No. 23 Best City to Be a Sports Fan: Charlotte

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2014

No. 23 Best City to Be a Sports Fan: Charlotte

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    Cam Newton could be the toast of the Carolinas if he guides the Panthers to a Super Bowl.
    Cam Newton could be the toast of the Carolinas if he guides the Panthers to a Super Bowl.USA TODAY Sports

    How much does where you live matter as a sports fan? The short answer is: It depends.

    If you're an Alabama football fan, there's no better place to live than Tuscaloosa. If you're a Red Sox fan, there's no worse place to live than New York City. 

    But what if you were a free agent, so to speak? What if you loved sports but didn't have a specific affiliation to any team? You're moving to a new city. What city would have the most to offer you as a sports fan? What city would give you the best overall experience?

    That is what we're here to find out. We took 25 of the best writers from Bleacher Report and beyond to objectively look at their cities and come up with a ranking. To get a better understanding of the categories and grading criteria, click here.

    Charlotte comes in at No. 23. Let's find out why.

Number of Teams/Events: 17/20

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    Michael Jordan doesn't just own a winning smile. He owns the Charlotte Hornets.
    Michael Jordan doesn't just own a winning smile. He owns the Charlotte Hornets.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The Carolina Panthers aren't the only pro team in Charlotte, of course.

    In addition to the popular NFL team, the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, formerly the Bobcats, are owned by Michael Jordan. With a nucleus that includes point guard Kemba Walker, center Al Jefferson and free-agent signee Lance Stephenson, the Hornets are gaining in popularity because of the recent name change that resonates with the locals and their roster improvements. 

    But that's not all.

    In Raleigh, the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes share a home with the North Carolina State basketball team. And in nearby Durham and Chapel Hill, within 11 miles of each other down U.S. 15-501, you have Duke and North Carolina.

    The college basketball in the area, which also includes Davidson in the Charlotte area, is nothing short of phenomenal—and, on occasion, the same schools that battle in basketball play some pretty good football, too (see: Duke last year).

    There also is NASCAR, and a real passion for it that may be lacking in other areas that have huge tracks like Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    In addition to the 1.5-mile track where NASCAR races are held are a state-of-the-art NHRA drag strip and even a small dirt track—all part of the same complex. And the NASCAR Hall of Fame in what the locals call "uptown Charlotte" is a must-see for any race fan.

    What the area lacks is obvious: Major League Baseball. But in Charlotte, the Triple-A Knights just opened a beautiful, state-of-the-art minor league stadium. And much of the classic baseball movie Bull Durham was filmed in Durham, which is worth some points.

    All in all, it's a pretty solid cross-section of pro and college teams to follow year-round.

Success of Teams in Last Five Years: 10/20

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    The Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006 but haven't done much in the last five years.
    The Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006 but haven't done much in the last five years.USA TODAY Sports

    The Hurricanes captured the Stanley Cup in 2006, but they haven't had a whole lot of success since then. In the last five years, in fact, they've had just two winning seasons, and even then they failed to make the playoffsplus they aren't really located in Charlotte, which instead is home of the Charlotte Checkers' minor league hockey franchise.

    The Panthers seem to stir to life every once in a while. They got the city of Charlotte excited last year by going 12-4 and winning the NFC South division. But after getting a first-round bye in the playoffs, they lost at home to San Francisco—meaning they still haven't won a playoff game since 2005.

    The Hornets, then known as the Bobcats, went 43-39 last season to exceed expectations. They earned a first-round playoff date with the Miami Heat, who still had some guy named LeBron James at the time, and were promptly swept.

    Two years prior to that in the lockout 2011-12 season, the then-Bobcats won only seven games and lost 59 for a winning percentage of .106, which was the worst in NBA history. No wonder Jordan and the city are excited about the name change back to the Hornets, which was the team's nickname from 1989 to 2002.

    Even the usually stalwart college basketball teams of Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State have experienced only modest success by the high standards expected of them in recent years. Then again, it hasn't been all that long since Duke won the national title in 2010, one year after North Carolina accomplished it.

