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?

Finding the second cities in tickets sales for NFL teams

Vivid Seats looked at ticket sales for NFL teams by location and found the place with the second-most ticket sales could vary:

Naperville represents the No. 2 most popular market for the fan base of a certain team from a certain town, known as Da Bears, according to ticket sales from Vivid Seats

It should come as no surprise that outside Green Bay, Milwaukee has the biggest fan base of Packers fans…

According to Vivid Seats, the second city with the highest overall percentage of ticket orders for its team was Colorado Springs, Colorado…

The Patriots’ fan base spans across New England, and Vivid Seats reports Quincy, Massachusetts, is the team’s second city. Providence, Rhode Island, isn’t far behind, and Nashua, New Hampshire, and Saco, Maine, are other hotbeds of Patriots fans…

For the Oakland Raiders, its No. 2 city is Sacramento, California, and Erie, Pennsylvania, comes in second to Pittsburgh for the Steelers.

A quick hypothesis: the distribution of ticket sales by NFL team is largely a function of the population of communities and distance from the home city of the team or the city where the team’s stadium is located.

These factors could be mediated by other influences. The relative wealth of communities could matter as NFL tickets are not cheap. The distance from the stadium may not be the best measure compared to access or time needed to get to the venue. Furthermore, the analysis suggests some fan bases draw from secondary cities in a region, like Providence for the Patriots or Sacramento for the Raiders.

With these factors at play, would the distribution of NFL ticket buyers largely reflect inequality across metropolitan regions or do ticket sales cut across racial, ethnic, and class divides?

Finding an incomplete (circular) basketball court in the suburban wild

Years ago, I wrote a piece about how communities build small, unusually-shaped, or incomplete basketball courts in an effort to limit basketball players from congregating. I recently drove by one such court in Naperville – see the unique shape of this basketball surface.

BasketballCourtCircle

The park has a circular court with three hoops. Each 120 degree segment barely has enough room before its three-point lines coincide with the lines of the other segments.

The setting of the park: surrounded on all four sides by nice houses; multiple baseball fields; a soccer field in the middle.

Why set it up this way when the park appears to have plenty of room for a larger court (I would guess there is room for at least one full-size court roughly parallel to the east-west road)? Such a court limits play largely to shooting around as any game with more than two people per side is likely going to infringe on other parts of the court. It is very difficult to use two hoops for a game.

There could be multiple answers to this. The park district wanted to make sure multiple sports were available in the park and a larger basketball court would infringe on this. Other parks provide larger basketball courts. One request for public comment from the Naperville Park DistrictOne request for public comment from the Naperville Park District suggests 13 neighborhood parks have basketball facilities (including the one depicted above). Perhaps more basketball players prefer indoor facilities (understandable given the Chicago region’s climate).

It still is an unusual court. Could a community build an irregular shaped baseball field or tennis court and get away with it?

 

 

Baseball teams going with smaller stadiums, more mixed-use development

As fewer fans may be willing to go to baseball games, teams are moving toward focusing on development around the stadium:

The Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers, leaning significantly on public funding that came without taxpayer referendums, ditched parks built in the 1990s for smaller digs framed by the game’s new revenue engine – mixed-use developments at least partially controlled by the team. The Braves are in their third season at SunTrust Park (capacity, 41,000, replacing Turner Field’s 53,000) while the Rangers in 2020 will open Globe Life Field, a retractable-roof facility that will seat 40,000 compared to its predecessor’s 49,000-seat capacity…

For the Diamondbacks, A’s and perhaps a significant number of clubs that may replace – or revamp – their Camden Yards-era parks, finding the sweet spot of atmosphere, accessibility and inclusion will be paramount in a sport with an aging and occasionally alienated fan base.

The primary focus of the article is on how teams are trying to attract more fans to altered ballparks that offer a more exciting in-game experience. But, I find the passage above more interesting: as fans become fickle regarding attendance, the big long-term money may just be in the real estate surrounding the park. Even at high levels of attendance, a sports stadium only generates revenue a certain number of dates a year. Baseball has a lot more dates than football but the stadium still sits empty for more than 75% of the year.

Many teams and park owners have already shifted toward stadiums as concert venues as well as homes to other sports in the off-season. But, imagine the sports stadium more like an exciting shopping mall where people come to hang out in an exciting and safe space and they consume. Just like the shopping mall that features food, entertainment, and retail, the stadium could become a year-round home for entertainment, food, and shopping that has a great draw at the center: a professional sports team that happens to play there for part of the year.

One piece that may be missing from a number of ballparks as well as shopping malls: adding residential units near the facility could help boost the customer base and create a neighborhood feel. A number of stadiums are surrounded by parking lots. At least a few are located right next to other stadiums of professional teams so the stadiums can share parking lots. Instead, imagine apartments and condos right near stadiums: some residents would be excited to live right near the energy of a stadium and these residents also would partake of local businesses. This does not have to look like the neighborhood around Wrigley Field but there is certainly a lot of room for more neighborhoods to generate revenues for tams long after the games are over.

And then there can be conversations about whether public money should be used to finance real estate development in addition to sports stadiums. Do communities benefit from mixed-use developments around stadiums or does the money line the pockets of owners?

A reminder of the absurdity of sports

The MVP Machine is a good look at the data feedback player development angle in Major League Baseball today. Roughly two-thirds through the book, there is a reminder about what sports actually are:

It also strikes me as silly that I’m so excited about being a bit better at hitting a ball covered in cowhide with a wooden stick, an ultimately meaningless activity that American culture collectively decided would be worth many millions of dollars when performed with a certain skill. Rational or not, though, the fulfillment is real.

