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The Braves Seek Out Suburbia
Cinematic baseball wisdom says 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 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described as “stunning,” team officials announced the Braves will 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 more recent. It was built for the 1996 Olympics and became Braves park in 1997. The team said it will move for the 2017 season, the first opportunity to do so after the 20-year lease at Turner Field expires.
There’s nothing wrong with Turner Field. Its only major drawback is that it is not closed, making it difficult to play or wait for the one-day game in Atlanta in July. But the Braves aren’t leaving because of the weather. (The new field will also be outdoors, team officials said.) The website the team launched to explain the move cites “certain issues that are insurmountable and will only become more problematic over the years.” (2) These include inadequate parking and lack of mass transit.
I suspect these are real issues, but I doubt the Braves have other considerations in mind. Money is high on the list, as usual. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed released a statement after the Braves’ announcement saying keeping the team in downtown Atlanta would cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars.” He claimed that Cobb County was providing a $450 million subsidy for the new stadium, a figure that neither the Braves nor Cobb County would confirm. Citing Reid, ESPN reported that the city plans to demolish Turner Field once the Braves leave.
Still, the Braves didn’t pick Cobb County for ease of navigation. Like most of metropolitan Atlanta, the area around the proposed stadium is often closed off, even without the added traffic that a major league venue would generate. As for mass transit, skeptics immediately noted that the MARTA transit system does not serve Cobb County.
But the verdant suburban hills have other advantages, the most important of which is proximity to the Braves’ fan base — a mostly suburban crowd whose kids play softball and hardball on immaculately 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. Braves CEO Derek Schiller said their new stadium will be “close to the geographic center of our fan base.”
The Braves understandably want to get as many of those fans into the ballpark as possible. Despite the Braves’ consistent success on the field, they don’t draw particularly large crowds in their current home stadium. In 2013, they averaged 31,465 in attendance per home game, even though Turner Field can hold just under 50,000. The new Cobb County Stadium will seat approximately 41,000 to 42,000.
Downtown Atlanta is now lagging behind the national trend of revitalizing urban cores. Unlike Miami, which is full of shiny new apartment towers, Atlanta hasn’t attracted a large number of new downtown residents in recent years. Atlanta is also a high crime city by national standards. Very little happens in the city center after dark. Downtown is emptying out as people take to the massive highways to get out of the city or to more popular urban neighborhoods like Buckhead, Little Five Points and Druid Hills.
While I can’t fault team management, the departure of the Braves looks like a financial disaster for the city. The Braves and Turner Field were one of the main attractions in downtown Atlanta. The decision also reinforces the view of skeptics who argue that publicly funded sports facilities do not add much value to an established major city, whether the stadiums are built for the Olympics (as in Atlanta or, this year, Rio de Janeiro) or for professional sports franchises.
However, a major league team can put a smaller municipality on the map. This happened in Arlington, Texas, which is home to the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Cowboys. It happened in Anaheim, California, which is home to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the NHL team, the Anaheim Ducks. It may soon happen in Marietta. As Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, Atlanta’s loss will be Cobb County’s gain, making it “the premier destination in the entire Southeast.” (1)
Downtown partisans can take solace in a consolation prize of sorts — a new downtown stadium that’s on the drawing boards 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 on the edge of downtown.
Football is more popular nationally than baseball, and nowhere is the difference greater than in Georgia, where even high school teams get their scores on the front page of a metropolitan newspaper. No doubt many would argue that the NFL is the treasure chest and baseball’s Braves are the consolation prize. But the Falcons play just eight regular-season home games per year, compared to the Braves’ 81. They also play mostly on Sundays, when traffic is less of a factor. You can get people to travel almost anywhere for an NFL game, but an eight-date schedule isn’t much for building a city.
The Braves are a day in and day out attraction. It is a pity that the city does not offer a more attractive city center in which to keep them.
1) Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Stunning News: Atlanta Braves Move to Cobb”
2) Home of the brave
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