Baseball has a number of chapters in the life story of Charlotte, North Carolina. The first Charlotte team was fielded in 1901, with the Senators, Twins, and Orioles all having turns with affiliated baseball in the Queen City. Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and Graig Nettles (among others) all worked their way to the bigs through the city. The beginning of the end – for a while, at least – for baseball in Charlotte occurred when Griffith Park burned down in 1985.
Fast forward a few years to 1989, when Charlotte left North Carolina and took up residence in neighboring Fort Mill, South Carolina. The Knights moved into what was then known as Knights Castle for the 1990 season, and their new home was built to be expandable to Major League Baseball standards. Most of the big plans for the area fell through, though, and the stadium now rests as virtually the only inhabitant (aside from the Fort Mill School District) of Deerfield Drive, just off South Carolina's Interstate 77.
After years of discussion and legal wrangling, the Knights finally received approval to move back across the border, with the proposed BB&T Ballpark – the second such named in North Carolina – scheduled to be completed in Charlotte's Third Ward for the 2014 season. The new facility would seat 10,000 fans, and the Knights hope it will revive fan interest in baseball in Charlotte.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There is plenty of variety in concessions at Knights Stadium. You can find all of your favorite ballpark sandwiches in "basket" form, including the sandwich and what the team calls "dragon chips". The baskets include "The Heater" (hot sauce, pepper jack, jalapenos), queso (nacho cheese and Ro-Tel) burger or, Southern (barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese, and cole slaw) burger ($9), cheeseburger or Italian sausage ($8), and bratwurst or jumbo topped hot dog ($7). Other stands - one of which was not open on the night I attended - also offer chicken tender or fried pickle baskets for $7, chili cheese fries for $7 and hot dog baskets for $5. Many additional options are available, with Fritos chili pie ($3.50), bottomless popcorn ($4.50), and Papa John's pizza ($4 a slice) among those.
Coca-Cola is the park's bottler, with bottled sodas or water ($3.50) and regular ($3.75), large ($4.25), and souvenir ($5.50, $2 per refill) cups available. Lemonade is also available at one of the specialty stands for $5. Beer is served at several stands throughout the park, with a small can for $6 and a large can for $8. There is also a local choice, with Olde Mecklenburg Draught available for $7.
Your sweet tooth will also not be neglected, with cotton candy ($6 for large, $4 for regular), Ben & Jerry's ice cream ($6 for large, $4.50 for small), and a number of fried desserts available. Funnel cakes are $5.50, and they can be topped with cherry, strawberry, whipped cream, or chocolate fudge. The "fudge" is actually Hershey's syrup, and it is recommended that you get a dusting of sugar on top of the cake along with whatever topping you choose, unless you really like salty desserts. Fried Oreos, Snickers bars, and s'mores ($5.50 each) are available on the weekends, but the portions are rather small, with one Snickers bar or two Oreos among the serving sizes for this price.
Fans are given the impression - for right or wrong - that the Knights are already done with their Fort Mill home, despite having plenty of time left in their existing facility before their move. The concourses are virtually empty, except for food stands. The outside of the facility is drab and industrial, without even a visible area of lettering on the stadium's façade to indicate its name. It has also been mentioned that there is no real nod to the facility's past, and aside from the team store having t-shirts from the Charlotte Hornets and Charlotte O's, this is an accurate description. It is almost as though the entire identity of the baseball experience (except for the Alexander Julian-designed multi-colored seats) has been stripped, and the team is counting down the days until they can take the field in their shiny new uptown Charlotte home.
As for the action in the stands, there are very few between-innings promotions, which is actually fine. There is a jousting contest (because it's the Knights - get it?), the always-predictable mascot race, the Pabst Blue Ribbon dance-off, and the PET Ice Cream scream, which produced one of the funnier sequences of the night. The public address announcer implored the crowd to yell "vanilla" on the count of three, to which they responded "woooo!" The public address system was extremely quiet for the first half of the game I attended, with a lot of the music being barely audible. This was seemingly over-corrected later in the game, as the sound system pegged at times, causing me to jump in my seat.
For those who love to follow minor league mascots, the Knights employ a dragon named Homer. He is involved in several of the on-field promotions, leads the crowd in cheers, and wanders through the stands, taking photos with kids. Homer is one of the more popular mascots in the minors, and he earns this distinction.
The Knights play about ten miles from their future home in center-city Charlotte, but the same big city feel does not cross the border to their current facility. The facility is off the second South Carolina exit on I-77, which consists of two car dealerships, two convenience stores, and the stadium. If you continue east of the stadium along South Carolina Highway 460, Captain Steve's is a short distance away at the intersection of SC 460 and US Route 21. Fans of seafood, steak, and chicken pack the parking lot, partially because of the food, and partially because there is not a lot of choice in the area.
The amusement park Carowinds is one exit north on I-77, with tons of rides and entertainment options for kids of all ages. There are also a few food options near Carowinds, but they are almost exclusively fast food. Cracker Barrel and Shoney's are the only two sit-down dining options near the park, with the exception of Fatz Cafe and Tilted Kilt a couple of miles down Carowinds Boulevard into North Carolina. It is likely advisable to partake of the options in Charlotte, should you desire a nice meal and a night out.
The Knights announced an attendance of 4,351 fans on the night I attended, which was a Friday. This number seemed a bit inflated, and the crowd that actually was there seemed to mostly disappear after the seventh-inning stretch. The homestanding Knights were leading 1-0 at the time, with the outcome of the game obviously very much still undecided. Most of those in attendance were quiet for the majority of the game, with the public address announcer imploring the crowd (on multiple occasions) to make noise, with limited success. There was some response when the team scored a run, but it took the appearance of the noise meter on the video board to elicit much else.
