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The Braves Seek Out Suburbia
Cinematic baseball wisdom holds that if you build it, they will come.
The Atlanta Braves seem to want to add a caveat: “… as long as you build it in the right place.”
In a move characterized as “surprising” by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, team officials announced the Braves would leave their downtown Atlanta home for Cobb County, a suburban area northwest of the city whose largest city is Marietta. (1)
The Braves have played in downtown Atlanta since moving from Milwaukee in 1966, but their current home, Turner Field, is newer. It was built for the 1996 Olympics and became Braves Park in 1997. The team said it would relocate for the 2017 season, the first opportunity to do so since the 20-year lease at Turner Field expired.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Turner Field. Its only major drawback is that it is not enclosed, making it difficult to play or sit out a one-day game in Atlanta in July. But the weather isn’t giving up on the Braves. (The new arena will also be open-air, team officials have said.) A website the team launched to explain the move “cites some issues that are insurmountable and will become more problematic as the years go by.” (2) These include inadequate parking and lack of mass transit.
I assume these are real issues, but I suspect the Braves have other considerations. As always, money is high on the list. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed released a statement following the Braves’ announcement that keeping the team in downtown Atlanta would cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars.” He also claimed that Cobb County is providing a $450 million grant for the new ballpark, a figure neither the Braves nor Cobb County would confirm. Citing Reed, ESPN reported that the city plans to tear down Turner Field once the Braves leave.
Still, the Braves chose not to take Cobb County’s offer easy. As with metropolitan Atlanta, the area surrounding the proposed stadium is frequently gridlocked, even without the added traffic a major-league venue would create. As for mass transit, skeptics immediately noted that the MARTA transit system does not serve Cobb County.
But the green suburban hills have other advantages, not the least of which is proximity to the Braves’ fan base — a sizable suburban crowd whose kids play softball and hardball on the mindlessly manicured fields. Baseball struggles to attract young players in urban areas where basketball is particularly popular. In some places, like Atlanta, the central city is not where most fans live, especially those who can afford major-league prices. Derek Schiller, a Braves executive, said their new stadium would be “near the geographic center of our fan base.”
The Braves understandably want to get as many fans into the ballpark as possible. Despite the Braves’ consistent success on the field, they don’t particularly draw crowds at their current home stadium. In 2013, they averaged 31,465 in attendance per home game, although Turner Field could hold just under 50,000. The new Cobb County Stadium will seat approximately 41,000 to 42,000 people.
Downtown Atlanta is now lagging behind the nationwide trend of revitalizing urban cores. Unlike Miami, which is full of shiny new condo towers, Atlanta hasn’t attracted a large pool of new downtown residents in recent years. Atlanta is a high crime city by national standards. Very little happens downtown after dark. The city center is hollowed out as people move out of the city onto major open avenues or into more popular urban areas such as Buckhead, Little Five Points, and Druid Hills.
While I can’t blame team management, the Braves’ departure looks like a financial disaster for the city. The Braves and Turner Field were one of the primary draws to downtown Atlanta. The decision also reinforces the position of skeptics who argue that publicly financed sports facilities do not add much value to established big cities, whether stadiums are built for the Olympics (in Atlanta or, this year, Rio de Janeiro) or for professional sports franchises.
A big-league team, however, can put a small municipality on the map. This happened in Arlington, Texas, which hosts the Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys. It takes place in Anaheim, California, which is home to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the NHL team, the Anaheim Ducks. It could happen in Marietta soon. As Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes, Atlanta’s loss will be Cobb County’s gain, making it “a major destination point throughout the Southeast.” (1)
Downtown partygoers can take solace in the consolation prize — a new downtown stadium on the drawing board for the city’s National Football League franchise, the Atlanta Falcons. The team plans to move a short distance from its current home, the 21-year-old Georgia Dome that sits on the edge of downtown.
Football is more popular nationally than baseball, and nowhere more so than in Georgia, where even high school teams have their scores reported on the front page of the metropolitan daily. There is no doubt that the NFL is a treasure and baseball’s Braves are a consolation prize. But the Falcons play just eight regular-season home games a year, compared to the Braves’ 81. They also play mostly on Sundays, when traffic is less. You can get people to travel almost anywhere for an NFL game, but an eight-date schedule isn’t much to build a city on.
The Braves are the day-to-day attraction. Too bad the city doesn’t offer more attractive downtown locales to house them.
1) Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Surprising news: Atlanta Braves move to Cobb”
2) House of the brave
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