Sports in Charlotte

For the past 100 years, Charlotte's sports scene mirrored the city's growth from small town to banking capital. See how Charlotte grew from mill town baseball leagues and stock car racing to hosting the NBA All-Star Game and landing an MLS team. By Corey Inscoe.

By Google Arts & Culture

Corey Inscoe

CLT Knights by Cody HughesCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

They called it an outlaw league. The Charlotte Hornets – no, not those Hornets – joined the North Carolina Independent League in 1936, but had been playing baseball in one league or another since the turn of the century.

Prominent Mills of Charlotte, N.C. (1905/1910)UNC Charlotte J. Murrey Atkins Library

Formed by the owners of the textile mills that dotted Charlotte and western North Carolina, the league only lasted two years – 1936-1938 – but it left a mark. The competitive mill owners played by their own rules, convincing some of the best – and most interesting – baseball players in the country to come south and angering professional baseball clubs.

Charlotte Skyline by Cody HughesCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

Charlotte has changed a lot since then, when baseball and textile mills ruled. 

Panthers Stadium by Kyo H NamCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

You can see it in the skyline, dominated by gleaming bank headquarters. You can see it in the old mill buildings being converted into food halls and luxury apartments. And you can see it in the sports scene.

CLT Motor Speedway by Kyo H NamCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

Racing

Stock car racing came down from the Appalachian mountains when moonshine bootleggers with their souped-up Fords decided to start racing each other instead of the law. 

CLT Motor Speedway by Kyo H NamCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

NASCAR’s first “strictly stock” race (what is now the Cup Series) took place June 19, 1949, at Charlotte Fairgrounds Speedway in northeast Charlotte. Since Jim Roper won that race, NASCAR has become deeply embedded in the Charlotte area. 

CLT Motor Speedway by Kyo H NamCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

Besides regularly hosting the NASCAR All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 – the sport’s longest race – at Charlotte Motor Speedway just northeast of the city, the region is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte and 13 Cup Series race teams. 

CLT Hornets by UnknownCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

Basketball

Even people who couldn’t point out Charlotte on a map back in the late ‘80s recognized the iconic Hornets teal and purple. As the city’s first major league team, the Hornets put little Charlotte on a national stage.

CLT Hornets by UnknownCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

And the city loved them. For the first home game November 4, 1988, fans packed the Charlotte Coliseum, some wearing formal wear – tuxedos and long dresses. At the end of the game, the fans stood and cheered – even though the Hornets lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers by 40. 

CLT Hornets by UnknownCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

The relationship between the team and city soured, though, and owner George Shinn moved the Hornets to New Orleans in 2002. Charlotte got a new team – the Bobcats – in 2004 and in 2014 the Hornets name returned to Charlotte’s NBA franchise.

But in the ‘90s, the Hornets were king, even selling out 364 straight games starting in 1998. That kind of fan dedication caught the eye of the NFL.

Panthers Stadium by Patrick SchneiderCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

Football

In the 1990s, Charlotte was the second-fastest-growing city and became the country’s second largest banking center, passing San Francisco. And in 1993, it landed its second major league sports franchise – the Carolina Panthers.

Panthers Stadium by Patrick SchneiderCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

The Panthers played their first NFL season in 1995 and found success quickly – making it to the NFC Championship game in just its second season.

Panthers Stadium by Patrick SchneiderCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

The Panthers brought star power to a city on the rise. Steve Smith. Cam Newton. Luke Kuechly. Christian McCaffery. Household names called Charlotte home. 


In 2018, David Tepper bought the Panthers, and he had plans to expand Charlotte’s sports scene even more.

"Gabbo" Gavric slides into Pelé (1975) by Mike SpinelliHistory San José

Soccer

On Dec. 30, 2019, Major League Soccer awarded its 30th franchise to Charlotte, with plans for the new team to begin play in 2021. Like the Panthers and Hornets before it, Charlotte MLS mirrors the city’s growth. 

Sculptures at Independence Square by Rayment J. KaskeyCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

Just this May, Charlotte jumped to the 15th largest city in the U.S., with as many as 60 people moving to the city each day. Young professionals are drawn to financial and tech jobs, and the town has a strong international community, especially on the east side of the city where the team will build its training complex.

MLS Cup 2001 October 21 Columbus Crew Stadium official match ball (2001) by KappaHistory San José

It’s the perfect combination for a league whose fan base skews younger and plays the world’s game.

And, as with the Hornets more than 30 years ago, the city is ready to embrace this new team – fans put down season ticket deposits for 24,000 seats before the team even announced its name.

CLT Checkers by Charlotte CheckersCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

Hockey

We haven’t even mentioned the Charlotte Checkers minor league hockey team or second division soccer team Charlotte Independence. In recent years, the city’s been put on an even larger stage by hosting the 2019 NBA All-Star Game and 2017 PGA Championship.

CLT Knights by Cody HughesCharlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA)

Baseball

And Charlotte still has baseball – the Triple A Charlotte Knights play in one of the most beautiful minor league ballparks, nestled in uptown Charlotte. It’s come a long way from outlaw leagues and mill teams.

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