The Charlotte Heat were a co-ed professional tennis club that competed in Billie Jean King’s summertime TeamTennis promotion for five seasons between 1987 and 1991. The Heat won the league championship in each of their first two seasons of play.
Team owner Bob Benson previously owned the Carolina Lightnin’ (1981-1983), Charlotte’s first foray into professional soccer, during the early 1980’s.
The Charlotte Orioles were the long-time Class AA Southern League farm club of the Baltimore Orioles. Promoted locally as “The O’s”, the ball club was owned by famed Southern wrestling promoter Jim Crockett Jr.
The Crocketts ran the O’s in true mom & pop style. Charlotte’s ballpark, formerly known as Clark Griffith Park, was renamed Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Park in 1976 in honor of the family patriarch, “Big Jim” Crockett, who passed away in 1973. While Jim Jr. and his brothers focused on the wrestling promotion inherited from their late father, sister Frances Crockett managed the O’s business operations as one of the rare female General Managers of the era. A retired wrestler named Klondike Bill handled the groundskeeping duties.
The O’s won Southern League championships in 1980 and 1984. 19-year old future Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr. played all 144 games (naturally) for the 1980 O’s championship team. The 1980 captured the hearts of Charlotte, setting a city attendance record of 198,528 fans for the 72-game home schedule. The Sporting News named Frances Crocker its Class AA Baseball Executive-of-the-Year. In 1981, the O’s broke the local attendance record once again, drawing 211,161.
According to the site ripkenintheminors.com, the Charlotte police department sponsored a set of O’s trading cards in 1980, which were distributed one or two cards at a time to youth in the Charlotte community. Today the orange-bordered Ca Ripken card from this set is generally thought to be most valuable minor league trading card in the world. In February 2014, a high grade Charlotte Orioles Police Ripken card sold at auction for $22,515.
The O’s fortunes took a turn for the worse on March 16th, 1985 when arsonists burned Crockett Park to the ground following a high school baseball game. The Crockett family quickly erected a makeshift 3,000-seat facility (also known as Crockett Park) to salvage the 1985 season.
In October 1987, the Crocketts sold the team to George Shinn, owner of the Charlotte Hornets NBA expansion franchise due to begin play in 1988. Shinn re-branded the team as the Charlotte Knights. The Knights upgraded to Class AAA status in 1993 and continue to play in Charlotte to this day.
==Charlotte Orioles Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
This early Arena Football franchise played five seasons in North Carolina, splitting dates between the massive, NBA-scale Charlotte Coliseum and the smaller Independence Arena. The franchise was owned by motion picture financier Allen J. Schwalb, who backed some of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980’s, including Rambo, Rain Main, Moonstruck and Thelma & Louise.
During the Charlotte Rage’s first season in 1992, the team signed Joe DeLamielleure, a perennial All-Pro offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills during the late 1970’s. 41 years old at the time, DeLamielleure was seven years removed from his last NFL game in 1985. He played in a handful of games for Charlotte in 1992 before retiring for good. DeLamielleure remains the only member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to play Arena Football.
After a promising start in 1992 (13,248 average attendance for five dates), attendance plummeted to below 7,500 per game in 1993. At some point, Schwalb’s relations with AFL Commissioner Jim Drucker and his fellow owners appeared to sour. In July 1996, the Charlotte Business Journal reported that league officials were pressuring Schwalb to sell the franchise. Schwalb had discussions with groups in Salt Lake City and Long Island, but ultimately folded the team in late 1996, taking an $850,000 payout from the league to turn in the franchise. Schwalb would later file a $200 million Sherman anti-trust lawsuit against the league, asserting that his former business partners unlawfully scuttled his efforts to sell and relocate the franchise and coerced him to sell the team back to the league for a below market price. The suit seems to have been resolved in the early 2000’s, but it’s not clear what the resolution was.
Arena Football replaced the Charlotte Rage in the North Carolina market with the Raleigh-based Carolina Cobras in 2000. The Cobras would later move to Charlotte in 2003 before going out of business in late 2004.
More than 50% of the CISL’s original franchise owners were investors in NBA or NHL franchises. Vipers majority Felix Sabates was an original investor in the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and co-owner Carl Scheer was a long-time ABA and NBA exec and the former President of the Hornets. NASCAR legends Richard & Kyle Petty were also limited partners in the group.
The Sabates-Scheer group also owned the popular Charlotte Checkers minor league hockey team, which debuted nine months before the Vipers in the fall of 1993. Like the Checkers, the Vipers played in the 9,500 Independence Arena in Charlotte. After several ownership changes – including a second term for Sabates in the early 2000’s, – the Checkers continue to play in Charlotte today.
The Carolina Vipers, by contrast, were a major misfire in the summer of 1994. Under Head Coach David Irving, Carolina was one of the worst clubs in the history of the CISL with a 3-25 record. Fans stayed away in droves. The Vipers ranked 12th out of 14 clubs with announced attendance of 3,034 per game. The club quietly folded after the 1994 season ended that September. The CISL folded three years later in December 1997.
The Carolina Lightnin’ were a popular 2nd division soccer club that played three seasons in Charlotte during the early 1980’s. They were the first pro soccer franchise ever established in the Carolinas.
