BY KURT DUSTERBERG
If your family enjoys taking in live sporting events, you live in the right state. North Carolina offers plenty of variety. Name the sport, and you can buy a ticket to watch. And it’s not just major league sports. Across the state, there are sports of all sorts, played at all levels.
Most people know about the major league franchises. Raleigh boasts the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, while Charlotte is home to the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and Charlotte FC of Major League Soccer. But don’t overlook all the teams that play in developmental professional leagues or other competitive levels. Like their major league counterparts, many of these athletes are one step away from reaching the top of their sport.
For parents seeking affordable family entertainment, these teams and events offer major values. Tickets are usually a fraction of the cost of attending a major league event, the venues typically offer a nice variety of local food and drink options, and the seating is closer to the action. If you have a favorite player, there’s a good chance you can get a photo or an autograph of him or her. And if you already have a favorite school to root for, the best-kept secret for spectator experiences might be collegiate sports.
The next time your family has a little free time to travel the Old North State, consider visiting an arena or ballpark you’ve never seen. You might just catch a rising star in action and make a family memory.
Minor and Collegiate League Baseball
There’s no better way to spend a summer evening than taking in a ballgame. From minor to collegiate leagues, North Carolina has plenty to offer.
Most minor league stadiums have been built during the past 25 years with an eye toward family amenities. These teams typically offer food and drink selections for both children and adults, and in-game entertainment keeps fans involved between innings. The Durham Bulls and Charlotte Knights play at the AAA level, where the players are just one step away from the major leagues.
There are also lower-level teams all over the state affiliated with major league baseball. To the casual fan, there’s little difference in the quality of play. You’ll find these affiliated teams in Asheville, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Hickory, Kannapolis, Kinston, Winston-Salem and Zebulon—home of Five County Stadium, where the Single-A Carolina Mudcats play.
Twelve more cities across North Carolina host independent or collegiate summer leagues that offer the same experience. One of them is the Oak City Gliders, part of the Old North State Baseball League, which is North Carolina’s largest summer collegiate league. The team was recently purchased by Triangle entrepreneur Philip Lin and will play 15–20 games this summer at a home field near Optimist Park on land owned by the City of Raleigh.
Just down the road, the Holly Springs Salamanders play in the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate wood-bat summer league. While not associated with Major League Baseball, the fan experience is nearly the same.
The Triangle is home to four NCAA Division I schools: Duke University, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While those schools’ football and basketball programs are often in the national spotlight, the NCAA offers 30 more men’s and women’s team and individual sports—the so-called non-revenue sports. If you have an aspiring volleyball player, swimmer or gymnast at home, watching a high-level collegiate competition can inspire a child or teen to reach the next level of competition. Another plus: Some schools offer free admission to select games, particularly for children and recreational sports teams.
Beyond the Triangle, North Carolina is home to 18 Division I schools, including nearby Campbell University (Buies Creek) and Elon University (Elon).
As soccer continues to grow, so does the sport’s footprint in North Carolina. In addition to Charlotte FC, North Carolina FC plays in a third-level affiliated pro league at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. The North Carolina Courage plays in the National Women’s Soccer League. In 2018, the Courage won the league title and the International Champions Cup, earning recognition as the best women’s team in the world. There are additional teams that play in a variety of tiers of organized soccer in Durham, Greensboro and High Point.
If you’re looking for the most successful college soccer program in the state, consider the UNC Tar Heels women’s program, which has won 21 NCAA national championships.
As soccer continues Professional golf has a long history in North Carolina, including hosting the U.S. Open Championship, which will return to Pinehurst No. 2 in June 2024. The PGA Tour plays the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte in early May. The Wyndham Championship, a mainstay on the Tour for 84 years, is played in Greensboro at Sedgefield Country Club in August.
Cary’s Prestonwood Country Club hosts the SAS Championship on the PGA Tour Champions senior tour, and the REX Hospital Open is an early-June event on the PGA’s development tour played at Tournament Players Club (TPC) Wakefield Plantation in Raleigh.
Other Sports and Venues
The Charlotte Checkers play hockey in the American Hockey League, one step below the NHL, while the Carolina Thunderbirds (in Winston-Salem) and the Fayetteville Marksmen take the ice in lower-level leagues.
The Greensboro Swarm plays basketball in the G League, the minor-league development team for the Hornets. Players are called up directly from the G League to NBA teams.
The National Arena League is an eight-team circuit of indoor football teams. The Carolina Cobras play at the Greensboro Coliseum and the Fayetteville Mustangs play at Crown Coliseum. The league has a 14-game weekly schedule that begins in early April.
NASCAR racing, a staple of the North Carolina sports landscape, has two premier events, which both take place at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord. The Coca-Cola 600 happens Memorial Day weekend and the Bank of America ROVAL 400 takes place in October.
The Triangle is home to USA Baseball, the national governing body for organized baseball in the U.S. The organization’s National Training Complex in Cary trains national teams and hosts major national events at a variety of age levels.
The Greensboro Aquatic Center hosts events for USA Swimming and USA Diving, as well as college and national championship events.
Whatever sport your heart desires, North Carolina accommodates a place for it. Round up the family and head over to a field, arena or track where you can all enjoy as much of it as you like.
Check out more stories from around the Triangle by visiting Midtown Magazine.