The Braves’ New World
Bruce Seaman, associate professor of economics and expert in the business of sports, weighs in on the Atlanta Braves' controversial move out of downtown to the 'burbs
For many years the Braves had been frustrated by the absence of more favorable economic development around Turner Field and were eager to obtain more control of both stadium operations and the investment strategy for developing the area around the stadium. They were also plagued by ongoing inexplicable battles with MARTA regarding the terms of operating the Braves Shuttle from Underground Atlanta, and had always been miffed that there was not easier MARTA access to Turner Field. The auto traffic bottlenecks that caused major delays in fans getting off the connector and into the stadium parking lots were a continual source of fan frustration, and generated considerable fan complaints to the Braves.
While some progress was seemingly being made on the development of an above ground light rail link from the Georgia State University MARTA station to the stadium, as well as exploring legal options with the city for allowing the Braves to have more control and financial rewards of any development around the stadium (as well as more control of internal stadium operations), the Braves were clearly losing patience with the speed of those negotiations. This was in part, as has been widely reported due to the distraction the city faced in having inherited the primary responsibility of shepherding the Falcons stadium negotiations through the political process, but that was merely an additional source of long standing frustration with the pace of the negotiations. The Braves management has always felt under-appreciated as an important part of the Atlanta economy and as a valued symbol of the city, as well as for its efforts to assist the local communities immediately surrounding Turner Field. The Braves have a much longer playing season with many more home dates than other local professional teams, and they have a demonstrated ability to attract fans from outside the city as part of its large regional fan base. Even ignoring sources of outside revenue beyond ticket sales, about 11 percent of fans buying tickets live outside the state, and an estimated 40 percent of those travel to Atlanta primarily to attend games generally staying about three days. Of course, the percentage of fans coming from outside the city itself is much larger at about 73 percent.
Interestingly, the fully detailed terms for lease renewal that the Braves finally presented to the city in late September 2013 contain many of the features for such control of the local area and stadium operations that they successfully obtained in their deal with Cobb County. Of course, the city’s perspective is that it was already moving to clarify the legal options available to meet many of these demands that had been less formally discussed earlier, when the Braves shocked everyone with their announcement of the Cobb County move. By that point, however, it was clear that the Braves had just lost patience and had sought other options. It has been reported, and strikes me as plausible, that some insensitive comments by at least one city official to a key member of the Braves management group also led to ill will and an enhanced determination by the Braves to find alternatives. The fact that a parcel of land managed to materialize almost by accident as the Braves were at their most frustrated, seems to have been the coup de grace in compelling the move.
The main aspect of the Cobb arrangement that seems inconsistent with the Braves known concerns about Turner Field is the seeming absence of any coherent plan for public transportation to the new stadium. It is also obvious that the Braves have not escaped the challenge of traffic congestion with the move to Cobb, and many believe they may have even worsened that problem unless the public transportation challenge is met — there are no current optimistic signs that this will be a priority.
The announcement came out of nowhere? How did that happen?
This is indeed nearly unprecedented, and happened for three reasons. First, the Braves surprised all of us, because the Braves surprised themselves. They genuinely always expected to be able to work out a new lease deal at Turner Field, consistent with the more favorable terms identified above, valued the history of the team in Atlanta at that general location, and were skeptical that any other acceptable alternative could ever be found in the metro area. It could only be kept a secret if it happened fast, and this was obviously not a master plan of the Braves, but a sudden option that caught even them off guard, and then suddenly surpassed that threshold of plausibility to become compelling.
Second, The Braves recognized that Cobb County would naturally be suspicious of the well known strategy among sports franchises to use location alternatives as little more than negotiating chips rather than as sincere options; hence it was critical to avoid this becoming publicly known to prove the team’s good faith. The political realities in Cobb also made that an important consideration.
And third, both the team and the county managed to keep a remarkably small group involved in the discussions, which was clearly necessary to avoid leaks. It is actually hard to believe that they kept that circle so limited for a decision of this magnitude. Presidents would no doubt admire this suppression of leaks.
What does this suggest for Atlanta sports overall, especially considering the new Falcons deal?
