03 October 2012

We've become big-league literally overnight: Charlotte and its arenas

By DA | at

In August 1988, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, celebrated the opening of a brand new 24,000-seat arena, soon to be known as the Charlotte Coliseum. The mayor and governor were on hand for opening night of course, but the Reverend Billy Graham provided real star power, and he took the opportunity to pronounce, “This is more than a coliseum that will meet the needs of a great city. This is a symbol of Charlotte’s vitality, its commitment to the future and that Charlotte truly has its place in the cities of the world.”

Graham was right. First the Coliseum, and now Time Warner Cable Arena, site of this year’s Democratic National Convention, have been symbols of Charlotte’s demographic upheaval, their use shadowing the city’s ongoing quest to be known as something more important than a sleepy landmark between Richmond and Atlanta.

According to census data, from 1980 to 1990 Mecklenburg County’s population grew 21%, from 404,270 to 511,433. Much of that growth was driven by out-of-state transplants seeking warmer weather and cheaper housing. In 1980, native-born North Carolinians were 62% of the population, and by 1990, they were only 55%. The Coliseum was built for that particular city, a city that identified as Southern, yet welcomed Northerners, their money, and the influence an inflated population brings.

Most of the political capital to build it came from the city’s ongoing attempt to attract a major league sports franchise. By the mid-1980s, Charlotte was among the finalists vying for an NBA expansion team, but because it was a smaller city than any of the others under consideration for expansion, few believed it had much of a chance to land one. When the NBA unexpectedly chose to expand in Charlotte sooner rather than later, Mayor Harvey Gantt captured the mood, saying, “We’ve become big-league literally overnight.”

The Charlotte Hornets played their first game at the Coliseum in November 1988, and for nine of the next ten seasons, they led the NBA in attendance by a wide margin, through seasons miserable and successful. In many ways, they were the greatest success story of modern American professional sports franchises. Somehow, a metropolitan area a fraction the size of New York City filled an arena one-fourth larger than Madison Square Garden for 364 games, more than seven straight years. But the Hornets didn’t just sell out, they were also cool. They kicked off an era of teal and purple uniforms, and their branded merchandise took on a life of its own beyond signalling simple Hornets fandom.

The good times didn’t last long. Unfortunately for the Hornets and the city, the Coliseum was outmoded the day it opened. Outside Detroit, the Palace of Auburn Hills opened the same week in 1988, heralding a new era of arena design. Though the Coliseum sat more bodies under one roof than any other building in the league, the Palace had a then-unheard-of 180 luxury suites, and, just as important, was built with a central focus on those suites. With only twelve luxury sky boxes, the Coliseum was not a competitive building. An extra 4,000 people in the nosebleeds simply couldn’t bring as much revenue as an additional 168 suites.

So, before the Coliseum reached its seventh birthday, the Hornets started to talk about a new arena. That set off some alarms, but it was nothing compared to team owner George Shinn’s 1997 kidnapping-and-sex scandal. The region’s population may have been changing rapidly, but the Hornets’ fan base was still largely made up of conservative Southerners, and the combination of asking for a new publicly-financed arena and the owner’s lurid headlines led to a civic revolt against the team.

In 1999, per-game attendance dropped 18% — it didn’t help that the NBA’s season was cut in half by an owner lockout — and in 2000, while the scandal lingered, attendance fell another 7%, bottoming out in subsequent seasons. In 2001, Charlotte voters rejected a non-binding referendum that would have allocated money for a new downtown arena, and the Hornets left for New Orleans the next year, having alienated everyone involved. The city was left with broken hearts and a prematurely antiquated arena with no primary tenant.

But even after a toxic and drawn-out breakup, certain Charlotte leaders still wanted an NBA franchise. Though the NFL had expanded into Charlotte with the Carolina Panthers in 1995, there was a feeling that, to paraphrase Mayor Gantt, the city wasn’t big-league without a state of the art arena, and the promise of another pro basketball franchise might quiet objections to construction of such a facility. Cooperating with the NBA, the city council flouted the recently-expressed will of Charlotte voters and pushed through a measure to build a downtown arena. The NBA soon granted the city another team, and in 2004, the expansion Charlotte Bobcats started play with one season in the Coliseum, and moved downtown the next year. The Coliseum stood for another couple years, unoccupied and ignored, before being demolished in 2007.

City leaders may have been hoping for a repeat of the Hornets’ early years, but Charlotte was a different city than it had been in 1990. Census data show that between 1990 and 2000, Mecklenburg’s population climbed another 27%, to 695,454, and native-born North Carolinians became a minority, comprising only 46% of the population. As a city of majority transplants, that meant a large chunk of its residents considered other places their true homes, and they already had fan relationships with other teams. Meanwhile, many of the natives had been embittered by the Hornets’ departure and weren’t ready to embrace the new franchise. A botched television deal sealed it: After the initial novelty wore off, the Bobcats were condemned to a fan-less existence, and to this point, perenially finish in the bottom third of the NBA in arena attendance.

As the Aughts rolled on, the demographic tide kept surging. Over the 2000-2010 decade, Mecklenburg’s population growth picked up, expanding 32% to 923,427, and the percentage of native North Carolinians again shrank, to 42%. Today, Time Warner Cable Arena is used regularly for pro and college basketball, minor league hockey, WWE shows, and concerts, but there’s zero sense the arena “is a symbol of Charlotte’s vitality”. It’s just a bland brick-faced building looming outside a truly vibrant entertainment complex called the EpiCentre, where people from all walks of life — natives and transplants alike — converge to drink, dance, ogle, and be merry. More people resent the arena than are grateful for it. Because it was financed by the city against the will of voters. Because the Bobcats are, emphatically, not the Hornets. Because the arena was built not to enrich life in Charlotte, but to impress upon outsiders that Charlotte is a big-league city.

In contrast, the Coliseum was a place where Carolinians gathered in support of The Hometown Team in crowds that shouldn’t possibly have been that large, a ritual that reinforced the notion that Charlotte, at its essence, was more big-league than bare population numbers would have one believe. Never mind that in order to be considered big-league enough for a pro basketball team in the first place, Charlotte needed an influx of outsiders to move in.

With the DNC coming to Charlotte, it’s more of the same scratching and clawing for regional status. “Charlotte is big-league enough they wanted to hold the DNC here”. “Charlotte is big-league now that the DNC is coming here”. “We’ll see if Charlotte is big-league enough to handle the DNC”.

Or: This is just another event in an arena’s lifespan. It’s different for sure, but bringing 75,000 visitors for a week might not be much more impactful than hosting 200,000 visitors for the annual CIAA basketball tournament. After the conventioneers hustle out of town, Time Warner Cable Arena won’t suddenly be a pillar of life in Charlotte, the Bobcats will still play for a three-fourths-empty building, and the city will have the same questions about itself that it’s been struggling to answer for the past twenty years.

(Image cc-licensed: "IMG_9717" by stevebott)

(Originally published September 5th, 2012 on DavidAArnott.com)

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