Atlanta Braves bucking the baseball trend by moving to the suburbs

While the new baseball stadiums of recent decades tend to be located in urban neighborhoods, the Atlanta Braves made an announcement that they are moving 15 miles outside of the city:

On Monday, team president John Schuerholz and two other executives told reporters that the franchise will build a new stadium in Cobb County, roughly 15 miles away from Turner Field, and begin playing there in 2017, after their current lease expires, with construction to start in mid-2014.

That’s a shock, in that the Braves have only been playing in Turner Field — which was built for the 1996 Summer Olympics — since 1997. Such a move will make it the first of the 24 major league ballparks to open since 1989 to be replaced, and buck the trend of teams returning to urban centers. The proposed park is in the suburbs and closer to the geographic center of the team’s ticket-buying fan base, a much higher percentage of which happens to be white. US Census figures from 2010 put Fulton County at 44.5 percent white and 44.1 percent black, while Cobb County is 62.2 percent white and 25.0 percent black…

So instead of sinking $350 million into fixes to modernize Turner, the Braves are spending $200 million for a new park, with much of that cost likely to be covered by the development of the surrounding area and the sale of naming rights. Notably, Turner is one of just eight venues that doesn’t have such a deal in place. According to a New York Times piece from July, the Atlanta Hawks get $12 million a year for the naming rights to their venue, currently known as Philips Arena. The largest baseball deal is that of the Mets for Citi Field ($21 million per year), though the dropoff from that figure to the second-largest, Houston’s Minute Maid Park ($7.4 million), is steep.

The new venue is at the intersection of Interstates 75 and 285, said to be a major traffic snarl, “the place so congested we Cobb Countians know to avoid if at all possible,” as the Journal-Constitution‘s Mark Bradley described it. The county has resisted the expansion of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) into its domain since its inception in 1971, so it’s not served by light rail, and while the team claims “significantly increased access to the site” via Home of the Braves, it offers no specifics on the matter.

While this goes against ballpark trends, it also fits some other trends:

1. Suburban expansion in Sunbelt cities. Many of the new ballparks have been built in Northern cities, Rustbelt places where downtown development is needed. Think Camden Yards in Baltimore or Jacobs Field in Cleveland or PNC Park in Pittsburgh. In other words, Sunbelt cities have different settlement patterns including beltway highways around the city and not that dense of an urban core to begin. Turner Field wasn’t exactly in an urban neighborhood and other reports suggested it would have been quite difficult to expand parking and nearby amenities.

2. Matching ballparks with nearby development projects that can also bring in money. A baseball team can be profitable but developing nearby real estate can be even more profitable. For example, look at the deals suburbs tried to make with the Cubs earlier this year: you can have land and access to transportation and we would be more than happy to develop land around your ballpark. And the Cubs are trying to do this with Wrigley Field as well by developing nearby properties into a hotel to increase their revenue streams.

3. It sounds like Cobb County is giving the Braves a good deal by financing some of the project. This is a longer trend: companies, sports or otherwise, moving to where they can get a good tax deal. This has happened with urban ballparks – cities have financed parts of those stadiums because they can’t afford to let the team out of the city. In this particular case, it sounds like the Braves thought they got a better suburban deal whereas other cities have pushed harder to keep teams with incentives.

I suspect this is a more isolated case of ballpark construction in the suburbs.

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