CHARLOTTE’S BB&T BALLPARK – THE LEAGUES BEST?

Knights new ballpark receiving stellar reviews

BY ANDREW KULYK & PETER FARRELL

Buffalo opened its downtown ballpark, now named Coca Cola Field, in 1988. Two years later the Charlotte Knights unveiled their new stadium in Fort Mill, South Carolina, in the far suburbs of Charlotte.

That stadium is now history.  In 2014, the Charlotte Knights debuted at their gleaming new downtown ballpark, and the accolades keep pouring in. Baseball America rated this venue as the best ballpark in the country. Fans have responded in kind, turning Charlotte from worst to first in attendance in the International League.

Walk around the stadium outside and it looks like an ordinary place, almost like a suburban style office building. The west façade boasts painted murals offering a historical timeline of Charlotte’s baseball history. The main plaza on the southeast corner is small and pretty non descript. Along the outfield decorative fencing allows pedestrians to peer into the building.

But step inside and everything changes. Starting with the spectacular view of the Charlotte skyline, which practically cascades onto the field. “It’s the first thing people notice and comment about when they enter the stadium,” says Dan Rajkowski, team executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Rajkowski, who comes from central New York and has been with the team for nine years, shepherded the ballpark’s development from planning to opening. “We were considering five different sites, but really, this was the best site, and you will see that as you experience the ballpark, and see how the skyline lights up as the sun goes down and what that does for the ballpark experience.”

Their stadium places emphasis on revenue generating premium seating areas, but pulls it off without an air of pretentiousness. The second level club area was redesigned from a suite only level to one that has a generous seating porch, and is attached to a buffet restaurant and well appointed bar area. “We’ve sold out this area on a season ticket basis, and if you can get a ticket up here, the cost comes out to about $40 and we think that is one heck of a bargain in today’s entertainment venue economy,” said Rajkowski.

The team did not take the design route with heralded stadium architects Populous, instead recruiting a locally based Charlotte company to draw up the ballpark. And like most executives in sports, Rajkowski hit the road to visit other ballparks, taking his camera along and garnering ideas elsewhere, including in Buffalo. But he applied a very different take when visiting his peer organizations. “I didn’t ask what was the best thing about their ballpark, but rather, I asked ‘if you had to do it all over again, what would you change?’  I got telling replies. The baseball fraternity is very helpful. I’ve shown our ballpark to at least 15 other people from other organizations since we’ve opened.”

The building is in continuous use. “We’ve hosted weddings, college parties. We get requests and demands for various events that don’t involve baseball. The idea for us is to keep the lights burning all the time.”

Charlotte usually garners at least a mention when lists of potential Major League Baseball expansion sites are listed, but the Charlotte Knights don’t believe that is in the city’s future, at least for now. “We are a two sports city (the NFL Panthers and the NBA Hornets), and if we were to add a third major league team, we’d be the smallest market having three major sports,” said Rajkowski. “Add NASCAR to the mix, and that makes it a very active sports town.  I’d rather be #1 in the minor leagues than #30 in the major leagues. Maybe ten or fifteen years from now, we’ll have a different discussion.”

Here in Buffalo, citizens are awaiting word for a long promised plan which the Buffalo Bisons announced was in development back in August of 2014, and that is for a remake of Coca Cola Field. Despite numerous renovations and enhancements made over the years, the downtown ballpark is surely showing its age, and has been eclipsed by newer and more contemporary venues in places such as Nashville, Columbus and now Charlotte. Since that announcement, the team has installed new kelly green seats in the 100 level special reserved seating area, but has otherwise been silent on further plans.

Rajkowski rattles off the ideas and suggestions which have certainly become the template and blueprint for these new ballparks – enhanced picnic areas for group seating, gathering areas for millenials, drink rails, state of the art electronics and the ability to deliver social media platforms, club seating and lounges, capturing the craft beer market. But then he brought up an idea which the Bisons should certainly embrace – “If Buffalo is like many other American cities, then people are moving back into downtown in droves. The team has to engage those new downtown residents and make them special stakeholders in the renewed ballpark and its success. That sometimes means going door to door and one by one and bringing them down there. Ask and people will come. Retirees and young people will ride over on their bikes and park at the ballpark.”

Buffalonians visiting through Charlotte may want to make a visit to BB&T Ballpark a part of their tourism experience. And just to put an exclamation point on that idea – the official hot dog in Charlotte is made by Sahlen’s and shipped from Buffalo.