    All of these schools, plus Davidson, Charlotte, South Carolina (a mere hour-and-a-half drive away) and Wake Forest (90 miles away) have their share of followers in the Charlotte area.

Stadiums: 7/10

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    Cameron Indoor Stadium is without a doubt one of the best places in America to watch college basketball.
    Cameron Indoor Stadium is without a doubt one of the best places in America to watch college basketball.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The football home of the Carolina Panthers is nice, and it's currently undergoing $125 million in renovations that will make it even nicer, but it's like lots of other NFL stadiums.

    The same could be said of Time Warner Cable Arena, home of the Hornets, and PNC Arena, home of the Hurricanes and N.C. State basketball, and the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, where the North Carolina Tar Heels play their home games. All are very nice places but too much just like dozens of other places across the country.

    Charlotte Motor Speedway is an impressive facility that seats 135,000 and used to fill that many and more (they've taken out thousands of seats in recent years and covered thousands of others with advertisements).

    Management there also likes to boast about its enormous, high-definition television screen, which is impressive but in truth isn't really packing in the fans that track owner Bruton Smith was convinced it would. Like many NASCAR tracks, and venues in other sports, the crowds just aren't what they used to be.

    Then there is Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, where Duke plays its home basketball games. It's small, with a capacity of only 9,314, but it rocks, and the Cameron Crazies make it pulse with nonstop energy—and fun for everyone but visiting teams. If you can score a ticket, it's well worth the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Charlotte.

Fan Passion: 5/10

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    Many fans are passionate, but too many are quick to jump off the bandwagon.
    Many fans are passionate, but too many are quick to jump off the bandwagon.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Like any area of our great nation, many fans are passionate about their teams.

    But unlike some other cities more steeped in tradition with its professional teams, fans in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham often seem to be a little quick to abandon their teams if they're struggling.

    According to ESPN.com, for instance, the then-Bobcats ranked 25th in the NBA in attendance last season. The Hurricanes ranked 23rd out of 30 NHL teams.

    The Panthers have ranked in the top eight in attendance for each of the past five seasons, but that's largely because of the permanent seat licenses that lock season ticket holders into buying every game or risk losing their seats forever.

    Oftentimes during losing seasons, Bank of America Stadium looks pretty empty even though more than 95 percent of the tickets have been purchased.

    The Cameron Crazies, who frequently camp out for days, weeks and sometimes even months to make sure they're among the first in line to get tickets to big games, are the best fans in the Carolinas, bar none.

General Fan Experience: 11/15

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    Attending a NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway is quite the experience.
    Attending a NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway is quite the experience.Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

    Honestly, the fan experience is much about what the fan makes of it.

    Winning always helps when there is a home team to pull for, but that leaves the fan vulnerable to sadness and indifference when said team struggles through a losing season or, worse yet, a string of them.

    That's one of the beautiful things about NASCAR. There is no home team. You know that every race you attend, the driver or drivers you root for are going to be there to compete for the win—and you know the tailgating is going to be top-notch, no matter what ultimately happens on the track.

    They do it right at Charlotte Motor Speedway, too, where track officials arrange for concerts, built what was at the time the largest HD television screen in America for replays and sometimes movies and even blow up some stuff every Memorial Day weekend prior to the running of the Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup race.

    Best of all: As long as your cooler isn't more than 14 inches tall and you don't pack glass, you can bring in as much of your own beer as you want. This guy (pictured above with arms outstretched) obviously did.

Media: 5/10

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    Dell Curry usually is on the other end of the microphone, but here he gets interviewed by son and NBA star Stephen Curry.
    Dell Curry usually is on the other end of the microphone, but here he gets interviewed by son and NBA star Stephen Curry.Associated Press

    Sad to say, but it's a sign of the times: When the Carolina Panthers first arrived on the scene as an NFL franchise in 1995, there were 12 newspaper reporters from 11 media outlets across North Carolina and South Carolina who covered the team on a daily basis, home and away.

    Only the New York teams had a larger local press contingent following them at the time.

    Today, there are three—and two are from The Charlotte Observer.

