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Is North Carolina Ready?
By Martin Kaste
October 3, 1997

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There's nothing veiled about Carl Pohlad's threat to "export" the Twins to another state. For the past few months, Pohlad has made it very clear that he intends to sell the team to North Carolina-based businessman Don Beaver, unless state lawmakers come up with the money for a new baseball stadium. But how credible is the North Carolina half of Pohlad's ultimatum?

NORTH CAROLINIANS LOVE SPORTS. They love college basketball, pro basketball, NASCAR racing, and on the night of their first-ever Monday Night Football game, they adore their Carolina Panthers.

In the last decade, North Carolina has been on a sports franchise buying spree, acquiring pro football, pro basketball, and even pro hockey.

Anderson: I've lived in Charlotte all my life, and I can't remember being this excited about anything before.

John Anderson, the assistant director of the privately-funded Charlotte Regional Sports Committee, says pro sports has been a critical factor in the city's emergence onto the national stage.

Anderson: Charlotte, fifteen years ago, people from everywhere else across the country could not distinguish between Charleston, South Carolina, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The "C-H factor," as we called it around here.

So is Major League Baseball the next step in Charlotte's march toward national respectability?

Bob: Actually, they wouldn't have all four franchises with Major League Baseball; they don't have hockey. That's up in the triangle area.

Even a professional civic booster like Anderson has his doubts.

Anderson: I'd love to see Major League Baseball in Charlotte, and there's a lot of talk on both sides. But Charlotte is only so big - there's only so many sports dollars available in Charlotte....

Local corporations spent tens of millions of dollars buying seat licenses and sky boxes to support the Panthers and the NBA Hornets, and many in the community think businesses are simply too tapped-out to do the same for a baseball team. Even the mayor, Pat McCrory, says he thinks it'll be another three or four years before his city is ready to absorb another sports franchise like the Twins.

McCrory: There's an assumption that baseball would be very good for Charlotte, especially in our downtown area.... But at the same time, we just got an NFL football team. We're negotiating with the Charlotte Hornets for a new basketball arena. In fact, the Hornets are using other cities as a negotiating ploy, and we have to first finish and complete negotiations with our basketball team before we get another major league franchise.

And this is where another set of civic boosters sees its chance. An hour-and-a-half up the road from Charlotte, in the north-central part of the state, is a mix of tobacco country and suburban sprawl known as the "Triad." The Triad's geographic identity is rather vague - even native North Carolinians regularly confuse it with the more famous "Triangle" of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill. It's an area eager to diversify its economy away from tobacco and furntiture manufacturing, and it's also home to one of the country's highest concentration of minor league baseball clubs.

Now, local business leaders think the Triad is ready for the majors. Mike Solomon, director of the local pro-baseball committee, says the Triad's relative obscurity should count as a point in its favor.

Solomon: We need something for our young people to do with their leisure time, so our indication and our feeling is - plus, the corporations in our area aren't very taxed with a lot of other activities that ask for their corporate support... and this being a manufacturing base and the affordability of baseball, the chance for someone to come for a $5 ticket, we think we'll be hugely successful here. And people will come from miles and do economic impact. We've got two shopping malls with more than a million square feet!

About 100 miles away, in Durham, North Carolina, Miles Wolff edits "Baseball America" - the baseball insider's bible. Wolff is also the former owner of the Durham Bulls minor league team, and he's now president of the Northern League - the Saint Paul Saints' league.

He says Triad boosters are moving into uncharted waters, trying to attract a major league team without the benefit of a central city.

Wolff: In the case of the Triad, or where I live, the Triangle, the cities are separate with their separate identities. So you're not used to going to one. If you live in Greensboro, you go there for sports and entertainment, if you go to Winston, you go there for basketball, Wake Forest.... And these diverse markets have never been tested as to whether they can rally around a sport team.

Wolff says the Triad lacks what he calls "the major league feel," and he doubts a major league team could build up a big enough fan base to succeed.

But the Triad baseball committee's Mike Solomon says the Triad considers all of North Carolina and parts of South Carolina and Virginia as its potential market. Solomon says the Twins could tap a population base of 13 million people around the Triad - almost twice as many as their market in the upper midwest. Mike Wolff says that figure looks more impressive on a map than it would in the stands.

Wolff: Mike Solomon is a good fellow and believes all this, and can give you some great figures. But there is no history of the folks driving to Greensboro. That's why we have all these minor league teams. I mean, everybody has a minor league team in their community and they don't need to drive to see major league sports activities.

That doubt is reinforced by the fans waiting outside Charlotte's Ericcson Stadium on Monday night. Most of those who identify themselves as baseball fans say they wouldn't drive two hours to see a midweek baseball game.

Jeff Moore: I don't think anybody's going to drive to Greensboro to watch a ballgame. (People in Charlotte) won't even support the Knights, and they're in the playoffs, and that's only fifteen minutes away!

Chris Dayton: I'd support the Charlotte Twins - not the Greensboro Twins, not the High Point Twins.... It would have to be the Charlotte Twins.

Martin Kaste: What if they market them as...

Dayton: Ah, bad move, bad move! North Carolina's team?

Dayton: We want them in Charlotte! If you want me on a Tuesday, Wednesday night, you stay right here in town.

Voice: If there was one team in America I wouldn't want to move in on, it's the Atlanta Braves. I mean, the Superstation, they've got fans in 50 states, the southeast is Atlanta Braves territory. You'd be foolish to move any baseball team within three hours drive of Atlanta.

If the Twins can't count on support from Charlotte - North Carolina's biggest, richest city - the team could find itself with the same financial problems it's trying to escape in Minnesota. In fact, it could be worse, because North Carolina's income demographics aren't as good as Minnesota's: median household income is about $4000 lower, and per capita disposable income is about $1500 lower.

Miles Wolff says financial questions such as these should give Major League owners pause before they approve any team's move to the Triad, but Wolff says you can't always depend on the owners to take the wisest course.

Wolff: You know, not every major league owner has a Phi Beta Kappa key, so... I'm not sure they'd know one way or the other. Most major league owners probably think the Triad is in Charlotte. I don't think they would study much that these are two separate markets a hundred miles apart, without much interaction between the two, so I don't think there'd be much understanding.

The Triad boosters have been working behind the scenes to get the support of major league owners. Mike Solomon says they've met with Acting Commissioner Bud Selig on the matter, and he says they count White Sox owner Jerry Rheinsdorf as an ally. Selig and Rheinsdorf's support wouldn't be that surprising, since their ball clubs in Milwaukee and Chicago would probably stand to gain if Minnesota fans lost the Twins. Still, the support of one or two owners hardly guarantees the Twins permission to move to the Triad. Owners have been nervous lately about provoking Congress into revoking baseball's anti-trust exemption, lately, and baseball experts, like Miles Wolff, say even the owners must realize the political risks in allowing an established team like the Twins move to such a questionable market as North Carolina's Triad.