Charlotte Knights provide minor league fun in major league city

The Charlotte skyline serves as a backdrop for downtown’s Truist Field, home of the Triple-A Charlotte Knights. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

CHARLOTTE — Nestled into a tight city block in uptown Charlotte and surrounded by a picturesque urban skyline, Truist Field affords fans of the Charlotte Knights some of the most spectacular sightlines in all of baseball.

But as pleasing to the eye as the idyllic surroundings might be, the location also presents a challenge for management of the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.

Flanked within walking distance by Bank of America Stadium on one side and Spectrum Center on the other, the Knights are literally surrounded by major league franchises.

So how does a minor league team compete with the likes of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, Major League Soccer’s FC Charlotte and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, not to mention concerts featuring high-profile acts such as Billy Joel and Elton John?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t even try.

“This city has great sports entertainment, but we fit a different niche during the summer in that central district of sports entertainment,” said Knights chief operating officer Dan Rajkowski, adding that NASCAR and the upcoming Presidents Cup golf event also fit into the equation.

“If you go to an NFL game with a family of four, it’s going to cost you a few bucks. You can come here and it’s a lot more affordable. And it’s a very social atmosphere. I think it all fits in and it works for us. We’ve been successful, which is a credit to this great city.”

A big reason why the Knights have been able to thrive as a minor league entity in a major league city is that they aren’t run like a minor league team.

Their stadium, though small with a capacity of 10,200, features wide concourses, plenty of concession options and two indoor climate-controlled club areas — one in the upper deck along the first base line and another for season ticket holders on the lower level directly behind home plate.

Charlotte left-hander John Parker pitches during the Knights game against Durham Bulls at Truist Field in Charlotte on June 28. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

There is also a children’s play area beyond the outfield wall and two full-service picnic areas that are used for group outings Rajkowski described as the “No. 1 part of our business.”

On this particular occasion, a recent date against the Durham Bulls scheduled for 11 a.m on a Tuesday because of a Def Leppard/Motley Crue/Joan Jett concert at Bank of America Stadium later in the evening, the place to be was the right field section known as Corona Rooftop Beach.

The party atmosphere among the corporate groups in attendance made it clear that, unlike a Panthers or Hornets game in which the final result would have left fans disappointed, the home team’s 6-2 loss to its in-state rival was secondary to the experience of spending an unseasonably pleasant day at the ballpark with co-workers and friends.

“There’s a great energy because of the cross section of people you get here, especially with so many young professionals in the area,” said Drake Tunson, watching the game from the Rooftop Beach with Bank of America colleague Brad Murdock.

“This is a beautiful ballpark, it draws a great crowd and it’s really brought some life back to the city to have something to do on nights and weekends when the Panthers aren’t playing,” Murdock added.

That’s exactly the vibe Rajkowski and team management had in mind when they decided to move the team uptown from its previous location in suburban Fort Mill, South Carolina

The Knights have been among the International League leaders in attendance every year since Truist Field opened in 2014.

In 2019, the most recent pre-COVID full season, the team drew more than 581,000 fans for its 69 home dates. This season is on pace to be even better.

A dragon hangs out in centerfield next to the video board during the June 28 Charlotte Knights game with the Durham Bulls at Truist Field. (PJ Ward Brown / North State Journal)

And those numbers only reflect the ones that pay to get in.

Because of the stadium’s design and the tight space in which it was built, it’s possible to see the action from outside the gates along South Mint Street. Those who live in the adjacent apartment building have an even better view.

“I shared (season) tickets with someone, and when he had them I’d sit on my balcony and watch the games,” said Doug Robichaud, who used to live on the 18th floor overlooking the field. “So many people come to the games that when the Knights had a rally, you could hear them cheering.”

The crowds aren’t the only thing the Knights’ arrival helped bring uptown. Among the other additions to the neighborhood are Romare Bearden Park — a favorite pregame gathering spot for Panthers fans in the fall — a federal courthouse annex and a 29-story, glass tower.

“I’ve watched this place grow up, step by step,” Robichaud said as he sat comfortably on one of several rocking chairs located on the aptly named “Home Run Porch” just 315 feet from the plate in right field.

The small dimensions were a necessity because of the size and shape of the lot on which the ballpark was built. Because of that, there wouldn’t be enough room to expand the facility to major league specifications should, as is often rumored, a team might consider relocating to Charlotte.

Charlotte Knights mascot Homer waves a flag prior to during the June 28 game at Truist Field. (PJ Ward Brown / North State Journal)

And that’s fine with team COO Rajkowski.

“If you were to add MLB to Charlotte, we’d probably be the smallest market with three major league franchises, and we’d have more than three,” he said. “There becomes the competition for sponsor dollars, suite dollars and the ability to draw in a market on weekdays when people have to work and kids are in school.

“We’re not that city right now. Down the road I think Charlotte would be a great market. But that would be several years from now.”

For that to happen, Rajokowski said that a new stadium would have to be built. Not only would such a project be a costly one for local taxpayers, but it would also be nearly impossible to find a better location than the one the Knights already call home.

“The view is probably the best in minor league baseball,” said season ticket holder Dustin Vinke. “The backdrop is just incredible and the atmosphere on weekends and for night games is really electric. They do a great job of making it a fun experience.”

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