Charlotte's Professional Sports
Whether you’re a diehard fan or you’re just in it for the tailgate, the city offers numerous ways to root for the home teams.
Charlotte’s professional sports scene lights up scoreboards across Crown Town in the same way planes take off and land at Charlotte Douglas International Airport—often and with a full complement of patrons on board.
Whether you’re a Queen City native who has been hailing your favorite franchise for decades—and can’t seem to part with that tattered Dell Curry jersey—or a transplant looking to latch onto a loyal following, you’ll find a team that feels like home here in Charlotte.
The city’s talented and varied professional teams deliver in big and exciting ways. And there’s more than thrilling competition on tap. These hometown heroes bolster pride citywide, spearhead philanthropic support and add a rich fabric to our community’s culture and quality of life.
Here’s the backstory on five beloved hometown professional teams, how they became established, what their traditions entail and what their legacies mean to Charlotte.
No team in Charlotte history has contributed more to the city’s sports identity on a national scale than the Carolina Panthers—and all in just 24 years.
Six years after filing an application with the NFL, Jerry Richardson, himself a former wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts, and his ownership team were awarded an expansion franchise by the NFL. In 1993, the Panthers were born, and Richardson, who’d debated making the team’s home base North or South Carolina, selected Uptown Charlotte, kicking off a longstanding love affair with the city.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2018, the Panthers franchise has showered the Queen City with countless gifts: two Super Bowl appearances, decades of sold-out home games, a wildly loyal fan base, immeasurable economic impact and, of course, the dab. Even the stressful moments are a cause for celebration: The team’s frequent and fabulous come-from-behind fourth quarter finishes have earned them the nickname the “Cardiac Cats.”
On home game days, Center City becomes a sea of silver, blue and black as tailgaters assemble along blocks around Bank of America Stadium. Around town, Panthers-themed cocktails and fare fill restaurant tables, and ticketless fans pile into bars and pubs to catch every minute of game coverage.
Beloved public servants since the earliest days, the Panthers organization, their coaches, players and associates have become known for off-the-field benevolence. Community campaigns and annual fundraising efforts, like the Keep Pounding Blood Drive and the Make-A-Wish Draft Class, underscore for fans the team’s tremendous heart and civic character.
The team’s undying mantra of “Keep Pounding,” introduced and inspired by the late, esteemed former Panthers player and coach Sam Mills in 2004, is a call to fans: Persevere, despite obstacles that stand in the way.
From this cherished team slogan and charge, a tradition was born. At the start of each home game, the crowd cheers on team mascot Sir Purr as he passes a baton to the designated “pounder,” who then strikes the official “Keeping Pounding” drum, signaling it’s time for battle. Fans also know another storied Panthers tradition: the dab—the dance move popularized by Quarterback Cam Newton.
Since the return of the Hornets name in 2014, “Buzz City”—code for the city’s NBA culture—is back in Charlotte in a big way.
The Charlotte Hornets’ moniker pays homage to the British General Cornwallis’ analysis of the city, whose citizens fiercely stood their ground during the Revolutionary War. He called Charlotte a “hornet’s nest of rebellion.”
Donning stinger-emblazoned jerseys, the Hornets thrill crowds and die-hard followers with their up-tempo style of play and family-friendly home court at Uptown’s Spectrum Center (formerly Time Warner Cable Arena), dubbed “the Hive.”
Charlotte’s affection for professional basketball stretches back to 1988, when the Hornets were one of four new teams brought into the league. Thanks to sensational starters, the “original” Charlotte Hornets, who dominated the court at the former Charlotte Coliseum, were incredibly popular. They led the league in attendance, especially in the early 1990s, when fan favorites like Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson and the charmingly diminutive Muggsy Bogues clinched the team’s first playoff appearance in 1992.
Following a contentious debate over arena funding, the team left for New Orleans in 2002. But Charlotte was immediately awarded an expansion franchise by the NBA. Just two years later, the city’s new team, the Charlotte Bobcats, played their first game at what is now the Spectrum Center.
After minority owner and NBA legend Michael Jordan took control of the team in its sixth season, it wouldn’t be long before he brought back the rights, history and team name to the franchise. As expected, upon the return of the Charlotte Hornets in 2014, the city went wild. Fans fell in love with the revamped Hornets logo, color scheme and uniforms and dusted off their time-treasured team relics for a new wave of hometown pride.
The Hornets can be credited with bringing a lively buzz to Uptown and creating an exciting entertainment option for visitors and locals. Watching the players practice during pregame warmups is almost as exhilarating as rooting them on in real time. Arrive early to scope out the scene: Celebrities often hide in the crowd, the Honey Bees break out impeccable dance routines and mascot Hugo the Hornet stages incomparable antics.
Dreams of professional baseball in Uptown Charlotte were fulfilled on a most spectacular stage when the Charlotte Knights, the AAA Chicago White Sox affiliate, took the field at the shiny, new BB&T Ballpark in spring 2014.
