Charlotte Knights’ BB&T BallPark brings fans, investors to uptown Charlotte

It’s a game of numbers, and looking purely at these numbers, Charlotte’s season-old BB&T BallPark is the most popular venue in all of minor league baseball.

Through 69 home games, the Charlotte Knights’ new $55 million uptown digs have packed in 667,593 fans, or an average 9,675 a game. That surpasses all of the more than 160 Class A, AA, AAA baseball parks across the country.

Thirty home games have been sellouts, with 10,200 fans entering the gates.

With the first birthday celebration of neighboring Romare Bearden Park this weekend, club officials hope they’ll add another sellout Sunday and then another on Monday, as fans squeeze in the last hometown baseball of the season. The ballpark’s final attendance could approach 680,000 fans – nearly 50,000 more than the top-attendance park last season.

And a 33rd sellout game could come Sept. 16, when the ballpark and Charlotte host the Class AAA national championship game between the winners of the International and Pacific Coast leagues.

Not bad for a club that had become a bottom feeder in attendance, drawing the smallest crowds in the 14-team International League in four of the past five seasons at its previous home at Knights Stadium near Fort Mill, S.C.

BB&T BallPark – its outfield opening to a stunning view of uptown’s skyline – and Bearden Park have pumped energy into their Third Ward surroundings. For decades, that area was nothing but parking lots and aging industrial buildings.

Now they’re hemmed in by gleaming mid-rise apartments, with more on the way, and new restaurants, bars and shops that cater to park users and baseball fans before and after games. An office tower is expected to start rising by year’s end.

“It’s been an amazing transformation,” said Randy Mobley, president of the International League, which includes the Knights. “We thought it was going to be a great site in uptown Charlotte, but we just weren’t sure. It has surpassed all expectations.

“We’ve got a bunch of nice ballparks in this league, but there’s something special about the one in Charlotte.”

Making a deal

BB&T BallPark and Bearden Park are a perfect pair, for many inseparable.

The park opened first – last Labor Day weekend, as the ballpark’s framework rose across Mint Street. But because of who the park is named for, their relationship couldn’t have been more symbiotic.

Artist Romare Bearden, born about two blocks from the park and ballpark, was a talented baseball pitcher before he became an internationally acclaimed collagist.

Making the connection wasn’t part of any master plan. Timing put them together – pressure to bring minor league baseball back to Charlotte after 24 years in South Carolina melded with a county-city vision to build a park in each of uptown’s four wards.

Both were bogged down by multiple lawsuits from Charlotte lawyer Jerry Reese, who argued the region could support a major league team and that building a minor league ballpark was short-sighted.

Then the recession slowed everything down.

The sites were selected in late 2005 after a series of land swaps between the county, city, school board and uptown landholders.

The county owns the land under the ballpark and leases it to the Knights for $1 a year for 49 years, with two 25-year extension options. The Knights paid $55 million to build the ballpark, using equity and bank loans. To help with the debt, the county agreed to pay $8 million and the city $7.25 million in payments to the club over 20 years.

The Knights will pay taxes on the building and land, said Dan Rajkowski, the team’s chief operating officer.

Some complained about the deal because of the public money and land involved. But now that the ballpark is built, most declare the deal a success.

When Charlotte Center City Partners, an economic development group, first proposed the land swap, it projected the ballpark and park would bring $300 million to $400 million in new office, residential and retail development over 10 years. Now the organization estimates new development will exceed $692 million and be complete in three years.

That is bringing in more property tax revenue. Before the park and ballpark were built, the combined county tax bill for that area was $537,800, Center City said. Now, after current and announced projects are completed, the group estimates the combined bill will be nearly $7 million.

The move uptown has invigorated the Knights’ finances, too, with revenues tripled to $12 million this year over the final season in Fort Mill, Rajkowski said.

“We still have outside events in the fall that will generate revenue,” he said. “But it’s fair to say we’ve met or exceeded our projections for 2014.”

Creating a neighborhood

Charlotte hasn’t always embraced its sports venues. Fans packed the old Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road when the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets first suited up in 1988, but attendance at the NASCAR Hall of Fame has been disappointing. After the Hornets left in 2002 and a new expansion team, the Bobcats, arrived two years later, fans weren’t so welcoming, and it often showed at the box office of a new uptown arena.

The lure of BB&T BallPark and Bearden Park helped create a new neighborhood, said Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners.

Before the venues were built, few people spent much time in that part of Third Ward – except to tailgate at Panthers home games.

“They’ve changed our city forever,” Smith said.

“They are infrastructure, and infrastructure stimulates and shapes private investment,” he said. “With the great homestands of the Knights, and having that wonderful park next door, this summer has been different from any I’ve seen in the 16 years I’ve been here.”

Style and charm

Fans who followed the Knights in Fort Mill say that stadium lacked the new one’s style and charm. It was more spread out, the seating was farther from home plate, and the design was unimaginative.

“It was boring and the drive was long, especially after the game,” said Knights fan Tyler Jones. “Knights Stadium had no sense of design, no playfulness.”

BB&T BallPark has 1,200 fewer fixed seats, but the ones that are bolted to the floor provide a better view of the game, Jones said. To reach the 10,200-seat sellout threshold, fans are counted in outfield bleachers, on a grass berm and a standing-room-only porch. Yet many fans barely touch their seats, choosing instead to mill around the concourse for maximum socializing.

The ballpark has been a home run festival during some games, delighting most fans. Yet some say it’s too easy, with 172 home runs (105 by Knights hitters) through last Monday.

The Knights’ Rajkowski said the distances to the outfield wall are standard – except for a somewhat shallow right-field wall.