Founded as an American Soccer League expansion club in December 1979, the club debuted a year-and-a-half later in April 1981. In the interim, the Lightnin’ made a key acquisition, signing recently retired English soccer star Rodney Marsh as Head Coach in September 1980. Marsh, a long-time star for Queens Park Rangers and Manchester City, came to the United States in 1976 to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League. The Rowdies were a big draw at the time and Marsh’s shaggy hair and magnetic personality made him a media star, by the modest standards of American pro soccer at the time. Marsh even had his own Miller Lite TV spot in 1980:
Marsh retired as a player in September 1979 following the Rowdies loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps in Soccer Bowl ’79. He decided to stay in the States and become a coach, hooking on with New York United of the American Soccer League in 1980. United were attempting an ambitious move in to Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets, that summer. It was an odd venue for an anonymous minor league soccer team and United played to acres of empty grandstands. Marsh separated from the team at mid-season, but latched on with Carolina a few months later and found a much happier circumstance.
The Lightnin’ took advantage of the American Soccer League’s annual disarray and financial distress to pilfer other clubs for many of the 2nd division’s top players. Carolina landed Mal Roche, the league’s top scorer in 1980 whose previous club had disbanded. Playmaking midfielder Don Tobin was a league All-Star but, like Roche, he was available when his former club folded. Goalkeeper Scott Manning was the best netminder in the ASL in 1980, but Carolina snatched him away from the Pennsylvania Stoners franchise nonetheless.
The club’s most remarkable find was Tony Suarez, a Cuban who moved to Charlotte at age 16. Suarez came to the team on a tryout with no previous pro experience. He failed to make the team but as a consolation was offered a job as the team’s bus driver and gofer. Injuries eventually open a roster spot for Suarez, who promptly scored 9 goals in his first 12 pro matches. He ultimately led the Lightnin’ in scoring in 1981 (and finished 5th in the league) with 15 goals and 4 assists. He was named the ASL’s 1981 Rookie-of-the-Year.
The Lightnin’ won their division with a 16-9-3 record and made it through the playoffs to earn a date with Marsh’s former team, New York United, in the 1981 ASL Championship Game. United should have hosted by virtue of having the league’s best record at 19-5-4. But their attendance continued to be dismal in New York, while expansion Carolina led the ASL with average crowds over 4,000 per match and a couple of late season gates in excess of 8,000. The league voted to move the September 18, 1981 championship match to Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium.
A strong crowd was expected, but Carolina shocked the American soccer scene when a league record 20,163 fans packed the stadium for the match. The game was deadlocked until the 64th minute when United’s Solomon Hilton beat Manning to give the visitors a 1-0 advantage. But Don Tobin tied the match on a header in the 69th minute to rally Carolina and send the game into overtime. Hugh O’Neill scored the game winner for Carolina in the second overtime period and Carolina had the league title.
In 1982, the Lightnin’ loaded up to defend their title. The club added 34-year Derek Smethurst, a deadly striker who scored 57 goals for Tampa Bay in the NASL, mostly while paired up top with Rodney Marsh. Smethurst’s skills were in decline at age 34 though and he only stuck around Carolina for a handful of games. The other big acquisition was English striker Paul Child. Like Smethurst, Child was one of the NASL’s all-time leading scorers, but was without an employer as America’s top pro league began a severe contraction at the beginning of the 1980’s.
One player who was missing was 1981 hero Tony Suarez. Suarez injured his leg playing indoor soccer with Cleveland Force and missed the entire 1982 outdoor season. His career never recovered and he was finished playing by 1984. Suarez died young at age 51 in 2007.
In 1982, the Lightnin’ could recapture the magic of their debut season. They finished 11-13-4 and their season ended with a semi-final series defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Slickers.
In 1983 the Lightnin’ hired 42-year old Bobby Moore, the captain of England’s 1966 World Cup championship side, as an assistant coach. He later ended up appearing in some games as a player as well. Houston Dynamo and ESPN broadcaster Glenn Davis was a rookie that summer with the ASL’s Pennsylvania Stoners and recalled his shock at finding Moore in the American Soccer League in a 2012 FWIL interview:
“<Carolina> had so many injuries they activated Bobby Moore to play that night against us. Bobby was probably 43 years old and he obviously can’t move. He’s kicking everything and everybody that he can get close to. And we’re just going “Oh my God – it’s Bobby Moore.”
I remember we had a 2-0 lead and we absolutely crumbled in the final ten minutes with their fans going nuts. They had probably about 7,000 or 8,000 fans in this cool little stadium in Charlotte. I think it was called the Memorial Stadium. We totally collapsed as a team and lost 3-2. I remember our owner on the bus back to the hotel and screaming at one of our players. I think a lot of us were just still in shock that Bobby Moore was playing that night.”
The Lightnin’ posted a losing record again in 1983. In early 1984, the entire American Soccer League folded after more than fifty years of operation and Robert Benson withdrew his support for the team. Several ASL teams formed a new league called the United Soccer League and Charlotte did get a get a USL franchise, under new ownership and with a new name – the Charlotte Gold – for the 1984 season. Many former staff members and players from the Lightnin’ continued on with the Gold, who played one season and then went out of business in late 1984.
Carolina Lightnin’ Programs
Carolina Lightnin’ Souvenir Ball
Carolina Lightnin’ vs. Pennsylvania Stoners. May 15, 1981
Carolina Lightnin' @ New York United. Undated 1981
Lightnin' @ Rochester Flash. July 22, 1981
Carolina Lightnin' @ Detroit Express. August 9, 1981
Carolina Lightnin’ vs. Nashville Diamonds. June 5, 1982
Carolina Lightnin’ vs. Nashville Diamonds. June 12, 1982
Carolina Lightnin’ vs. Detroit Express. August 14, 1982
Carolina Lightnin' @ Rochester Flash. September 1982
Forward Tony Suarez (Lightnin’ ’81 & ’83) passed away April 18, 2007 at the age of 51.