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Spectator Sports For A Bug-free City 

They skate, they fight - that's entertainment

Some 15 years ago, Charlotteans looking to feed their sports jones either turned to ESPN -- then a fledgling cable station starting to make real strides toward respectability -- or searched the sports pages for events to take the family to. At that point, George Shinn had recently acquired the right to field a team to be called the Hornets, and he was the toast of the town.

My, how things have changed. George went on to appear on Court TV, to over- and under-pay key players, and -- in a move whose shortsightedness cannot be understated -- signed on a trailer mogul by the name of Ray Wooldridge to be his ownership partner, spurning the advances of one Michael Jeffrey Jordan, who helped the Washington Wizards sell out every home game this season as a player.

It now appears the team is headed for New Orleans. Upon first glance, the move may not create that much of a void in Charlotte, as only about 5,000 fans were showing up at any given contest anyway. Outside of football season, however, the Hornets' departure will create a void for diehards looking to stoke their competitive juices the old-fashioned way: by watching others play a sport while sating themselves with hot dogs and nachos from the concession stand. In that spirit, we offer some suggestions on how to divvy up your sports-watching time, diversify your viewing experience, and save money. Most of the sports teams and events listed below are $20 and under, and you can rest assured they'd love your business.

Charlotte's other "Big Three" sports alternative is the Charlotte Knights, the AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. Manager Nick Capra leads the veteran-laced squad into action, and the team even features an Almonte! No, not Danny Almonte, the little league teenager with ever-shifting birthdates, but rather Edwin Almonte, an imposing 6'3" Dominican standout. We support a push for a Southend stadium for the Knights, but there's also something nice about sitting back at Knights Stadium, enjoying the game and gazing out over the trees outside the park. Ticket prices range between $6 and $9, and parking is free. Homer the Dragon is the best mascot in town, and you can even throw rocks at George's nearby Hornets Training Center if the game gets boring. (www.aaaknights.com)

The Charlotte Checkers of the East Coast Hockey League are another reasonably priced team high on action. Players in the ECHL will do anything they can to make it to the NHL, and that means fast skating, hard hitting, and plentiful fights. Even better, ECHL coaches aren't constrained by huge fines from the league office, so oftentimes they get into the action as well, riling up the fans and yelling at opposing players. Tickets are $7-$19 -- did we mention there's hardly a bad seat in Cricket Arena, the team's home ice? (www.gocheckers.com)

Looking for tennis? The United States Tennis Association has selected Olde Providence Racquet Club to host the 2002 United States vs. Austria Fed Cup first round on April 27 and 28. The US Fed Cup team, featuring Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles and led by captain Billie Jean King, will face the Austrians in a best-of-five match series in what is called the world's premier international women's team tennis competition. Olde Providence has also played host to the Davis Cup and the US Men's Clay Court Championships. (www.nctennis.com/charlotte)

Into swimming? You'll want to check out Team Charlotte, a well-regarded competitive swimming team based in the Queen City. The Mecklenburg Aquatic Center hosts all sorts of competitive events yearly, and the Mecklenburg Aquatic Club continues to produce Olympic-level swimmers like Jilen Siroky and Melvin Stewart year after year. (www.justswimmac.com and www.teamcharlotte.com)

The Charlotte Sting, currently hoping they don't get stung by the Hornets' proposed move, are the best price-to-talent deal in the city. Led by local girl-done-good Andrea Stinson and legendary guard Dawn Staley, and capably coached by Anne Donovan, the club pulled off what is probably the greatest comeback in pro sports history, starting out at 1-10 and surging to reach the WNBA finals last year -- before being dispatched in short order by the 1927 Yankees of women's pro hoops, the Los Angeles Sparks. On the brighter side, at least they don't have to worry about Georgie going after their cheerleaders. (www.charlottesting.com)

The Carolina Panthers, they of the lowly, league-worst 1-15 record last season, have a new head coach, ex-New York Giants defensive coordinator John Fox; a new starting running back, ex-Dolphin Lamar Smith; and a whole new attitude. One expects you damn well better have a whole new attitude after raising season ticket prices after such a dreadful season. Be warned, Jerry. We love ya, but pull crap like that one too many times and you'll find yourself booed all the way to the moon. Or Jupiter -- Jupiter, Florida, where the last guy who mistook the city for bumbling idiots now resides. Single game tickets are available from $40 and up. (www.panthers.com)

Rugby folks will tell you that the NFL isn't real football anyway -- the big sissies wear pads! (Mind you, no one ever tells this to a football player's face.) Rugby in all its glory can be seen at a sparkling new complex right outside the city which is home to the Charlotte Rugby folks. Watch some topnotch rugby (sometimes against international foes), and scrum for a few pints afterwards on their spacious deck. There are leagues for women, too, and those games can be at least as hard-charging as the men's. (www.charlotterugby.com)

Charlotte's also home to a little horse racing on occasion, thanks to the Queen's Cup Steeplechase races. The real sport here is showing off your jewelry and Cadillac Escalade, but that's only part of the fun. There's also the drinking. Admission ranges from $20 to $6,000 for a primo lawn box. (www.queenscup.org)

One of the biggest bargains for high-quality, low cost sports viewing in Charlotte is college sports. Including teams like UNC-Charlotte's men's basketball and soccer teams, Johnson C. Smith University, Queens College and Davidson College, there are loads of options available year-round for the money-addled sports fan. Click onto their respective websites for full schedules. Prices vary depending on the sport, but figure $20 and below for most events.(www.ciaa.com, www.queens.edu, www.thesac.com, www.uncc.edu, www.jcsu.edu, www.soconsports.com, www.davidson.edu)

Charlotte, despite the city's rather pitiful football history, does produce lots of good football players. The problem is, they graduate and go off to college elsewhere (predictable, one supposes, since the biggest school in Charlotte doesn't have a football team). In fact, ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Lemming has named Independence quarterback Chris Leak the number one high school player in the nation. West Charlotte and Garinger usually field quality football squads, and outlying teams all around the city's perimeter excel in smaller (1A, 2A) classifications. And for some serious, South Carolina high school football (don't forget who wins the Shrine Bowl nearly every year), we're just a half-hour away from both Rock Hill High and Northwestern High in Rock Hill, SC. Expect a ticket and a hot dog for under $10.

The rest of the world, mind you, will tell you that soccer is the real football. Fortunately for us, we have some great soccer action in the city. The Charlotte Eagles have just announced their 2002 season schedule, their second in the United Soccer League's highest division, the A-League. The team is just one level below the MLS (Major League Soccer). This year the Eagles will have 14 home games, plus an MLS exhibition game against the MLS Colorado Rapids on July 31. The Lady Eagles are a women's elite W-League team, just one level below the WUSA women's professional league. Tickets are $8 for adults, and $5 for ages 6-16. Season tickets may be had for around $80.

"For the consumer looking for something new, the Eagles and/or Lady Eagles may be just the ticket they are looking for," says Dave Miller of the Eagles. "The Eagles pride themselves on high quality soccer while offering a family friendly environment for all ages. Whether the Hornets leave Charlotte or not, the Eagles and Lady Eagles are committed to Charlotte, and are here to stay."

If all else fails, you could always (gasp) go and play a sport yourself. You won't have the big contracts or the cool jerseys, but you're guaranteed to draw as many fans as the Charlotte 49ers pigskin squad. *

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