Atlanta Braves Prove New Realities In Stadium Decision

The Atlanta Braves have announced that they will leave Turner Field after the 2016 season and move to a newly built stadium in Cobb County for the 2017 season.

Is this move bad for the City of Atlanta? Aside from the fact that they’ll lose 81 days of ballpark revenue each year, I would venture a guess that the team’s move won’t have much of an effect on the city. The lack of any permanent usefulness of the area around the stadium outside of those 81 home games means the city itself will hardly notice the loss.

The current stadium’s lack of connection with the city has long been a problem. In many ways Turner Field might as well be located in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing there to bring people to the stadium other than Braves games. And the lack of anything else around the stadium makes going to games a rather dull experience for many in the Atlanta area.

I quipped on Twitter that the name for this new stadium should be “White Flight Field.” In many ways this shift of a major institution long reserved for the downtown area to a suburb is long overdue, and it follows the outflow of the city’s population to the northern suburbs. The City of Atlanta, and especially the area where Turner Field is located, is the de facto southern edge of the greater Atlanta metro area; the center of which is no longer the downtown area of Atlanta, but likely somewhere closer to the north-side Perimeter (I-285). This is true of Atlanta’s businesses, but it is even more true of Atlanta’s residents, especially those who attend Braves games (as the team’s “heat map” shows).

Atlanta is a car town, and should probably more appropriately be called a “car region.” Atlanta may have a fledgling mass-transit system, and the city may be trying to bring back the street car lines that once dominated the city, but 95% of today’s population has a car and uses that car for all transit between places. This is the reality of the city and the reality that the Braves are basing their decision off of. Regardless of where they are located, access via the automobile will be the way fans will get to the game.

While a new stadium built with more high-priced revenue generating seats and suites is likely half-responsible for this decision, the other half is the shifted population center for the region, especially when one considers that most of the money is located in the northern suburbs. If the downtown part of the city is no longer the center of the region, and transit plays a negligible role in fan attendance, then there is no reason to remain in the city proper. The Braves therefore sought out a plot of land that was well-connected for the automobile, and located closer to the people who attend games.

That is a good decision by the team, and it is a decision that will add value and revenue to a team that needed to find additional revenue streams to remain financially competitive with other teams. For those reasons I like the deal.

Of course, I don’t like the deal because it takes the team away from my backyard. I live downtown, in Castleberry Hill, and can walk to games in 15 minutes. I also find something romantic and natural about a stadium being a part of an urban core. But I’m in the minority of fans.

Atlanta had decades to do something about the three ills of the current stadium location:

  1. No direct mass transit connection.
  2. No supporting retail/housing/office around Turner Field to generate revenue and interest in the area outside of the 81 home games.
  3. Not enough parking to accommodate a commuting fan base.

Fans often complain that Turner Field is in a bad area, but that’s because of number-2 above. Numbers-1 and 3 above fit together, as a direct transit connection would cut down on the need for more parking. An Atlantic Station style development next to Turner Field would also add parking while at the same time prevent it from taking up dedicated acreage.

Atlanta and its Mayors failed to realize these realities. Successive Mayors failed to be forward thinkers who could see the need to tie an institution of the city to the city. They failed to see that they were in competition with suburbs that could offer more to a team with a mobile fan base. And they failed to bring what little advantages the city has to the team.

…Or maybe they were just realists who realized that spending taxpayer money on a sports stadium for a billionaire owner was a losing proposition. Naaaa, they’re not that smart, and there’s a new football stadium to prove it.

As for the loss to the City of Atlanta when the Braves leave… not much. With no supporting businesses around the current stadium the city will not lose that much revenue. Atlanta will not lose anything culturally since there was no ballpark culture or neighborhood centered around the stadium. Losing 81 games a year will likely have less effect than a 365-day Walmart closing its doors in an area and leaving behind a vast empty parking lot. That’s a sad statement.

The current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed says that the city will not try and retain the Braves, but instead move forward and redevelop the land. That sentiment is more than a few years overdue.

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