Charlotte Knights face uphill battle in defending attendance title

The Charlotte Knights are likely to have at least three sellout crowds this week, but the team is facing an uphill battle to defend its minor-league baseball attendance championship.

The Knights have drawn an average of 8,257 fans in their first 41 dates this year at BB&T Ballpark – a decrease of 723 per game from last season, when the team led the minors for the fourth time in uptown stadium’s five years of operation.

The Knights rank fifth among minor league teams in average attendance.

And the decrease comes in a season when the Knights are fielding their most successful club in several years. Entering play this week, Charlotte carried a 45-37 record and is very much in the International League playoff race.

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But rainy weather in April and parts of June helped cut into attendance. In addition, the Knights played home games on three nights when the Charlotte Checkers were also playing during their American Hockey League championship run.

In recent years, the Knights (and Indianapolis, in 2017) won the attendance championship by averaging around 8,500 to 9,000 fans per game.

But a new stadium has helped vault the Las Vegas Aviators, the Class AAA affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, into a big lead this season. Playing at Las Vegas Ballpark in suburban Summerlin, the Aviators are averaging 9,495 fans per contest through 42 dates. That’s more than double the team’s average of 4,746 a game last year at its former home, Cashman Park in downtown Las Vegas.

The Aviators lead a Pacific Coast League sweep of the top three spots, followed by the Round Rock Express (a Houston farm team in suburban Austin), at 8,689; and the Nashville Sounds (Texas Rangers) at 8,434.

Fourth, with an average of 8,323, are the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs (Philadelphia), a fellow International League member of the Knights.

The Knights’ Independence Day game Thursday against Norfolk is a sellout, and home games Friday and Saturday nights also are likely to follow suit.

Here’s how the team fared in the past week:

Last Monday: Seby Zavala and Paulo Orlando hit home runs, but the Knights lost in Durham 7-2.

Tuesday: Durham rallied with four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning and beat the Knights 5-1. Hector Santiago, signed by the Chicago White Sox as a free agent and assigned to Charlotte, pitched five innings and allowed just one run.

Wednesday: Ryan Goins lined a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, giving the Knights a 9-6 victory at home over Gwinnett.

Thursday: Goins and right-handed pitcher Connor Walsh were named to the International League team for the Triple-A All-Star Game on July 10 in El Paso, Texas. Meanwhile, outfielder Daniel Palka, who hit 16 homers for Charlotte this season, was called up by the White Sox.

Friday: The Knights swept a doubleheader from host Norfolk, winning 10-3 and 4-3. Trey Michalczewski hit a three-run home run for Charlotte in the opening game. In the nightcap, starting pitcher Justin Nicolino went all seven innings, improving his record to 6-3.

Saturday: Goins and Yermin Mercedes each had two hits, but Charlotte lost 2-0 at Norfolk.

Sunday: Charlotte was held to four hits in a 6-1 loss at Norfolk. Right-hander Dylan Cease, the No. 18 overall prospect, was called up to Chicago and will make his Major League debut Wednesday.

Week ahead: The Knights started a three-game series Monday night in Durham. They return home Thursday (6:05 p.m.), Friday (7:04 p.m.), Saturday (7:04 p.m.) and Sunday (2:05 p.m.) against Norfolk. That series finale against the Tides is the last daytime Sunday home game of the season.

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle

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