Similar descriptions could render all major sports as absurdist activities. And yet, they are viewed by millions, they are tied to local status and civic togetherness, and there are billions of dollars tied up in them. Sports today are big business, big entertainment, and big stakes for fans all rolled up into one. But, I imagine some sports moments could be made better with this reminder of what sports are at their most basic level.

Henderson, NV: do not go all in with public money for a baseball stadium

The large Las Vegas suburb of Henderson is interested in acquiring a major league baseball team and willing to use a lot of taxpayer dollars to do it:

Renderings show a retractable-roof baseball stadium near St. Rose Parkway and Bermuda Road in rapidly growing west Henderson, which city officials envision as a hub for sports and entertainment. The proposed site, one of four floated by the city, sits behind the future headquarters and practice facility of the NFL’s Raiders.

According to the presentation, Henderson hired a consultant to conduct a financial analysis, assuming the ballpark would have 32,000 seats and space for 4,000 standing-room-only ticket holders. The Diamondbacks would serve as the primary tenant for a 30-year term and the stadium would be publicly owned and exempt from property tax.

The consultant estimated the ballpark would cost about $1 billion to construct…

The Diamondbacks expressed interest in creating a development at a potential new home, pointing to the entertainment district near the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park as inspiration, according to documents that detailed the team’s wish list for prospective suitors.

The city said it ultimately views itself as capable of drawing major sports franchises because of a business-friendly approach, attractive demographics, socioeconomic characteristics and available land.

It sounds like the suburb of over 300,000 residents sees at least three benefits of such a move:

1. It would boost the status of the suburb. Few suburbs could boast of a collection like this with an MLB team, an NFL practice facility, and an ice rink connected to an NHL team. This could then help attract businesses and residents.

2. The potential for development around a major league stadium. Imagine restaurants, retailers, and residences near the stadium.

3. Becoming a unique location with a growing metropolitan region. As suburbs compete for corporate headquarters, residents, retailers, and entertainment centers, a stadium would stand out. It is easy for critics to stereotypes as collections of subdivisions and strip malls but Henderson would have a different collection of sites.

Yet, the research is clear: sports stadiums enrich sports teams, not communities. Suburbs that have tried this tend to run into problems (see recent examples of Glendale, Arizona and Bridgeview, Illinois). Teams will use cities and suburbs against each other to get better deals – just as big companies like Amazon do – and also leave those places behind if they can get better deals.

So before Henderson throws up to a billion dollars at a major league team, they should think twice. Can the suburb handle that amount of debt if it does not work out? Could that money be spent elsewhere on development and/or amenities that would benefit a broader swath of their residents? Is being a high-status suburb more important than being a quality place to live?

The growing influence of mascots: a short history of Benny the Bull

In addition to providing fun and distracting from what may be poor play by the team, sports mascots are important brand symbols. The symbolic nature of their existence and their importance in developing and sustaining a brand is highlighted in this summary of Benny the Bull’s life:

Benny accompanied Richard M. Daley to China. Benny has been sued and Benny has been ejected from games. Benny has topped the Forbes list of the most popular sports mascots and Benny has been arrested at the Taste of Chicago. Off the court, the people who played Benny didn’t get health insurance from the Bulls until the Jordan era (or a 401K plan for even longer). One owned a deli in Skokie, another was an evangelical Christian…

I know who Benny has been since he was born; seven people (and countless understudies) have slipped into Benny’s shoes since he debuted Oct. 17, 1969. I know the name and job title of the person playing Benny right now but agreed not to reveal it, because, well — for the sake of the children. The Bulls want to retain some mystery with Benny, so we will honor that — to a degree. As Benny developed as a brand, the Bulls have treated him increasingly as Disney treats Mickey: No one plays Benny! No one is inside Benny! Benny is Benny! That is, a cottage industry, and like any mascot, the face of a franchise. Players come and go, but only Benny remains….

As the Jordan era waned and the business of the Bulls rolled on, Benny gained new relevance. He acquired an entourage — including Lil’ Benny, Mini Benny, and, notoriously, Da Bull, Benny’s angrier brother. Bring up Da Bull to the Bulls today and they look at you as if you asked for a loan: The Chicago man who played Da Bull was arrested in 2004, near the United Center, for selling 6 ounces of marijuana (and later received probation)…

And so this summer Benny — who is being inducted into the new Mascot Hall of Fame in Indiana and getting a new van for appearances — also will be busy. The Bulls say he gets a work-life balance; and he is paid well (low six figures, whisper some close to the job). But the job itself never ends. Asked if he can relate to workaholic Benny, Landey Patton, the first Benny, said he couldn’t dribble, never mind dunk. He said, “It’s all razzmatazz and dancing now. And so corporate, you know? When I was Benny, families could afford tickets. And what are Bulls tickets now — $10?

Four quick thoughts:

1. This relatively recent emphasis on mascots mirrors big shift in sports in recent decades: it is big business and big entertainment, in addition to being about winning games. The mascot can be an important part of the show that needs to go well to help enhance what are booming values of teams. The most recent valuation by Forbes suggests the Bulls are worth $2.9 billion and Benny is part of a well-oiled machine.

2. The article hints at this but I have to think much of this is about attracting kids and hoping they become lifelong fans (and customers).

3. Sports run on certain schedules, usually emphasizing the games, but mascots help the teams and sports stay in the public consciousness all year round. These are now year-round activities, even if the games stretch from late October to early June.

4. I have not attended many Bulls games over the years but I have always been partial to the Benny the Bull blimp who had plenty of airspace to navigate when the team moved to the more expansive United Center in the mid-1990s.