Should a team actually play in the city they represent?

Birmingham and Charlotte are two examples of teams that don’t play in their respective cities

It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally in the world of sports a team that represents one city actually plays in another. This case is most obvious in the NFL with the New York Giants and Jets, both of whom share a stadium in New Jersey, not New York. Granted, they still play in the New York City area, but if one wants to be picky about geographic location, then you have an argument. Baseball presents similar geographic oddities in both the Majors and Minors. Most notably, the Tampa Bay Rays do not in fact play in the city of Tampa, but across the Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Rays get away with this because, like it’s fellow NFL and NHL teams, they are referred to as “Tampa Bay” in reference to the entire metropolitan area (which encompasses several cities and towns) versus the actual city of Tampa.

Yes, this is an argument played out in semantics, but it could certainly affect one’s love for their “home team.” While I merely spent my childhood living in Tampa, I could hardly see myself trekking from Tampa across the bay over to the middle of nowhere in St. Pete to catch the Rays play in something that resembles a large silo or hurricane shelter. It’s a journey, and one that the Rays franchise has tried to alleviate several times over recent years through various stadium proposals. Would the Rays not draw larger, more boisterous crowds if their stadium were say next to the Buccaneers’ home, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa proper? Given the access via major roads, it seems the Tampa Rays might draw better than the Tampa Bay Rays do in St. Petersburg.

This brings me to one oddity in Minor League Baseball that’s about to fix itself and another that simply doesn’t make any sense and it can be tough to “root for the home team.” Now let’s take a look at a couple of big examples in baseball: the Birmingham Barons and the Charlotte Knights.

The Barons began play in 1885 and for much of their history, played in the historic Rickwood Field in downtown Birmingham. The park was built in 1910 and served as the Barons home through the 1987 season. In 1988, the Barons moved into the ‘burbs, abandoning their historic park for the cozy confines of what is now called Regions Park in nearby Hoover. The park is nestled at the end of a four lane road, with your typical suburban office complexes and little league fields dotting the road along the way. It seems a rather odd place to find a 10,000 seat plus venue that is home to a AA team and the SEC baseball tournament, but it’s there nonetheless. Exit the four lane road onto the larger highway and all the amenities of the suburbs are there. Shops, restaurants, large hotels, office complexes, side streets leading to modern neighborhoods. You name it, Hoover’s got it.

Regions Park, home of the Birmingham Barons, located in Hoover….

Having the Birmingham Barons play in Hoover was a thorn in the side of the actual city of Birmingham. The city has struggled economically, albeit not the fault of the Barons, and the team recently announced that a new downtown stadium will be constructed and the Barons will actually play in their namesake. The city and its residents are pumped and hope that this will be exactly what the city needs to prosper once again.

Another fascinating example of this phenomenon in baseball are the Charlotte Knights. Like the Birmingham Barons, they also serve as an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, and like the Barons, they don’t play in the town they supposedly represent. The Knights play around 3o minutes to the south of Charlotte in South Carolina. Yes, a team representing the largest city in North Carolina doesn’t actually play in that state. Sure, the Charlotte suburbs extend into South Carolina, but Fort Mill (the town that is home to the Knights) is not Charlotte. The team is aware of their previous misdeeds, and are now in the process of working out the details to build a new stadium in Mecklenberg County, the actual place where the city of Charlotte resides. Given the fact that the Knights are last in International League attendance, a new stadium in Charlotte might be just what the baseball doctor ordered.

Whew! Another travesty resolved.

Now, much of this is all semantics. The teams are close enough to the cities they represent on the field, and sometimes it’s just too darn pricey to have a team play downtown. When other cities, counties, localities, or what have you are willing to build a stadium, you take the money and head there without thinking twice. However, many of our large downtown areas are struggling and while baseball attendance isn’t guaranteed to be a gigantic economic boost, it can help. As I’ve stated many times before, the Montgomery Biscuits are one of the sole reasons why so much redevelopment has occurred in the downtown Montgomery area. Restaurants, bars, hotels, and more are popping up as a result of business friendly tax policies, and a great attraction in the Biscuits. Having traveled to baseball towns throughout the south, I can tell you that location matters. The Huntsville Stars play ball in a heap of a stadium that sits in the middle of an abandoned runway. The team is desperate for a new park, but the city won’t budge. Only a handful of fans show up for games. Why do so few show up? As I mentioned, the team plays in a heap on an abandoned runway.

A rendering of the proposed new stadium in Charlotte. Yes, the Knights would play IN Charlotte. Imagine that?

New stadiums attract fans and businesses, and as the stadium ages and the shine starts to wear off, it’s up to the city, county, and citizens to make sure the surrounding area remains well developed. A lack of development continues to plague the area around Turner Field in Atlanta, and developers still won’t budge on the opportunity to build cheaply around the park. We have yet to see whether or not Birmingham’s experiment of bringing the Barons back into town will result in a robust and bustling entertainment district, but time will tell. There is a huge movement across the country to save our cities, and giving our favorite teams a great place to play in the city is a great start.

It’s not always easy, and certainly not cheap, but it would be great to see baseball teams, both big and small play in the cities they supposedly represent. It’s strange to see a team with one city in its name actually playing somewhere else. It’s not totally disingenuous, but I’m sure the city the team plays for would like some of the benefits. The Barons and Knights are slowly but surely correcting their previous misdeeds and hopefully the economies of Birmingham and Charlotte will shine as bright as brand new stadium lights in the near future.

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