Bob Benson - Founder

In 1981, the Carolina Lightnin’ soccer franchise won the American Soccer League (ASL) title in its first year. Six years later, the Charlotte Heat won the Team Tennis championship (winning again the following year). Both franchises were founded and led by Robert D. “Bob” Benson. Founding two professional sports franchises that won league championships in the first year is astounding enough to qualify one as a top-notch professional sports entrepreneur. But doing so in Charlotte in the early- to mid-1980s makes Benson a bona fide pro sports pioneer.  

In the late-1970s, Charlotte was considered a graveyard for big-league professional sports franchises. The early 1970s saw American Basketball Association’s Carolina Cougars draw decent crowds (playing home games split between Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh) and field playoff-caliber squads. However, after the 1974 season, the team was sold and moved to St. Louis. Other notable failed Charlotte sports teams include a franchise in the World Football League (also called Charlotte Hornets) and another in the Arena Football League (Carolina Cobras). Therefore, when Benson’s Carolina Lightnin’ soccer franchise began playing in Charlotte in May 1981, high hopes for success were seasoned with more than a dash of doubts.

Although an accomplished athlete (Benson played basketball at Clemson under coach Press Maravich), Benson maintained the Carolina Lightnin’ was in the entertainment business. Because soccer was just getting a foothold in the U.S., marketing and promotion became a hallmark of Benson’s approach to attracting fans to Memorial Stadium. Following Benson’s lead, Lightnin’ coach Rodney Marsh and team executive Ed Young found various ways to astound fans with promotions, including giving away cars, shopping sprees, vacations and even an airplane. Then there’s the game in 1983 when fans who bought a $10 ticket to the Lightnin’ game remained in their seats following the match to enjoy a live performance of The Beach Boys. As a result of all these promotions, the Lightnin’ led the ASL in average attendance in each of its three years. 

During this time, a guy named George Shinn took notice of Benson’s unprecedented accomplishments, including the record-setting 20,163 fans packed into Charlotte Memorial Stadium for the Lightnin’s 1981 ASL Championship victory. Scott Fowler’s January 31, 2021 article on Benson in The Charlotte Observer quoted Shinn as saying the crowd the Lightnin’ drew for the 1981 ASL title match convinced him an NBA franchise could thrive in the Queen City. Clearly, he was right. Shinn’s Charlotte Hornets led the NBA in average attendance in its premiere season (1988), despite a record of 20 wins and 62 losses. Selling out became a habit for the Hornets, eventually packing the Charlotte Coliseum for 364 consecutive games. 

In 2022, Charlotte welcomed another professional sports team, when Charlotte FC kicked-off its inaugural season in Major League Soccer with a record setting crowd of 74,479 in Bank of America Stadium. Clearly professional soccer has come a long way in Charlotte. More than 40 years ago, an upstart franchise and team, led by a hometown hero in his rookie season, shocked the pro soccer world by bringing a professional sports championship to Charlotte. There are still many of us who will never forget Rodney Marsh, Tony Suarez and the other boys of summer in 1981, who earned Charlotte its first crown as a major league sports city. 

Thank you, Mr. Benson. Your legacy is secure. 

Bob Benson