Sports stadiums and white flight

How the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta United went about procuring their stadiums hints at the city’s racial divides:

Accompanying the announcement, the team released a map showing where, precisely, Braves Country was—and, notably, where it wasn’t. That view of the greater Atlanta area was speckled with red dots, each one indicating the home of a 2012 ticket buyer, including season-ticket holders. Only a smattering of red appeared to the east, west and south of Turner Field, while thousands of dots congealed into a ribbon above downtown that expanded into a wide swath in the half-dozen suburban and exurban counties to the north. The new stadium would be closer to the middle of that mass, which happened to embody an older, whiter and more conservative population than the city proper. Those northern suburbs were fast diversifying, yet many in Atlanta—particularly in its black population—felt slighted by the decision, their perspectives colored by decades of racial and political tension between city and sprawl.

Five months later MLS commissioner Don Garber, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and then-mayor Kasim Reed proclaimed in their own press conference that downtown Atlanta would be home to MLS’s 22nd franchise, and the new club, Atlanta United, would take the pitch in 2017, the same year the Braves headed to Cobb. The soccer team would play in the same new $1.6 billion stadium the Falcons would soon call home, but United would be no afterthought. The facility would be designed to accommodate the beautiful game from the start. Pushing back against skepticism and pointing to an influx of young professionals near Atlanta’s urban core, Blank assured MLS’s leaders he could fill the massive venue, even in a market known for lukewarm enthusiasm toward pro sports. Reed boasted that his city’s foreign-born (and, seemingly implied, soccer-loving) population was growing at the second-fastest rate in the U.S. Garber himself insisted these factors combined to make downtown an ideal MLS incubator. The city “embodies what we call a ‘new America,'” he said, “an America that’s blossoming with ethnic diversity.”

Fast-forward five years, and Atlanta United’s ticket-sales map, while not a direct inverse, is considerably more centralized than Braves Country (or even, says United president Darren Eales, a depiction of the Falcons’ fan base). United, meanwhile, aided no doubt by winning the 2018 MLS Cup, has led MLS in attendance in each of its three seasons, averaging 53,003 fans in ’19, among the highest in the world. This echoes the success the Braves found when they chased their audience to the north, the farthest any MLB team had ventured from its city center in 50 years. The Braves’ average home attendance, aided too by on-field success, reached 32,779 fans this season, up 31% from their last year at Turner Field…

Kruse, the Princeton history professor, is blunt in his assessment of such feelings. “These ideas about downtown being a dangerous place are really about the people downtown,” he says. For years he thought that “suburbanites want nothing to do with the city except to see the Braves.” But today? “That last connection has been severed. I see this movement of the stadium as the culmination of white flight.”

Trying to connect with particular fan bases or contributing to decades-long processes of residential segregation and white flight? How about both?

Three additional thoughts:

  1. More could be made here of the public money the Braves received from Cobb County. Plus, they could develop land around the new stadium, now a common tactic to generate more revenue beyond fan attendance. Yes, fan attendance is important but the long-term money may be in investing money in land surrounded by whiter and wealthier residents. Stadium development then just continues the process of limited capital investment in neighborhoods that could really use it and concentrates it in places where wealth is already present.
  2. Baseball is widely regarded as having an older and whiter fan base. Soccer is said to have a more diverse and younger fan base. In addition to the demographics of the Atlanta area, the sports themselves try to appeal to different audiences (even as they might work to reach out to different groups).
  3. It will be interesting to see how many sports teams in the next few decades move to more niche locations while still claiming to be from the big city. Civic identity is often tied to sports teams as most metro areas can only support one team from the major American sports. Can big city politicians still lose when the team from the area decides to move to a suburb (see a recent example in the Las Vegas area) but takes that revenue out of the big city? Can a team that locates in one particular area of the metropolitan region still easily represent the entire region?

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