If you are a sports fan who has moved to Charlotte anytime recently, you may not realize how lucky you are.
For many years, Charlotte was a very hospitable place for professional sports teams -- but mostly for those teams that were visiting. If you were the Seahawks or the Saints, the Celtics or the Spurs, entering the Queen City for a couple of days and then departing with a victory was about as easy as finding a good plate of barbecue and a glass of sweet tea in North Carolina.
Nowadays, though, the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Hornets make things much more difficult for the visitors -- which, in turn, makes it a lot more fun for the home fans. Although a lot of people in Charlotte come from somewhere else, many adopt an allegiance to these two home teams due to proximity and, more recently, some sustained success.
A golden age for Charlotte sports
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In the 2015 season, the Panthers went undefeated at Bank of America Stadium. They were 10-0, including two playoff-game wins -- and one of those was the first-ever NFC Championship game played in Charlotte.
The Panthers’ biggest celebrity fan is two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Steph Curry, who wasn’t actually born in Charlotte but grew up in the city and starred at Davidson.
Panthers tickets are the most difficult ones to obtain in town -- especially for night or playoff games -- and it generally requires some planning ahead to attend a home game. Carolina ended up making the Super Bowl behind its two biggest stars -- quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly -- in February 2016 before sending the local sports community into a period of mourning by losing to Denver.
The Hornets have never attained that level of success, but they did go 30-11 in the 2015-16 regular season at home and won a playoff game (actually, three of them) for the first time since the "Classic Hornets" era of 1988-2002.
Hornets' tickets are simpler to come by, too. Unless LeBron or Steph is coming to town, you can generally walk up to Time Warner Cable Arena an hour before any home game and buy a ticket. Upper-deck tickets can sometimes be had for $20 or less. Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker alone is usually worth the price of admission.
Never experienced NASCAR? You will
Given the fact that Newton, Kuechly, Walker and running mate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will likely keep both teams as playoff contenders for years, this has turned into a golden age for Charlotte's two highest-profile sports teams.
The Panthers in particular have experienced a dramatic turnaround. After missing the playoffs in 14 of their first 18 years, they have now made the postseason for three years in a row. Anyone who experienced Panthers teams quarterbacked by Chris Weinke or Jimmy Clausen knows just now far Carolina has come -- from laughingstock to elite NFL franchise.
The Panthers and Hornets aren't the only sports in town, of course. Long before Charlotte earned an NFL or NBA franchise, the roar of revving stock-car engines echoed throughout our area. Charlotte Motor Speedway -- which is actually in Concord, N.C. -- is one of NASCAR's palaces. If you've never been there, you owe it to yourself to see it at least once. NASCAR's all-star race in May is the best and shortest big-name race for newbies. (And if you can't stomach the idea of racing at all for some reason, go to the excellent Christmas lights show at the speedway every December).
The Coca-Cola 600, held each May at Charlotte Motor Speedway, is the longest race on the NASCAR circuit and one of the most prestigious. For my money, though, NASCAR’s all-star race -- also at CMS every May -- is a lot more fun.
Charlotte and its surrounding cities stand as the official home base for most of NASCAR's top teams, including those of racers like Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. If you live here long enough, you will undoubtedly get to know someone who works in NASCAR, whether they are a crew chief, a jackman or a driver. The sport's tentacles thread everywhere through our red clay, and NASCAR's drivers remain some of the most accessible stars around.
What about some sports bargains? Let me give you a half-dozen ideas:
The Charlotte Knights. The team has a glorious ballpark in uptown Charlotte with an unbeatable view of the city skyline. The baseball is very good, because the Triple-A ballplayers are only one step below the major leagues. Best of all, you'll have a good time whether the Knights win or lose because who really cares who wins a minor-league baseball game anyway except the players involved (unlike, say, a Panthers game, where a loss puts a damper on the whole fan experience).
The Charlotte Checkers. A longtime Charlotte tradition, the Checkers have now returned to their old home at renovated Bojangles' Coliseum. Tickets are very reasonable and you might get a boxing match thrown in for free.
Charlotte 49ers football. For decades, Charlotte had no team playing at the highest level of college football. You usually had to drive 100 miles to see that. Now the Charlotte 49ers have themselves a football team -- albeit one still trying to get enough talented players to win regularly at the highest level. The 49ers play at a beautiful 15,000-seat, on-campus stadium only 10 miles north of Charlotte.
The ACC football championship. OK, it's not exactly a bargain -- unless your team is playing and you figure in what you're saving by not having to get a hotel.
The biggest college football game held in Charlotte every year shows up on the first Saturday in December at the Panthers' home stadium, when the two best teams in the ACC face off in the league's championship game at Bank of America Stadium. In 2015, Clemson edged UNC, 45-37. Charlotte hosts the ACC title game at least through 2019 and also holds the Belk Bowl every year in late December.
Big-time golf. For the past decade or so, the Wells Fargo golf tournament has been played every May at Quail Hollow Club (Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler have all won it). But in 2017 an even bigger tournament comes to town later in the year instead -- the PGA, one of golf's four majors, will be played at Quail Hollow in August 2017. That one will be guaranteed the best field any Charlotte golf tournament has ever had.
High school football or basketball. Pick a Friday night. Pick a random high school anywhere in or around Charlotte. Pay less than $10 for a ticket. Watch sports at its purest.
Scott Fowler is The Charlotte Observer sports columnist and has worked for the newspaper since 1994.