FORT MILL — This is part III of a series looking back at Knights Stadium during the final months of the team’s existence in Fort Mill.
The second time around, the Charlotte Knights are hoping the saying, “if you build it, they will come” lives up to its meaning.
Because the first time around, that didn’t happen.
And one thing that has hurt the Knights’ chances of staying in Fort Mill has been attendance, which in turn has hurt the bottom line of the team for years.
According to final attendance reports from the International League website, the Knights finished either second to last or last in attendance in the 14-team International League every year since 2002.
Since the Knights joined the International League in 1993, they have always finished in the lower third of attendance. In their first year in the league, even when they won the International League championship, they finished seventh out of 10 teams in attendance.
They did the same in 1994 and they dropped from there. In 1999 after the expansion of the league to 14 teams, and after claiming their second International League championship, attendance did rise slightly, up to 12th.
This year, the Knights are on course to finish last in the International League in attendance, having drawn 218,821 fans through 61 of 68 potential home games. Their average attendance this season is 3,587 people per game. They have six more scheduled home games left from Aug. 28-Sept. 2.
However, the attendance woes should change for them next year as they move into the brand new $54 million BB&T Ballpark in Uptown Charlotte. The 10,000-seat stadium is expected to help not only in attendance, but make up for the financial struggles the Knights have had in Fort Mill.
“You look at the demographics of it,” said Knights’ Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Dan Rajkowski.
“You got a city with over 80,000 people working in the center city. I think there are over 20,000 that live in the center city. The difference in our business is that Monday through Wednesday night here in Fort Mill we may draw 1,500 to 2,000 people here. There you will be able to draw 4,000 to 7,000 people, depending on the weather. And that is the ability to make money or not make money. It still cost the same to turn the lights on; it still cost the same to have the field work done. It just makes it challenging when you can’t sell the tickets to pay for the bills.”
In 2005, Rajkowski came on the scene with the Knights as general manager and took the ball in leading the effort to get the team back to Charlotte.
But moving the team back to Charlotte wasn’t Rajkowski or majority owner Don Beaver’s original goal.
“The original vision was to try and improve things in Fort Mill,” Rajkowski said. “That was kind of the directive. There was some direction about Charlotte and the future, but really, the role I was hired in was to come in and get Fort Mill back in and make it a profitable franchise. After the first few weeks, there was discussion that I wasn’t involved in, through Mr. [Don] Beaver, and before I know it we were talking about the future.”
Rajkowski said he tried to make it work in Fort Mill.
“I believe you make the best of the situation you are in and try to improve it and I think we did the first couple of years. The first couple years we saw an increase in attendance. We saw us financially being able to cash flow the club and provide the fans with a good experience,” he said. “Now you roll the clock forward and we are looking at a new chapter in professional baseball in this area. And while its only 15 minutes down the road, it’s still close enough to reach, touch and attend ball games.”
When the realization hit, that being in Fort Mill wasn’t in the long term plans for the Knights, Rajkowski shifted to looking at getting back to the team’s roots in the Queen City.
“I don’t want to take credit for it,” he said. “It was a direction from ownership of how are we going to be successful long term. It felt like the center city of Charlotte would be financially better for us. And then myself and our staff put a focus on how to get it done. I look at it solely as accessible to the people in these communities, the surrounding communities. I have never taken my eye off that because the alternative is no baseball. And that is not good for our region. It maybe overplayed, but we are going 15 minutes down the road. If I go buy another house, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like my neighbors. It just means I am moving to a different neighborhood. That is a pretty simple way to put it, but that is how I look at it.”
Financially, the Knights’ ownership said they needed to move.
“We are toward the end of all the Triple-A clubs in attendance,” said Beaver, who bought the team in 1998. “We aren’t in the center of the population there (in Fort Mill) and for whatever the reason, the Interstate 77 traffic doesn’t help either in getting into that location. We haven’t had a successful run (financially) in Fort Mill. I don’t know if we ever turned a profit in Fort Mill as far as the bottom line. We may have cash flowed (the team) at times, but it’s not been successful at all economically.”
If there was one team that the Knights could have looked toward for a model it would be the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Triple-A team, also of the International League.
The IronPigs, then known as the Ottawa Lynx, were bought in 2006 by Joe Finley and Craig Stein and moved to Allentown, Pa. from Ottawa, Canada. The IronPigs have led the International League in attendance for the last couple of years and have been the only minor league team in all of baseball to have an annual attendance above 600,000 in each of the last five years, according to the General Manager Kurt Landes.
In the 2008 season, they were fourth in attendance in the International League with over 602,000. In 2009 and 2010, they moved up to second in attendance and led league in attendance in 2011 drawing over 661,000 that season and over 622,000 in 2012, despite playing four less home games than from the previous season.
Landes came on board with Lehigh Valley’s team in 2007 to prepare for their arrival in Pennsylvania in 2008 and knows what the Knights’ hopes are for the future.
“For us in Lehigh Valley the move from Ottawa, everything we did here, was new,” Landes said. “It will be neat for folks in Charlotte to see a very different, exciting, new game presentation with a new facility. For our situation, we thought if we made a series of good decisions we could be one of the top 10 teams in the country and draw a half a million fans, but to draw over 600,000 for five years has been beyond our expectations.”
Landes said the Knights are making the right move by leaving.
“I think the management you have in place in Charlotte are good people, so if they feel the move to downtown is the right one, than it is,” he said. “The opportunity to have a new ballpark is tremendous. They have a significant opportunity to be one of the most successful teams in the country.”
Landes should know. In July, “Forbes” named the IronPigs the third most valuable minor league baseball team in the country with a value of $33 million. Their operating income was roughly $3 million, while their revenue was $10 million, according to Forbes.
Landes said one thing that helped the IronPigs was a “perfect storm” of circumstances.
“We got a new ballpark and a market the (Philadelphia) Phillies fan base had been in a long time,” he said.
“We made a great number of decisions with quality, experience staff members. I give a lot of credit to our owners and team president Chuck Domino. We designed a ballpark that had a lot of different ways to watch the game, not just stay in the seats, but many different ways like club seating and hospitality seats. You can come here and see the games in many different ways. Not just the view, but with the seating arrangement. Knowing what I know about Charlotte and what they have done so far, I think they have done a great job in doing the same. Having a facility with many more amenities to fans and seating options than what they had previously.”
Rajkowski is hoping that next year that “perfect storm” Landes had in Pennsylvania will blow south to Charlotte. So far for next season Rajkowski said, they have sold out of all their club seats, and are now on a season tickets campaign selling over 1,000 of those in just about two weeks.
“We have been able to retain a number of season ticket holders who live in this community,” he said.
Rajkowski said ingredients for that “perfect storm” of success like at Lehigh Valley includes the right demographics, growth in Charlotte and a region rich with baseball history.
“This is a great region,” he said. “The demographics are right for a successful franchise. If located in the right location and ran properly, I believed, and still believe, this will be the most successful minor league franchise in the country. I believe that.”