To be fair to the fans, there are a number of factors that have helped diminish attendance over the years, including a lack of promotion. The team hopes to average 85% capacity in their first year in the new park, but large strides in promotion will need to take place for this to happen.
The stadium concourses are, as previously mentioned, somewhat lacking in aesthetics, but they are wide and allow for relatively easy movement. Everything on the main level is somewhat open. This is good for allowing you to see a lot of the action while waiting in line for concessions. The general admission seats on the upper level do not offer the same luxury, as the entire area except for the seating bowl is blocked. The concession areas upstairs are also closed for many of the games, so this may cause a problem.
The restrooms are easy to get to and of an ample size. One of the washing stations (think of a trough with several spigots) did not work on my trip, but I was able to use the other to wash my hands. This aside, everything was clean and in (mostly) working order.
Parking is $4, and though there are more than enough spaces for almost any event except for the July 4 fireworks, the lot could use some upkeep. There is grass growing through cracks in the pavement in many areas, and despite the stadium's proximity to the interstate, traffic can back up pretty badly after more heavily-attended games. It is recommended that you know which way you plan to exit the park before you leave, and where you need to turn once you leave.
The prices to attend a Knights game are high in just about every aspect. It appears as though the team is unveiling its pricing structure for the new park without having actually moved into the new park. Ticket prices are $8 for general admission, which is either the upper level or the berm area down the right-field line, $12 for lower reserved, or $14 for field box. If you buy your tickets at the gate instead of online, add a dollar to each ticket price, for some unstated reason. To compare this to the Durham Bulls, North Carolina's other club in this classification, most seats at Durham Bulls Athletic Park are cheaper than everything except Charlotte's general admission, even with the $1.50 purchase fee for online ticketing when buying in advance.
If you bring a family of four out to a game, purchase four general admission seats, get four hot dogs, and four souvenir sodas, this along with the parking fee will cost you $69. This assumes that the general admission seats were bought in advance. The souvenirs are, for the most part, in line with other Minor League Baseball ballparks, but this is another factor to consider when coming to a Knights game. The concessions are somewhat hit-and-miss in terms of portion size and value, so try to catch a peek at what you will receive before placing your order.
There were a number of giveaways on the night I attended. The first thousand kids 12 and under through the gates received a youth Knights jersey. They were definitely popular with the kids, though there still appeared to be a number of them left to give out when I walked through the gates 15 minutes prior to the first pitch. The team also gives out a free program, called Inside Pitch, to each fan for each game. This is a nice perk and provides information to fans that will keep them from scrambling for their smartphones to find rosters. Finally, I was given a Minor League Baseball logo water bottle as I left the park. I had no idea these would be given away, so this was a nice unexpected gift.
The gentleman who gave me the water bottle was a large part of the second extra. He thanked me for attending the game, which readers here know is a big deal with me. I love it when clubs outwardly appreciate fans' patronage. The concessions staff and ushers were all very friendly and mostly stood by and watched the game, except when their services were required.
It should finally be noted that there are places for fans of all ages to congregate down either baseline. The third-base area contains a beer garden and a party deck, where many fans appeared to be spending their evening enjoying a cold one (or cold ones) and the company of others. The first-base side contains an enclosed picnic area and an area for kids that features a climbing wall and a carousel. Most of the kids appeared content to stay on the berm and hunt for foul balls, but this is a nice area for your kids to play and work off some of the concessions.
The demise of baseball in Fort Mill is truly sad to watch. Knights Stadium is just over twenty years old, and is still in great condition for a park its age. Sure, the seats are a little low to the ground for tall fans like myself, and there are some minor inconveniences, but I have seen many more facilities in much worse disarray. Unfortunately, this is apparently not a concern for the team, as they finally got the uptown stadium they so fiercely craved.
Soon the lights will go dim here, and the baseball-painted water tower just outside the stadium lot will serve as a reminder of what once was. York County has still not announced its plans for the stadium site; an equestrian center has been discussed as a possibility, along with several other uses. Whomever the eventual inhabitant may be, they will get to watch this Knights franchise give it a go just miles up the interstate, with the club seemingly assured that brighter days are ahead. Whether or not this is the case will be left to the history books.
Knights Stadium is a study in contrasts - unrealized potential, broken promises and opposing forces that keep the stadium from being the best it can be. Ownership and Charlotte leaders want to move the Knights to Charlotte's Center City, but have faced continuous opposition from a lawyer who also owns some competing property. While the Knights are expected to move into a new facility no later than 2014, reports as of October 11, 2011, say that a sixth lawsuit to prevent the move may be soon forthcoming. The stadium is just 21 years old and is in very good shape, but this region has changed so much in the last 20 years that Knights Stadium just doesn't meet the vision of the future.
The Knights have really stripped this park bare in their march towards a new downtown facility. Now that construction has begun, they've essentially given up.
Instead of using the last year to highlight the history of players who've come through this park as a Cubs, Indians, Marlins or White Sox affiliate, they've chosen to do... nothing. There is not a single new decorative item in the park from last year, where the main change was some new menu boards and large banners declaring section numbers.
The plans for the new park are impressive, and if they truly live up to the permits, it should be beautiful, but right now they are playing in a hollowed out shell.
My most recent visit on a Monday night, the turnstile attendance was 1,100, but the fans in seats attendance was closer to 300.
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