CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What can Charlotte learn from its twin city about building a downtown minor league baseball park?
Call this a tale of two cities.
Indianapolis is the 26th largest TV market in the U.S., while Charlotte is the 25th.
They have motorsports. We have motorsports. They have an NBA team. We have an NBA team. They have the NFL. We have the NFL.
And Indianapolis has Triple-A baseball and a downtown stadium while Charlotte has Triple-A baseball and plans for a downtown stadium.
The Indianapolis Indians, the Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, moved into a downtown stadium 16 years ago to rave reviews.
Since then, the annual attendance has almost doubled. The home opener against the Toledo Mudhens drew more than 14,000 fans, a record. In comparison, the Charlotte Knights and their castle in Fort Mill have ranked dead last in attendance in the International League for three years running. That’s lower than Scranton, sports fans. Dwight Schrute is kicking your butt.
I flew to Indy to talk to Indians General Manager Cal Burleson to see what lessons he might have for Charlotte. He said it was “certainly a tremendous boost for us to be able to play in the best minor league ballpark in America.”
And he’s not the only one saying that. The park has long drawn great reviews among baseball fans and sportswriters alike.
As full disclosure, I’m a baseball fan. Sure, I go to Fenway when I’m in Boston, but I also take my son to see the 49ers play at UNCC and the Kannapolis Intimidators and, yes, the Charlotte Knights. I like the game. So I can tell you, for a minor league park, Victory Field is beautiful. The Indiana Capitol Dome is in the sight lines beyond center field. And the park is squeezed between the Indianapolis Convention Center and the towering, new JW Marriott Hotel.
Indianapolis is a big league city with a minor league baseball park downtown. And its attendance more than doubles Charlotte, a big league city with minor league baseball off an exit ramp in the next state.
Burleson said the ballpark does not just replace other family activities like miniature golf or the movies.
“It brings people downtown and once they're downtown they tend to do a multitude of things,” he said.
In Indy the public picked up the tab for more than half the costs of building the ballpark. But in 1996 dollars that was a mere $18.5 million. Even after adjusting for inflation, construction costs alone for the Knights downtown park would run twice as much.
One major expense the Indians did not incur that the Knights get stuck with is the cost of the land. The Indians built in White River State Park so the state had already acquired the land years before. In Mecklenburg County that’s a $24 million expense.
Moral of the story: There are benefits to building a sports facility in a state capitol. I will restrain myself and not talk about Raleigh here.
Victory Field did not sell naming rights. The Knights already have named a sponsor–BB&T.
And politically, Victory Field did not carry the burden of dashed expectations that Charlotte sports promoters bear after the inflated attendance projections at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But the public costs of the Knights new park are a fraction of the Hall of Fame.
Not to mention more people go through the turnstiles at the Knights Castle in 68 home games right now (279,107 last year) than go to the NASCAR Hall of Fame all year long.
“It’s tough every time our elected officials make bold moves,” said Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. ”This is not a NASCAR Hall of Fame type move.”
Smith said the ballpark will bring not millions but hundreds of millions in direct investment in adjacent parcels.
The Indianapolis baseball park has provided a venue for collegiate games and amateur sports, as well as one more venue for the week-long party that was this year’s Super Bowl in Indy–an event which generated the kind of buzz for the town money can’t buy but which is hard to measure in hard numbers.
One of the reasons for that buzz–fans could walk between all the venues.
“Sounds like a city we know, doesn’t it?” said Smith.
I sat next to a Chevy sales manager from Indy on the first leg of the flight home to Charlotte. When I mentioned the park, he lit up. He said he likes to pick up sandwiches or a pizza and take the kids to sit on the grassy slopes beyond the outfield. The kids roll down the hill and he and the wife chill out.
And yes you heard right–you can take a cooler filled with food into the park free and not have to pay for the proverbial overpriced hot dog.
Whether you bring your own food or pay for ballpark fare, minor league baseball, at $9 per ticket, is still cheaper family entertainment than a movie.
As a Dad (aka the guy with the wallet), I say both should drop their prices to fill thousands of empty seats, but what do I know?
So far downtown baseball in Charlotte has been a long, hard sell. The Knights have to approach two political bodies–the Mecklenburg County Commission and the Charlotte City Council–whereas thanks in large part to the recently defeated Richard Lugar, Indianapolis has only one governing body, the “Unigov,” a joint city-county municipal government.
Then there’s the question of whether Charlotte should hold off for a major league baseball franchise. Indianapolis took a good look at the landscape, with four MLB teams less than three hours away (Chicago’s White Sox and Cubs to the north, and the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds to the south) and settled for the best minor league park it could build.
Charlotte City Council, originally set to vote on an $8 million capital request next Monday, has instead put off the vote indefinitely while supporters try to win six votes.
It’s now up to City Council whether to invest hotel/motel tax dollars in a minor league park for what is otherwise a growing major league city.