the pro sports, the grassroots teams still have a sizable audience.