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?

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?

Minor league baseball stadiums are not good for economic development

Camden, New Jersey just decided to tear down a baseball stadium that is less than twenty years old. The stadium did not lead to economic development and no team has played there for several years:

Taxpayers spent more than $18 million to build the stadium that would eventually be named Campbell’s Field, as part of a minor league ballpark-building frenzy across New Jersey that saw similar stadiums erected in Newark, Atlantic City, and Somerset—all part of redevelopment schemes that attracted independent minor league teams (that is, minor league teams not affiliated with the Major League Baseball farm system)…

The sad saga of the Camden Riversharks—the Atlantic League team for whom the stadium was built prior to the 2001 season—will come to an official end more than three years after the team picked up and moved to New Britain, Connecticut, leaving Campbell’s Field vacant. The city tried to attract a new team, but after those efforts failed, the Camden County Improvement Authority signed off on a plan to demolish the stadium, according to NJ.com. The Riversharks and Campbell’s Field were supposed to revitalize the impoverished city by being the centerpiece of an economic development plan along the edge of the Delaware River. Now, the demolition of the stadium is the first step in a new $15 million economic development scheme that will turn the site into a complex of athletic fields for Rutgers University’s Camden campus, NJ.com reports…

In the team’s final two seasons, the Riversharks averaged about 3,000 fans per game—which is actually not bad by the standards of independent minor league baseball—but the team never turned a profit and abruptly skipped town in 2015 when negotiations on a new lease stalled.

By then, the ballpark was so deep in debt that it faced foreclosure because the team had missed several lease payments. To bail it out, Camden paid off $3.5 million in outstanding debt and purchased the property. The city planned to impose a new ticket surcharge to cover those costs, but the city only received one payment from the team before it moved away, NJ.com reported last year.

This is a consistent story with sports stadiums: they primarily benefit the teams and their owners, not communities. Local officials and politicians want to be the ones who can say they helped keep a sports team in town or they attracted a new franchise but using public dollars for this effort is not a good investment in the long run.

While the story is not quite the same with tax breaks for corporations, there are some parallels. Communities often want to jumpstart economic development. New businesses, particularly headquarters or large office buildings, as well as stadiums can appear to be good ways to do this. They bring jobs, something every local leader supports. They bring increased status for a community, a less quantifiable feature but still important as communities jockey to attract additional firms and residents. Thus, communities are willing to offer tax breaks in a variety of ways – sometimes to help construct infrastructure, sometimes provided per job created, sometimes to construct the stadium – to beat out other communities. The question of whether the community benefits in tangible ways in the years to come is not often raised.

A related earlier post: championships won by sports teams do not necessarily lead to better outcomes in cities.

If golf and football are dying sports, what would happen to that land?

I recently discussed NIMBY responses to redevelopment of golf courses but this had me thinking more broadly about land dedicated to sports and recreation: what happens to the land if the activity becomes less popular?

Golf was the sport cited in the CityLabs article:

Golf is dying, many experts say. According to one study by the golf industry group Pellucid Corp., the number of regular golfers fell from 30 to 20.9 million between 2002 and 2016. Ratings are down, equipment sales are lagging, and the number of rounds played annually has fallen.

Part of the bust can be blamed on the fallen fortunes of a single person: Tiger Woods. Golf boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s as the charismatic superstar raked in titles. Then, beginning in 2009, it faced a one-two punch of recession and bad press when its star golfer’s chronic infidelity came to light.

But the bigger story involves the sport’s aging demographics and the athletic tastes of Millennials, who just aren’t that into an expensive, poky sport that provides few health benefits. Unless the golf industry can change its ways, the decline will mean a lot of empty greens across the country. How that land is used—or isn’t—could reshape America’s suburbs for decades to come.

Beyond golf, the next sport that comes to mind is football. If youth leagues continue to see a decline in participation, less park and school land would be needed for football fields. What would then happen to that space? For a good number of high schools, that land is already shared with sports like soccer and lacrosse. Park space could simply become large fields again. But, some football facilities could be turned over to other uses (and cause NIMBY issues similar to those faced by golf course redevelopment).

What other sports could be next? Baseball still has a lot of young players but imagine that participation dries up in a few decades. Baseball fields can take up a lot of space. Could there be sports that arise and take up some of this space? Nice basketball courts would be welcomed in many places but neighbors and communities often have concerns about building these. I can think of several lesser known sports but cannot realistically imagine they would become so popular as to take up public park space or space at schools. But, perhaps parks in a few decades will include a much wider variety of sports fields and spaces to better serve a fragmented sports playing populace.

Sports spaces come and go over time. Bowling alleys thrived decades ago but now are more sparse. Skate parks started a few decades ago and now are found in many American community. Large cities have spent millions on helping to fund sports arenas but this could stop as communities realize who benefits from the stadiums. Is it too far-fetched to imagine that in a few decades very few people will play sports outdoors due to a combination of a lack of interest in physical activity, inside facilities, e-sports, and simulators that could provide similar experiences? Could parks and outdoor spaces become exclusively about “natural settings” and open land?

 

My argument: a championship does not bring lasting urban hope or change

As the World Series gets underway with two starved fan bases, I’m sure some will suggest that a win for the Cubs or Indians will be good for their cities. A victory will give their Rust Belt cities suffering from numerous problems a needed boost.

I don’t think it works this way. Sports are primarily (1) entertainment and (2) business. On the first point, a win will excite people. It may scratch something off their bucket list to see their team win. There will be joy. But, cities have plenty of entertainment options and people will move on. See the White Sox: they had their own World Series drought before winning in 2005. But, where are they now? They have been an average to mediocre team in recent years and the hope is gone (as evidenced by the lack of fans attending games as well as by the general lack of interest). As the win moves further and further into the past, it will linger in memories but people will find other entertainment options. More and more, fans require their team to win now or lately. Maybe the leash will be a bit longer in Chicago or Cleveland but eventually fans will become upset if they don’t win again.

As for the business side, a win brings in money with more games (tickets, concessions), more merchandise sold, and a higher value for the franchise. Generally, we’re told by team owners and other boosters that sports franchises boost the local economy. However, related to the entertainment side, studies suggest if teams moved elsewhere, residents and visitors would simply spend their money elsewhere (rather than that money disappearing from the city). Who benefits most financially when teams win? Owners.

A championship does not affect the fundamental issues facing cities. Is Cleveland really a better place to live because the Cavaliers finally won? Did the 1985 Bears Super Bowl win set Chicago on a better course? All those Bulls and Blackhawks titles? The fans may have felt better, the city could celebrate, the owners could see their valuations go up, and regular city life would eventually go on. Manufacturing jobs were lost, white residents continued to flee for the suburbs, public schools and other local institutions suffered, politicians and leaders looked out for their own, and so on.

A championship may be for the fans but it is not really for the city.