Mayor Reed is not incorrect in putting a reasonably optimistic face on the Braves move in the sense that, one, the Braves are not in any way leaving the region, and in fact are moving a relatively short distance while technically maintaining an Atlanta address, and the name Atlanta Braves. Two, the proximity of the new stadium to the northern city limits means that some economic activity will still spillover into the city, and I have no doubt that some of those fans from outside the state will continue to find it attractive to book downtown hotel package deals, which had been a very successful joint marketing operation between the downtown hotels and the Braves. And, three, there will not be a wholesale change in vendors dealing with the Braves, or the decision by Braves employees and players to live in their favored locations, hence limiting the degree of economic disruption. However, there is no doubt that while there is really no notable net effect on the metro area or the state, there will be some reallocation of economic activity within the metro area that is adverse to the City and the Central Business District (CBD), although in reality the failures of development around Turner Field and the tangential nature of Turner Field to the CBD tends to limit those negative effects. Given my belief that a metro area needs a vibrant central city and city-core, that reallocation is regrettable.
As far as effects on the reputation of Atlanta as a sports town – the effect will be minimal to non-existent. Atlanta is already viewed by many sports observers as a stronger collegiate center of American sports than for its professional teams, and the new NCAA Football Hall of Fame Museum and elevation of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl into one of the rotating football playoff venues, as well as the city’s ongoing visibility in collegiate basketball and as a key venue for NCAA tournament games, further strengthens that perception.
But to be a first-class sports town in the United States does require a significant professional presence, and it is true that the Braves bucked the trend of stadiums largely being moved into rather than outside the core city of a metro area. That commitment was maintained by the Falcons. But this is really a non-issue to people outside the local region. The new stadium is clearly reasonably centrally located in the metro area, and no sports observer will suddenly stop thinking of the Atlanta Braves as intrinsic to Atlanta, more broadly defined. The new Falcons stadium will also generate considerable buzz among sports fans, along with its share of criticism along with the new Braves stadium regarding the use of public funds to at least partially finance such new stadiums, and the conflicting perceptions of the merits of new stadiums in general (and the shortening of their life spans). The reputation of Atlanta as a sports town was much more adversely affected by the humiliation of not being able to maintain professional ice hockey in a region this large and diverse with this vibrant a business climate, and the well known enthusiasm of kids for playing hockey in local arenas. Exporting not one but two NHL teams to Canada is nothing short of a travesty, and not being able to have an NHL team when they operate in Raleigh, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Columbus, Dallas and Phoenix is an ongoing stain on this region. When you don’t have four pro-franchises, you cannot claim to be a first class sports town.
What does this mean for the neighborhoods? For suburban Cobb, and for Summerhill/Peoplestown?
Unfortunately, the economic benefits of Turner Field to the Summerhill and Peoplestown neighborhoods have always been quite limited. In fact, the promise of neighborhood revitalization of those areas as a result of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, from which Turner Field was born, have generally been a great disappointment, extending a history of limited beneficial neighborhood impact from the 1966 Braves arrival at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. Hence, despite efforts the Braves have made to help the neighborhoods, it is unlikely that things will be demonstrably worse for those neighborhoods except for some lost revenue from private property parking, the adverse effect on the Country Inn and Suites hotel closest to the stadium and to the Bullpen bar adjacent to the Ted. The greatest loss to those neighborhoods is what might have been, since the detailed plan for community development, with the Braves as the key player similar to the plan that is being developed for the area surrounding the Cobb County stadium, seemed to have some promise. And even though the years of failing to have such developments materialize would naturally justify pessimism about such potential plans, a movement away from just having parking lots, allowing the Braves to develop other private partners to try to replicate some of what is now envisioned for Cobb, and a new stadium lease that in general might have broken the long deadlock about what do with that area and motivating the Braves to work more closely with both the city and the private sector, might have justified more legitimate optimism. The future of any such development remains very unclear. Clearly, Mayor Reed is motivated to implement at least some of his announced plans for that area after the move was announced, but his second term will be nearing its end when Turner Field is vacated in 2017, so such plans would require some genuine public and private resource commitments and creative plans moving toward implementation that would be independent of any particular city administration.