“We do have a lot of home runs in the ballpark, but we don’t know why – except that we’ve got some guys who can flat-out hit,” Rajkowski said. “It could be the wind in that part of uptown that carries some of them out.”

The architects had to shoehorn the ballpark in right field, he said. That’s why right field is 15 feet shorter than left field’s 330 feet.

“If we added another 15 feet to right field, it’d be into the street,” Rajkowski said.

So lefties have an advantage at bat, he said, but pitchers just have to be smarter.

Long-term commitments

Season tickets are sold with multiple-year commitments. The ballpark has 22 private suites, 975 club seats and a Stadium Club on the club level, a Home Plate Club on the concourse level, and two Dugout Suites at the field level.

As soon as ground was broken in September 2012, the team bolstered its sales staff. More than half the suites were sold in 45 days. Companies snatched up many of the club seats and 3,500 fans bought season tickets – all before the first pitch was thrown, Rajkowski said.

Season ticket buyers commit to multiple years, with club seat holders making three- to five-year commitments. Fans outside the club seats are required to sign contracts for two to four years.

The Knights also brought in new between-inning entertainment and giveaways.

And they changed their advertising philosophy, Rajkowski said. In Fort Mill, the outfield wall was covered with 52 signs promoting sponsors. In uptown, BB&T Bank paid an unspecified amount for long-term naming rights, and the Knights offered fewer permanent advertising opportunities for greater exposure.

“So we’ve got the Miller Lite Rooftop Party Zone and the Pepsi Party Terrace, but our larger partners (such as Carolinas Healthcare System, Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas) are branded in areas that give them full exposure,” Rajkowski said.

Video boards advertise other businesses.

‘A marvelous view’

Charlotte psychologist Randy Wall played baseball from age 8 to 58 and began his love affair with minor league baseball in the early 1980s at Crockett Park in Dilworth. The park burned in 1985.

After the team left for Fort Mill five years later, Wall averaged only three to four games a season. “It was too far away,” he said.

Yet as soon as ticket sales began at the new ballpark, he organized five other friends to buy four season tickets.

That gave him 14 games – he wishes he’d gone to more.

Wall instantly was charmed by the attention to detail. He sat in seats all over the ballpark and didn’t find a bad one. After a season, he’s determined it’s the best ballpark – except for his beloved Yankee Stadium – among the dozen minor and major league venues he’s visited.

“Every time I walked into that park, I felt like a little kid,” Wall said. “I like the intimacy of the field. There’s very little foul territory, so everybody’s close to the action. And all the little details are amazing – right down to the shelf over the urinals for your drink cups.

“Then you’ve got the skyline with the sun setting – what a marvelous view.”

While the ballpark was delayed by land swaps, lawsuits and the recession, Rajkowski traveled to other parks and took notes. He borrowed the Home Run Porch from Columbus, Ohio, and the Dugout Suites from Lehigh Valley, Pa.

Barry Hunt grew up three blocks from Crockett Park and now lives in Ballantyne, closer to the Fort Mill stadium.

He rarely went there. At the new ballpark, he’s part of a group that bought an 18-game package for eight seats.

“The first time I went to the ballpark, it was under construction and I was instantly dazzled,” Hunt said. “It was not exactly the park itself – I think it’s undersized – but the view of downtown was breathtaking. They did a very good job, except that they made it too small.”

An uptown experience

For some at the new ballpark, baseball is not always the star of the show.

Home games are another nightspot in the city, a place to meet and greet, eat a hot dog, drink a craft beer and check in occasionally on the game.

“No knock on the team, but baseball at times almost became secondary,” said Jim Garges, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation director. “It’s a part of the total experience of BB&T and the park: It’s a fun place to watch a baseball game, but also to hang out with your friends.”

Center City Partners’ Smith said people go to baseball games for different reasons.

“Some people don’t want to miss a hit or strike; others come to a baseball park to hear the organ,” he said. “But some just come for some sunshine and to be with their friends or family.”

Mecklenburg County commissioner Dumont Clarke recently took his wife, Shirley, to her first uptown baseball game.

“She’s not a fan, and she kept saying: ‘Wow, this is such a magnificent setting,’ ” Clarke said. “I think people really enjoy being there. There’s a lot of opportunity to socialize.”

Clarke said the public investment and years of turmoil were worth it.

“I never ran into anybody who thought it was a bad idea or bad investment, except for (Jerry Reese),” he said. “It has done what the Knights and others said it would do; it’s brought new life to that part of the city on a regular basis, and it appears it’s generating other investments around it.”

Even before the transformation, the Catalyst, a 27-story building of 442 luxury apartments opened in anticipation. Next door, closer to the ballpark, the first 50 residents moved into the 352-unit Element Uptown last week.

Another two apartment communities are springing up across the street from home plate.

That’s more than 1,200 new housing units. And across Church Street, ground will be broken by year’s end on a 600,000-square-foot office tower, Smith said.

Sustaining the excitement

The Knights want to make the ballpark a year-round draw.

On Sept. 16 they’ll host the Class AAA championship game and four days later a craft beer festival. Groups have rented spaces for wedding rehearsal dinners and luncheons.

They hope to host college baseball games and events tied to the Belk Bowl in December.

“The first season, we were working just to get the place open and tickets sold,” Rajkowski said. “Now our staff can work to bring in more events.”

They’ll also work to sustain the ballpark’s excitement.

Mobley, the International League president, said Charlotte behaved like most cities that lose teams but get them back.

“It was almost like baseball hadn’t been in Charlotte for 25 years, although it was 15 miles out of town,” Mobley said. “So it felt like not only a new ballpark, but a new team. There’s going to come a point in time, whether it’s three years or five years, when the novelty of this new experience will start to wear.

“It’s up to Dan (Rajkowski) and others to lay a foundation in the early years to keep the fans coming back.”