There’s a distinct difference between joining something that has a long and strong tradition and being in on the ground floor of something new and being a part of its growth.
If you are a long-time Charlottean, you have had the chance to do the latter twice (three times, if you count the NBA twice… more on that in a moment).
My family moved to Concord, the town immediately North of the Queen City in 1983. I left town after college for my job, but had the chance to come back home (read: Coming Home entry from August) and be a part of the Charlotte 49ers, which was an easy decision for me.
Having grown up in this area (yes, I call myself a Charlottean), I have been in on the ground floor of some really cool beginnings that I could claim ownership of.
In 1988, the Charlotte Hornets began play in the NBA. I remember my dad taking me to some games each year in those days, getting to see the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in person. In the early days, we did go to see the visitors because they were established names, but we kept close tabs on the Hornets and how they played and performed for the city. Once the draft picks came in, those were “our guys.” I’m talking about Rex Chapman and J.R. Reid and Kendal Gill in the early days, but later, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning came to town and the team really took off. And I kept going to a couple of games a year.
Once I got into the television business a little, I got to run camera in the arena under the basket and see those guys up close. I was hooked by that point. The Hornets were on NBC with regularity and I was old enough to work on my own and buy my own tickets to games and go with my friends.
By that time, the NFL had joined the Queen City, when the Carolina Panthers started playing at Clemson in 1995. The franchise was awarded to Charlotte and the Carolinas in October of 1993. I could not wait until they started because I could now be a diehard fan of another team where I could drive less than 30 minutes to go see.
I remember having a friend who was going to college in Atlanta at the time and she got us a pair of tickets to the game so I drove down I-85 and went to the first regular-season game in team history in Atlanta (and was surprised and thrilled that they went to at least overtime, even though they lost.) I still have the commemorative items from that game, and I have many a ticket stub, autographed ball and player cards and programs from Hornets and Panthers events through the years. Once I went to the first game, I became a lifetime fan. I don’t know any Steelers, Cowboys, Packers or Falcons fans that went to their first game and have been a fan since.
I should admit that I was sad to see the Hornets go and I don’t feel that same ownership in the Charlotte Bobcats. I have nothing against the newer franchise, but it just doesn’t feel like my team (I did not live in the Charlotte area when they were established) and I have not followed this group as closely as I did the Hornets. (Full disclosure: I have not been in the arena for a Bobcats game in their five seasons of play.) I do hope that some younger fans out there can treat them as I did the Hornets in their early days and have something that they believe in and take some ownership in.
Switching allegiances can be a tough thing to do, particularly if you grew up in or near a city that has an established team. Plenty of people (I would love to know actual numbers on this) will root for the best team at that time when they first get into a sport. I liked the Pittsburgh Steelers when I was younger and my younger brother was a Philadelphia Eagles fan, even though we never lived in or near Pennsylvania. The Steelers were great in the 70’s when I was a young man and the Eagles were in their prime in the early 80’s when my brother was old enough to follow. And a lot of fans get their team from their parents. I look forward to passing my Panthers down to my kids.
Getting a team in your hometown or near where you live can be a real thrill. I grew up a basketball fan, but not an NBA fan, and I was converted quickly. You can have two favorite teams, but I guarantee that the local team will pull you in (assuming you didn’t grow up in another team’s town and love them since childhood fervently).
That is what I am hoping for with the Charlotte 49ers and the push for football. I am hoping that both kinds of fans come aboard for this team. I want fans of other college teams to check out the experience here and casually follow this team and let the experience pull those fans in. You cannot have gone to the first N.C. State game or the first South Carolina or Clemson or Wake Forest games. You can go to the first game at Charlotte. I also want local folks without a team or just a passing interest to come in on the ground floor of a lifetime of memories and experiences. Once you go to the first game, it’s your team. And it’s in your town (or near enough).