The Falcons ownership and management is genuinely determined to see Vine City and English Avenue realize more tangible benefits from the new football stadium, and they are fully aware of the checkered, although not altogether pessimistic, history of stadiums coexisting with thriving neighborhoods by their side. An advantage of the Falcons stadium is its continued and even improved connection to two MARTA stations, the relatively closer proximity to downtown Atlanta than the Braves had, and other favorable developments that have been occurring in the CBD linked to (1) the ongoing favorable Olympic legacy around Centennial Olympic Park, and (2) the dramatic effect that Georgia State University is having on bringing more people into downtown Atlanta, and not just to visit but to live. If the Falcons can follow through on more space saving vertical rather than space destroying horizontal parking, exploit more options for light public transportation near the stadium, linking also to the Streetcar system, and ensure that a more pedestrian friendly, and hence business friendly, environment can be created, there is a chance for more success this time than has been seen in the past in those neighborhoods. There is also potential for spillover benefits further strengthening the already increasingly successful and trendy areas near Walker, Nelson and Peters streets in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood, along with expansions of people actually living in that area, hence creating a much enhanced climate for local development in the general vicinity of the Falcons stadium.
Regarding the area near the new Braves stadium in Cobb, if traffic congestion problems can be minimized (and that is going to be a challenge), the plans initially announced by the Braves for developments leading to the stadium are exciting, although there are unique aspects of a sports team playing such an active role in such developments that present risks. It is somewhat unknown terrain, and some of the more effusive Cobb proponents’ claims of people from outside Cobb lingering in the area to also visit museums and other local attractions, hence adding to the local economic impact, must be viewed with considerable skepticism.
What could come next at the Turner Field location?
It’s hard to imagine one of the few successful utilizations of a major facility from any Olympic Games being destroyed at such a young age. And of course that area contains so much history of professional baseball in Atlanta – and history and tradition matter, yes, even in Atlanta. Some have hoped that Georgia State University might find some way to integrate it into its own sports programs. But that option does not seem likely. Not only would there be both legal and financial hurdles to overcome in acquiring the facility, but the maintenance costs would not be trivial. And Turner Field is not really well adapted as a multi-use facility for a wide variety of collegiate sports, including football.
As noted above, Mayor Reed is personally invested in dramatically changing the focus of that area in a post-Turner Field era, to incorporate more housing and commercial activity. The city population has been growing after many years of decline or stability at lower levels, but the focus of the growth of the city’s housing stock has been generally in more affluent and trendy neighborhoods. This does, however, focus attention on the need for a more balanced expansion of housing in a wider variety of neighborhoods, assuming that there are enough people willing to continue recent trends to move into the city. But again, there are already expected favorable housing trends around the expanding Beltline and the ongoing completion of higher quality housing surrounding the Atlanta Housing Authority’s shift from public housing projects to mixed income housing developments. And neighborhoods like Midtown have been major beneficiaries of a key part of the increased city population: the attraction of young, single, mobile workers to intown neighborhoods with significant cultural and entertainment amenities.
So there is a challenge to avoid another example of overly optimistic projections in the demand for intown housing that is not already being met. And the attraction of that particular area for expansions of the city population may be limited, but would clearly also require the willingness of investors in grocery stores and other supporting commercial ventures to commit to expansion in that area. And it is difficult to envision some kind of entertainment complex that would work in that area. I am not currently optimistic, although again, the Turner Field area had not exactly been thriving even prior to the Braves departure, so it may be less of a decline than a continuation of a dramatically underperforming part of the city. There is an ongoing challenge to find adequate housing for the homeless in Atlanta, and the never-ending legal fight to move the homeless out of the south of North Avenue (SoNO) location at Peachtree and Pine streets may eventually require some alternative to be found. I suspect, however, that the city would not find it acceptable to find a solution to that vexing problem in the vacated Turner Field area.
Bruce Seaman conducted an economic analysis on behalf of the Braves on the City of Atlanta and the statewide economic impact of the Braves as part of the process of negotiations with the city and Fulton County on renewal of the Turner Field lease. The study was released early in 2013 as the Braves were hoping to make progress on improving, from their perspective, the terms of that lease agreement. He also studied the impact of a new Falcons stadium and testified before the Atlanta City Council twice on the economic issues involved in that deal.