    The media in the area are very professional and do a fine job in general. It's just that the powers that be in the information business seem to keep cutting back on local coverage in misguided efforts to improve their bottom lines.

    The good thing about personal seat licenses is that Panthers games are virtually guaranteed never to be blacked out.

    And most Hornets games are on free local cable after former owner Bob Johnson initially tried to start a pay-per-view channel that was not only mostly ignored but also infuriated many fans forever—or at least until Michael Jordan bought Johnson out.

    With Woody Durham having retired as North Carolina's radio play-by-play man after 40 years behind the mic in 2011, perhaps the most popular current broadcaster in the area is former Hornet Dell Curry (pictured above), who is the analyst on Hornets' televised games with competent play-by-play man Steve Martin.

Star Power: 6/10

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    No one soars higher on the star-power meter in the Carolinas than Cam Newton, quarterback of the Panthers.
    No one soars higher on the star-power meter in the Carolinas than Cam Newton, quarterback of the Panthers.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    There is no bigger star in this area than Cam Newton, quarterback of the Panthers.

    The No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, Newton has the engaging smile and personality to go along with all of the physical tools that make him, well, if not Superman, then at least a superstar. Now he just needs to start winning some playoff games.

    It also doesn't hurt the star-power aspect that Michael Jordan owns the NBA franchise, or that the best two college basketball teams in the area are coached by giants of their sport in Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Roy Williams at North Carolina. 

    Keep your eyes on Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson of the Hornets, as well.

    Along with new addition Lance Stephenson, they have the necessary stuff to become bigger stars than they are now, and they may soon gain more national attention. Walker and Jefferson already are beloved by the locals for their competitive spirit and engaging personalities. And there is room for growth as the team continues to improve.

Tradition/History: 3/5

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    Roy Williams (left) and Mike Krzyzewski get together at least twice a year, and it's always special.
    Roy Williams (left) and Mike Krzyzewski get together at least twice a year, and it's always special.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    What the professional sports teams and some of the other colleges lack in tradition or history, the North Carolina-Duke basketball rivalry makes up for at least in large part. And yes, we're claiming it for Charlotte in this casebecause the city becomes entranced by it every time the two teams meet.

    Not only has the UNC-Duke matchup been one of the best college basketball rivalries in the nation for years, even decades, but both of those teams also must play N.C. State regularly in spirited Atlantic Coast Conference matchups, as well. That's where most of the richest traditions and history of sports in the state of North Carolina are grounded.

    The NFL team in Charlotte has been around only since 1995 and wins about every other year. The NBA was in town, left, came back and only now is beginning to be accepted by the locals again. The Carolina Hurricanes have been around in Raleigh, not Charlotte, only since 1997, when the former Hartford Whalers moved there from Connecticut.

    Again, there is NASCAR. The entire region is rich in NASCAR history and tradition, and much of it is captured beautifully by the NASCAR Hall of Fame rightfully and proudly located in the heart of uptown Charlotte.

    But college hoops is where the hearts of most sports fans lie in the state of North Carolina.

Final Tally: 64/100

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    When you talk about the overall sports experience of the Charlotte region in North Carolina, there is more to it than most Americans who live outside of the area realize.

    Not only do you have a celebrated NFL quarterback in Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, but you also have the Michael Jordan-owned Charlotte Hornets (previously the Bobcats) and a number of high-profile college football and basketball programs (but mostly basketball) within easy driving distance, with lots of loyal alumni always willing to sit on a barstool and argue the merits of their alma mater's program.

    Then there are the biggest names and teams in NASCAR who mostly live in the area even when they aren't racing against each other at Charlotte Motor Speedway, plus the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL in Raleigh, a mere three-and-a-half hours' drive away.

    There is, in fact, much to offer.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, information for all slides was obtained firsthand by the writer.

    Joe Menzer has written six books, including one about the Carolina Panthers' first season, one about the tradition of college basketball in North Carolina and two about NASCAR. He now writes about a variety of sports for Bleacher Report and can be followed on Twitter @OneMenz.

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