A golden age in Charlotte sports is upon us.
I have lived in the Charlotte area and written about its sports scene for the past 20 years for the Observer. And I can tell you with certainty that from a spectator’s standpoint it has never been better than it is right now.
There was a three-day period in April 2014 that provided a taste of what will come with regularity over the next few years. On consecutive days, you could have watched the Charlotte Checkers play hockey, the Charlotte Knights play baseball and the Charlotte Bobcats (they hadn’t changed the name yet) play basketball.
Two of those games had playoff implications. The third christened the Knights’ glorious new BB&T Ballpark. They all occurred a few blocks from each other in uptown. A pro cycling race sped through the city’s streets that weekend as well. And I haven’t even mentioned Charlotte’s biggest sports franchise – the NFL’s Carolina Panthers – yet.
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So, in 2014, here are a Sweet Sixteen’s worth of reasons why Charlotte has become a great sports town:
1 Carolina Panthers: The team celebrates its 20th season in 2014 with a squad that went 12-4 and made the playoffs for the first time in five years in 2013. You can tell on fall Mondays in Charlotte if the Panthers won on Sunday – the mood feels lighter around here if they did – and they have been doing so with more regularity.
With the trio of quarterback Cam Newton, 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly and 2013 NFL Coach of the Year Ron Rivera leading the way, the Panthers seem poised for more success.
Just as important from a fan standpoint: About $65 million has been spent on a massive stadium renovation at Bank of America Stadium. It includes much larger scoreboards with better instant replay capability, a new sound system and escalators that can take fans all the way to the upper levels.
2 Charlotte Hornets: Once upon a time, the original Charlotte Hornets led the NBA in attendance every year and sold out 364 straight games in a 23,000-seat (and now demolished) arena a few miles south of the center city.
Those Hornets left for New Orleans. A new NBA team came to Charlotte in 2004 and was called the “Bobcats.” It was mostly awful – although the 2013-14 season was a notable exception – and never won a playoff game.
Then New Orleans changed its nickname to “Pelicans” and owner Michael Jordan in turn decided to change his own team’s name back to the much-beloved Hornets starting with the 2014-15 season. The Hornets have their “encore debut” this fall at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The timing is fortuitous for the new Hornets, who are clad in their beloved teal and purple colors once more. Big man Al Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker are already standouts, and the team just added a dazzling, impetuous shooting guard named Lance Stephenson.
3 NASCAR: Long before the Panthers or Hornets ever took their first baby steps, racing was king in the Carolinas. It still rules for a couple of weekends every May and another in October, when NASCAR’s most famous drivers compete at Charlotte Motor Speedway in two high-level Sprint Cup points races and the sport’s all-star race. The majority of the sport’s most well-known drivers – Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon among them – have their race shops and make their homes in the Charlotte area.
4 Charlotte Knights: After years of playing at a nearly forgotten outpost in South Carolina, the Knights moved into a splendid new uptown stadium in 2014 just a couple of blocks away from the Panthers’ stadium. They have proceeded to sell it out constantly. As the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, the Knights often eventually see their best players called up to the big leagues. That makes for an ever-evolving roster, but that gorgeous view of the skyline from the new ballpark never changes.
5 Charlotte Checkers: The Checkers and Hornets perform quite a balancing act at Time Warner Cable Arena, taking turns using the place throughout the winter and spring as ice turns to hardwood turns to ice. The Checkers are only one notch below the NHL, which means the hockey is very good and the prices are quite reasonable.
6 Charlotte 49ers football: For decades, Charlotte’s largest university did not have a college football team. That changed in 2013, when the 49ers fielded a respectable 5-6 squad in their debut season under former Wake Forest assistant coach Brad Lambert. The 49ers play in a beautiful 15,000-seat stadium only 10 miles north of Charlotte, and it was regularly sold out during its first season.
7 Davidson basketball: The Wildcats are most well-known for producing Stephen Curry, the baby-faced shooting guard who led the team to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight in 2008. But under coach Bob McKillop, Davidson consistently makes the postseason with some of the best, most team-oriented college basketball you will ever see. Make the drive north on Interstate 77 to exit 30 and leave enough time to take in the quaint college town while you are there. Following home games, you can often mingle with Davidson basketball folks at the nearby Brickhouse Tavern.
8 ACC football championship: The biggest college football game played in Charlotte every year arrives in early December, when the two best teams in the ACC square off in the league’s championship game at Bank of America Stadium. In 2013, Florida State won the game and, eventually, the national championship.
Charlotte has hosted the ACC’s title game since 2010. Because of the city’s success in doing so and a geographic location that is convenient to so many of the ACC’s members, the ACC recently announced that Charlotte would continue to host its signature game through at least 2019. The Belk Bowl – a college bowl game that always attracts a crowd – is also played at the Panthers’ home stadium in late December.
9 Wells Fargo golf tournament: May is one of the prettiest months in the Carolinas, so it is fortunate that the PGA’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club brings the best golfers in the world to Charlotte every year at that time. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler have been among the previous winners. Gallery favorite Phil Mickelson almost always plays the event and finishes in the top 10. If you want Saturday tickets, buy them quickly – that day always sells out first.
10 Charlotte Criterium: A pro cycling race through the streets of uptown Charlotte each April brings out curious onlookers as well as those heavily immersed in the cycling culture. The speeds are breathtaking.
11 Charlotte Hounds: Lacrosse is one of America’s fastest-growing sports, and it is represented on the professional level by the Hounds. The Hounds’ season runs through the summer, with home games played at American Legion Memorial Stadium in uptown.
12 Thunder Road marathon: Runners come from all over to test their endurance for 26.2 miles in Charlotte, in what is also a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. This year’s event – which also features a half-marathon and a 5K – is Nov.15, 2014.
13 Charlotte swimming: Charlotte is home to one of the most prestigious and successful swim clubs in the country in SwimMAC Carolina, which has produced several Olympians and recently became the training site for 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte. The local swim world’s biggest event each year is held in May. It is called the Charlotte Grand Prix and features most of the best American swimmers in the world.
14 Friday-night high school football: Every Friday in the fall, thousands of high-school glory seekers suit up for their school and play under the lights. Especially in the small towns that bump up against Charlotte, there is nothing else quite like it. And in terms of sports bargains, a high school football ticket ranks way up there.
15 Charlotte soccer: The Charlotte area – and North Carolina in general – has become one of soccer’s American hotbeds. The Charlotte Eagles and Lady Eagles are professional minor-league teams that play at Queens Sports Complex and have a strong history of community service. The Charlotte 49ers are traditionally one of the best college teams in the country and made it all the way to the NCAA final in 2011.
16 Cam and Kemba: Every pro team needs a star or two to elevate its profile. For the Panthers and Hornets, two young men who each wear No.1 do the job – Panther quarterback Cam Newton and Hornet point guard Kemba Walker. The Panthers and the Charlotte NBA franchise made the playoffs in the same calendar year in 2014. That was the first time in 17 years that had happened.
Both Newton and Walker won national championships in college. They have not attained nearly the same level of success in the pros yet. But on many days, these two are worth the price of admission all by themselves.