Named “Best Ball Park in Minor League Baseball” by Baseball America, the Charlotte skyline-backed BB&T Ballpark has quickly become the place to be for a great evening out during the spring or summer. It’s no surprise the Knights have regularly topped the league in attendance since the park’s opening.
Charlotte’s baseball tradition traces back to the 1901 Carolina Hornets. Following in their footsteps are the Knights of today, who are actually the fifth incarnation of an MLB affiliate. Over the years, the team has been connected with star programs, including the Baltimore Orioles (1976-88), the Chicago Cubs (1989-92), the Cleveland Indians (1993-94), the Florida Marlins (1995-98) and the Chicago White Sox (1999-present).
After playing for years across the state border in Fort Mill, South Carolina, the team’s relocation to Uptown has garnered a new generation of fans and supporters. Now fun promotions such as Bark in the Ballpark invite guests to munch on peanuts alongside their pooches, while giveaways, postgame fireworks, special appearances from notable guests and the team’s famed mascot Homer the Dragon continue to draw lovers of America’s favorite pastime.
Local bites served at the on-site concession stands add an indulgent flair to stadium fare (macaroni and cheese-loaded hot dog, anyone?), and an array of homegrown suds served in a craft beer garden offer a perfect tip of the cap to Charlotte’s pervasive brewery scene. Hop connoisseurs will find favorite pours from The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, NoDa Brewing Company, D9 Brewing Co., Triple C Brewing Co., Birdsong Brewing Co. and The Unknown Brewing Co. all on tap.
It might surprise you to learn that the “Northern” sport of ice hockey enjoys a deep history in this sunny Southern city. The story dates back more than 60 years.
After experiencing a devastating fire at their Maryland home rink in 1956, the Eastern Hockey League’s (EHL) Baltimore Clippers had to quickly find a new venue to host their final five games. Enter: Charlotte (now Bojangles’) Coliseum, where the Clippers happily skated into town—and never left.
Hockey was so popular among locals that the Clippers moved to Charlotte and were rechristened as the Charlotte Checkers in 1959. The team continued to play in the EHL through 1973 and then in the newly formed Southern Hockey League before ultimately folding in 1977.
Professional hockey returned to Charlotte in 1992, when the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), a mid-level professional ice hockey league, awarded the city a franchise that would affiliate the born-again Checkers with the NHL’s Boston Bruins. The team won its first championship after only three years in the league, and it lit in Charlotte a passionate fire for hockey.
The Checkers became affiliated with another NHL team in 2010, acting as a farm team for Raleigh’s Carolina Hurricanes. And after playing in Uptown for years, they moved back to the renovated Bojangles’ Coliseum just in time to kick off the 2015-16 season.
The Checkers' glorious and long-awaited return to Bojangles’ Coliseum, which had received a major modern facelift, reignited a love for hometown hockey and inspired new team traditions.
The Red Line Club, which is known for its piping-hot signature chilly, opened inside the coliseum, adding one unbeatable fan amenity: an entryway for guests to root on the players as they make their way from the locker room to the ice.
With so many Northern and international transplants in Charlotte, the team’s diverse roster (players hail from Canada, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Czechoslovakia and the U.S.) attracts an equally diverse crowd, all captivated by this edge-of-your-seat, ultra-fast game. Kids especially love Chubby, the team’s mascot, who “dances” on the ice at the drop of a puck.
Charlotte is NASCAR country. With approximately 85 percent of NASCAR’s national touring series teams based in the region and the NASCAR Hall of Fame nestled in the heart of Uptown, the Queen City is the place where all roads to NASCAR lead.
The very first NASCAR premier series race, which was then known as the NASCAR Strictly Stock Series, was held at Charlotte Speedway (now closed) in 1949.
In 1959, Charlotte gained its current and legendary track, Charlotte Motor Speedway. One of the finest in the sport, it’s home to the annual Coca-Cola 600, the Monster Energy All-Star Race and the Bank of America 500. The 1.5-mile quad oval is NASCAR’s unofficial home track.
The sport’s economic impact on the Charlotte community is estimated at more than $5 billion annually, according to the Charlotte Regional Partnership.
NASCAR’s cultural footprint is also seen in the annual weekend-long Speed Street festival Uptown, which includes performances from big-name country singers, food and drink from area eateries and more. Expect appearances form Champ the Cheetah, the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s mascot, at this event. The famed feline joined the city’s mascot ranks in fall 2015 and has become a favorite face for the sport.
Because it’s NASCAR, there’s no “home team,” but some of the Charlotte-area’s most popular teams include: Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. Hendrick is a Concord-based team headquartered only 1 mile from Charlotte Motor Speedway; it’s home to NASCAR premier series drivers Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott. Mooresville-based Team Penske celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and enjoys a significant leadership role within the sport; it’s led by drivers Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney. Legendary racer Tony Stewart and industrial tool titan Gene Haas own Stewart-Haas Racing. The Kannapolis-based crew features Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.
This article ran in the July/August 2017 issue of Charlotte Happenings.