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Official Review by David Berger, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Spectrum Center is a “major-league” basketball arena, built primarily as the home of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. With an overall seating capacity over 20,000, it’s a bit oversized for minor league hockey, and that presents some issues for the experience.
A few years ago, the Checkers still played at Charlotte’s “B” arena, Bojangles Coliseum. This facility offered a more intimate setting (max capacity 9,605), and that helped boost the atmosphere on game day, but seeing the Checkers in Uptown Charlotte still has a lot going for it.
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".
One area where the Checkers experience excels is that the lower bowl club lounges are open to all. This creates a nice casual atmosphere closer to the ice, where most concessions are available, as well as full-service bars, serving mixed drinks and a few draft options above and beyond the standard Miller products served at most stands. Servers are friendly, and the staff throughout the arena are excellent -- friendly, helpful and really let you know that they are glad you came.
Food options at the game are fairly pedestrian, and they retain "major league" price points. Most entrée items are $7-$7.50. A small soda (roughly 12 ounces) is $4.00. From a value standpoint, the best deal is the bottomless popcorn for $4.50. The standard hot dogs, cheeseburgers, nachos and Bojangles' chicken boxes are all present. The barbecue sandwich is a nice sized portion, with good texture and plenty of slaw and pickles. Typically, I write minor league baseball reviews, so I may be holding the AHL to an inappropriate standard, but I was left looking for something a bit more unique -- something to tell me I was at a Checkers game, and not watching the Bobcats.
The one stand that makes an effort at being different is the Extreme Loaded Dogs stand, just to the right of the main entrance. They offer a good-sized link with medium spice, and a number of ways to dress them out. Offerings include a cheeseburger dog, and a frito pie dog (chili and fritos on the hot dog). Seeing others get those options, I opted for the Heater Dog. The Heater is served with a generous supply of buffalo sauce, and a blue cheese cole slaw. While the Heater attempts to bring buffalo wing goodness to the hot dog, it just falls flat. The sauce rolls off the meat and is absorbed only by the bun, making the dog an afterthought, despite its generous portion. The blue cheese slaw just doesn't work. Kudos for the effort, but this may be the worst novelty food concept I've ever had at a sporting event.
Away from the ice, the Checkers suffer from the cavernous dimensions of the arena. The concourses are lightly populated, and many of the stands and sections of the concourse are completely vacant, which is a little eerie. Most of the upper bowl is typically curtained off, although on the night I attended (a "Pink in the Rink" event for Breast Cancer Awareness), half the upper deck was not only available, but relatively full.
In view of the ice, the atmosphere is different, as people come to minor league hockey for the hockey. You'll see jerseys from the home-state Hurricanes, as well as Rangers, Devils, Blackhawks and more alongside the Checkers memorabilia. Spectators are connected to the game, and it's a fun, casual environment. In a close game, the fans are attentive and appreciative.
Moving from Bojangles' Coliseum to Spectrum Center was mostly about the neighborhood. Significant investments in the downtown entertainment district provide plenty of pre and post game options of all price levels. Any number of bars along College Street are within two blocks of the arena, and any number of dining choices in all price ranges are within walking distance. The Epicentre, at 4th and College Streets, is a three-story entertainment complex, with fast food, fine dining, and a bowling alley.
There's plenty of game day parking available for $5 or $6, depending on the lot. If you're willing to walk a little bit, there's free on-street parking available within three or four blocks of the arena. Try Davidson Street between Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and 3rd Street.
Fans are knowledgeable, but they're not the rabid hooligans you'd see at a Rangers game. It's generally an attentive crowd, but it's as much a social occasion as it is a sporting event. This may have been exacerbated by the charity event bringing more non-hockey people in than normal, but it's also fairly typical of the Charlotte pro sports scene. College basketball seems to bring out more passion in Charlotte fans.
The centrally-located Uptown district is easy to reach. As mentioned, there are plenty of options by car. Additionally, the arena is adjacent to the Charlotte Transportation Center, served by the CATS bus system, as well as the LYNX light rail line. Charlotte is bounded by two major interstates, making long distance travel simple, as well.
If you're in town for a convention or business meeting, walking to the arena is quick and painless from most Uptown hotels.
Ticket prices are reasonable, and there are a multitude of family or special event promotions going on at any time. For the best combination of price and experience, buy a lower-priced ticket, then go hang out in the lounge areas and watch the game from the drink rail. Go to your seats for the intermissions to catch a break and get off your feet.
From a concessions standpoint, they are charging major-league prices at a minor-league event. This is probably of no fault of their own, just venue policy. To maximize value, any significant meals are probably best done pre-game, followed by a drink and refillable popcorn at the game.
One thing of note at this special event game was the Checkers' willingness to really go the extra mile for the charities and local businesses. The charitable leaders were a highlight throughout the night, from the drop of the puck through each intermission. This wasn't your typical big-league, "let's have the players use pink hockey sticks on Mother's Day" promotion. The organization should be applauded for really jumping in with both feet and creating a truly unique event that's become one of their more popular nights of the year.
The Charlotte Checkers work hard to make a night at AHL hockey in Charlotte appeal to a broad spectator base, from hockey die-hards to families to charitable events. Their experience suffers slightly from the oversized venue, and a lack of enough identity to put the Bobcats in their rear-view mirror.
That said, there's really a lot to like about a night out at a Checkers game, and it's an enjoyable way to spend the night with friends or corporate clients.
Member Review by sportsroadtrips on Feb 22, 2013
Visited in late 2010, the first year of the AHL in Charlotte. From the official review, things haven't changed much. The top deck is closed off so you can't tour the whole thing. As well, one end of the seating bowl is closed off, so it can be difficult to find really good seats here; I found the seats near the top of the seating bowl had views that were partially obstructed by the glass over the benches or penalty box. I moved around a few times before I found a seat that I liked.
The game I saw had a couple of interesting promos. The first was "As Seen On TV" where you had a choice of three useless products: a pasta box, bottle tops, and buttons that you can use to make your pants bigger. The second was Teddy Bear night, where fans were asked to bring a teddy bear and throw it on the ice after the Checkers' first goal. Despite being told not to throw from behind the goal, where the netting would prevent the bears from making it onto the ice, several fans did just that, throwing their toys over and over again into the netting. Eventually they figured it out and moved to the sideline where they could reach the ice more easily. This the second time I have seen this promotion and it is always fun for the fans and a great cause.
206 N College St
Charlotte, NC 28202
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