North Carolina and Connecticut – two states forever linked in the cross-currents of sports by the Hartford Whalers relocation to the Tarheel State in 1997, are both using 2014 to heighten their professional baseball credentials. The City of Hartford has announced that the Double A franchise currently in New Britain will be moving to the Capitol City in 2016 in a soon-to-be-built $60 million, nearly 10,000 seat stadium. Just two months ago, the Triple A Charlotte Knights opened their newly constructed 10,200 seat $55 million downtown stadium. The Knights are an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Ground was broken on the new stadium in September 2012, about an 18 month construction schedule.
The first Knights game took place on April 11, 2014. (photo at left) The stadium features a two-level club with skyline views as well as a VIP, climate-controlled club with full service bar. In addition to corporate suites, there are 987 club seats at the new Charlotte stadium. Of those, 170 on the upper level sell for $41.50 per game, or nearly $3,000 per season. The remaining 817 club seats, at $21 per game, sell for about $1,500 annually. All of the club seats were sold out 10 months prior to the season opener, according to the Knights website. Season tickets require either a two- or four-year commitment. Naming rights to the stadium were sold to BB&T Corporation in 2012. Published reports also indicate that multiple new hotels are expected to open in the area around the stadium in the coming years, along with restaurants and retail.
The Charlotte team’s website reports that “National ballpark consultants conservatively estimate that in its first year BB&T Ballpark should draw at least 600,000 fans just for baseball.” In addition to obtaining corporate sponsorships, among the fundraising initiatives along the way in Charlotte were commemorative bricks sold to be placed in the stadium’s entrance, at a cost of between $90 to $195, containing individual messages determined by purchasers. A portion of the sales went to local charities in Charlotte.
Comparing Attendance Numbers, Possibilities
The Rock Cats drew more than 307,000 fans to their 6,100-seat stadium in New Britain last year, ranking sixth in the 12-team Eastern League. The Knights were last in attendance in the Class AAA International League last year, with an average of 3,803 per game, down from a high of 4,736 in 2006, according to the Charlotte News Observer. In 2013, the New Britain Rock Cats averaged 4,653 fans per game, which ranked 59th among baseball’s minor league teams. Charlotte ranked 80th. The top team in the league - and in minor league baseball - the Columbus Clippers, drew 9,212 per game.
The AAA Pawtucket Red Sox average attendance in 2013 was 7,827, ranked #10 in minor league baseball. The Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, also a Red Sox affiliate, ranked 47th, drawing an average of 5,096 per game. Among Double-A teams, Portland ranks tenth.
The top minor league teams, based on average attendance in 2013, are in Columbus, Lehigh Valley, Indianapolis, Sacramento, Dayton, Buffalo, Louisville, Round Rock (Texas) and Albuquerque. The top Double-A teams are in Frisco, TX (7,057); Richmond, VA (6,689); Reading, PA (6,321); Tulsa, OK (5,704); Birmingham, AL (5,669); Corpus Christi, TX (5,498); Trenton, NJ (5,373) and New Hampshire (5,125).
On July 12, 2008, the Rock Cats established a franchise record for single game attendance, with a crowd of 8,115 at New Britain Stadium. The record was broken on June 27, 2009, with a crowd of 8,212. The Rock Cats reached the 8,000 mark once again on May 31, 2014 with a crowd of 8,079.
For those who wonder if there is a Triple A future for a Hartford baseball stadium, the history of Pawtucket may be of interest. The first team to be named the Pawtucket Red Sox debuted in 1970 as a member of the Double-A Eastern League, according to Wikipedia. After three seasons as a Double-A Red Sox affiliate, Pawtucket's Eastern League franchise moved to Bristol, CT in 1973 to make room for the new Triple-A PawSox. And as most Connecticut sports fans recall, the Bristol franchise then moved to New Britain in 1983, first as a Red Sox Double-A affiliate (through 1994) and then as the farm team of the Minnesota Twins.
And might the presence of a stadium in Hartford, rather than New Britain, cause the Red Sox to return with an affiliate in Connecticut? Apparently not any time soon. The Sox appear set in Pawtucket and Portland.
In January 2013, the Portland Sea Dogs announced an extension of their affiliation with the Boston Red Sox as the Double A minor league team. Their contract was set to end after the 2014 season but the extension through the 2018 season was announced during the Portland Sea Dogs Hot Stove Banquet by Red Sox director of player development Mike Hazen and Sea Dogs president Charlie Eshbach. Eshbach served as Eastern League President for 11 years and is the league's longest serving active member – dating back to his tenure as general manager of the Bristol Red Sox in Connecticut, not too many years after attending college at UConn.
“We are delighted to extend our relationship with the Portland Sea Dogs for an additional two seasons,” said Hazen at the time. “We are extremely fortunate to work with some of the best people in minor league baseball in Portland. The Burke family, Charlie Eshbach, and the entire Sea Dogs organization always go above and beyond to provide support to our players and staff. With the Sea Dogs, our minor leaguers experience the ideal environment to succeed and grow.”
The Sea Dogs are now in their 21st season at Hadlock Field, their 12th as an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox originally entered into an agreement with the Sea Dogs following the 2002 season, when Portland changed affiliations from the Florida Marlins.
(photo credit: Rob Kavaler)