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Uptown Baseball Projections Too Optimistic?

The Charlotte Knights are making their formal pitch this week for city funding to help build a new stadium in uptown Charlotte. Part of the argument they'll present to a city council meeting on Thursday is the projection that a new stadium in the heart of the city will more than double attendance at Knights games. That's the prediction of John Connaughton - considered by many to be the oracle of new stadium and sports facilities in Charlotte. At a city council committee meeting two weeks ago, Connaughton (a UNC Charlotte economist) said "600,000 is a legitimate number for annual attendance." That's compared to the 280,000 people who bought tickets for Knights games at their Fort Mill, South Carolina stadium last year. Connaughton's projections have helped secure public support for Time Warner Cable Arena, Bank of America Stadium, the US National Whitewater Center and the NASCAR Hall of Fame - which has fallen far short of attendance goals. But Connaughton insists he's not in the crystal ball business - he just takes the numbers provided by a team and works a formula to find the likely benefit of a new facility to the local economy. For the Knights Uptown, he says that would be $38 million a year. The 600,000 number is really Dan Rajkowski's doing - he's the general manager of the Charlotte Knights. "We base it a lot on the history of what's happened in all minor league cities," said Rajkowski just after that same city council meeting. "For the most part without exception there's been a doubling of attendance when you're moving from a previous location to a newer location." Rajkowski is wrong. In Triple A baseball's International League, to which the Knights belong, only two teams have come close to doubling attendance - Toledo and Louisville. Both saw a near 90 percent increase with new stadiums in the early 2000s. Those numbers have come down slightly with time. A better comparison to Charlotte, in terms of size and potential, would be Indianapolis or Columbus. Rajkowski cites both often. Last season the Indianapolis Indians sold 580,000 tickets - one of the best figures in the International League. Back in 1995, public funding made up half of the $18 million cost to build a new ballpark in downtown Indianapolis. The first year in that stadium, ticket sales jumped 72 percent from 366,000 to a team record of 630,000. Indians General Manager Cal Burleson says that figure "gradually grew for about the first 5 years" the ballpark was open. "Most facilities have a honeymoon period with their new ballpark," says Burleson. "We like to think we were perhaps able to keep that going for a few years longer." Indians attendance dropped off in the early 2000's and now vacillates between 550,000 and 600,000. UNC Charlotte economist Craig Depken says the typical attendance boost for baseball teams building new urban stadiums is certainly not 100 percent as the Knights are predicting. Rather, Depken says it runs between 20 and 50 percent. "Some people will come to the events at the stadium simply to see the stadium and experience the event in the new stadium, kind of notwithstanding the quality of the teams that are playing or whatever the event happens to be," says Depken, who studies the business of sports. "Between seven and 10 years that novelty effect is gone and you're back to where you would have been before the new stadium." Attendance projections the Charlotte Knights tout do not account for any decline once the "newness" of the uptown stadium wears off. The Columbus Clippers - one of the teams the Knights General Manager likes to highlight - is arguably still in the honeymoon phase. For decades the Clippers played at historic Cooper Stadium, built in 1932 in an industrial area just beyond downtown. In 2009, the Clippers moved into Huntington Park - a state-of-the-art stadium in the heart of Columbus' entertainment district. The new stadium, land and infrastructure cost $75 million. Clippers General Manager Ken Schnacke says state and local government kicked in about $20 million of that. "We had naysayers in Columbus," recalls Schnacke. "Why are you moving? Are you crazy? The old ballpark's paid for, it's good enough." But nothing beats being downtown, says Schnacke. The new stadium boosted Clippers attendance by 24 percent. Last season, the team sold close to 600,000 tickets. And if any Triple A team could benefit from a better location, it's Charlotte, says Schnacke. "The baseball team is called the Charlotte Knights and they're in Fort Mill, South Carolina," says Schnacke. "You have to be a hard baseball fan to want to go there, right? It's not convenient to get to, it's a long drive, it's not even in Charlotte." An uptown stadium would certainly make the Knights more accessible to people north and east of Charlotte, but will that be enough to double attendance for the team? Reached by phone yesterday, Knights General Manager Dan Rajkowski said he hasn't even run numbers on financing the stadium with a more modest estimate. "We're comfortable if we have a difficult year in which it dips below the 600,000, but the reality is we're very confident - based on our research and data - that a 600,000 in attendees is a very comfortable number for us to work with," says Rajkowski. He needs the city council to be comfortable with it, too, if the Knights are to get the public funding they want for the new stadium. Mecklenburg County has already offered land and an $8 million grant, contingent on the team securing major stadium sponsorships by the end of this month and full financing commitments before July.