By Robert Weintraub
DECATUR, Ga. -- The two emails landed in my inbox early this morning virtually simultaneously. One was from a friend, wondering if I wanted to buy in to his shared Atlanta Braves season ticket package. The other was a link to a brief story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution providing the news that the team would be moving to a new stadium that it plans to build in suburban Cobb County in time for the 2017 season.
I suppose I'd better buy into my buddy's plan, because I sure won't be going to many games come 2017.
I give the Braves plenty of credit for doing this on the sly, especially when compared to the Sturm und Drang visited on the Falcons when they announced plans to build a new home of their own (for those keeping score, that's two perfectly good stadia, combined age 39 years, that are being abandoned in the name of the Atlanta sports fan -- you know, the ones mocked from coast to coast for not caring about sports). The Braves are helped in this by the fact that they are owned not by a local personality, like Arthur Blank, but by Liberty Media, a faceless corporation based in Colorado, for whom the Braves are purely an entry in the ledger, certainly not a civic trust.
With this move the Braves are bucking trends in a couple of ways. The team is paying the price for locking itself into the league's worst local television contract, a deal signed in 2007 as the team was being sold by Time Warner to Liberty Media in the wake of the disastrous merger between TW and AOL. Specifics of the TV deal weren't made public, but it is thought to pay the team on the low end of the $10-20 million range, per annum until 2027. Contrast that with the approximately $250 million that the Los Angeles Dodgers will receive annually from Fox. Certainly the Braves are in desperate need of revenue enhancement.
Alas, the profits realized from new stadium construction are often transitory at best. Even then, the real money is in the rights deals, and without the ability to plow dollars into payroll, the team will continue to slam up against its ceiling. Repeated failure in the postseason serving as a drag on attendance may be a difficult concept for fans from Kansas City, for example, to understand, but it is the Georgia fan base that is saying to its team, "I'm from Missouri" (aka "show me you can finally win a playoff series," for you state motto-challenged types).
As with the Falcons, a major reason behind the move is so the Braves can escape previous deals that insist upon profit-sharing, in the Braves' case with the city of Atlanta. But that is a failure of negotiation. Cities such as Washington, Detroit and San Diego have lured teams back from the 'burbs by offering better deals, and the tides of change are pushing franchises back downtown, where they more realistically can connect with the city that they represent. Few are looking to emulate the Detroit Pistons' migration to Auburn Hills, following the white flight from the Motor City, in this day and age.
For those of you living elsewhere, Cobb County is less a geographic location than it is a state of mind, the exemplar of the runaway sprawl that has overtaken the area in the last two decades, turning 90-minute commutes into the norm and siphoning major tax dollars out of the city. This is a place that sent Newt Gingrich to Congress, recently voted to cut funding to local schools (but magically found $450 million in public funds for the Braves), and undertook a long and expensive legal fight to ensure that stickers calling evolution "a theory, not a fact" were placed on textbooks. That fight was beaten back, but the mindset remains.
Those of us who live within the boundary of Interstate 285, the circular beltway that surrounds the city, wince at traveling "OTP" (outside the perimeter). I know whereof I speak -- my brother lives in Cobb County. While I love him and his family dearly, it takes a solid 45 minutes to get to his house in Roswell from my home in Decatur. And that's with good traffic conditions, which essentially means I see him on weekends only.
I asked my brother, a baseball fan and the father of three youngsters who enjoy the occasional Braves game, if he was excited by the prospect of the team moving closer to him. His answer showed a subtlety that the Braves may not have factored in. Yes, he says, on its face the move helps him, and while he may not go to more games, he will at least stay longer at the ones he does attend. On the other hand, traffic will still be "biblical," as he puts it, and "I may wind up hating the Braves more on days I don't go to games, as that will impact my drive home (from his job in the city) now, whereas before it did not."
The Braves think more about traffic than anyone since Steve Dunne, the hapless Seattle city planner from the movie Singles. That is unsurprising to anyone who lives here and has seen the snarl on game days, or any day, really. The team says the number one factor in holding down attendance is traffic, and cited the lack of mass transit as a major concern moving forward.
This takes some gumption, for the local subway system, MARTA, has tried to expand to this northwest region of the metropolitan area for decades, but has been batted away each time by local interests afraid of what mass transit might bring -- in a word, minorities, with easier access to their doorstep. Turner Field's public transport access wasn't anything like Yankee Stadium, but it wasn't as bad as critics portrayed it, either. There are shuttle buses from the system's main crossroads, Five Points station, and I happily walked the 15 minutes from Georgia State station, conveniently only a few stops from Decatur, which is well-served by MARTA.
I won't be able to combine a little exercise with my baseball enjoyment from now on. Nor will I decide on a whim to head over to the game, and be in my seat in 30-45 minutes. And my 4-year-old boy will be 7 when the team moves, so he won't be able to enjoy riding the train to the game anymore. Instead, we'll have to drive into the heart of Atlanta's traffic apocalypse, the stretch of I-285 between I-75 and I-85.
Granted, I'm biased, and the large majority of Braves fans will be warmed by the move, at least geographically (scroll down here to find the heat map of season ticket holders). But if the huge cluster of fans to the east of the proposed new ballpark, especially those in Gwinnett, Cherokee, North Fulton and Forsyth counties, imagine that they're going to magically reduce the time spent in their cars going to and from games, they're kidding themselves. The lack of development around Turner Field actually is a blessing for fans approaching from the east, south and west, as surface streets provide plenty of options to get to the park in decent time. Those fans, of which I am one, are now severely inconvenienced.
The Braves plan to develop the surrounding acreage that they bought in addition to the new stadium to provide the bars and restaurants that the area around Turner Field sorely lacks. While improvement upon the current situation will be simple to achieve -- a couple of kegs and some wide-screen TVs should do the trick -- the entire concept of new stadia transforming neighborhoods has been disproven time and again, notably right here in Atlanta, where both Turner Field and the Georgia Dome fell short of promised upgrades to the surrounding region. Cobb County has already been overdeveloped to the saturation point; it's hard to conjure yet more "mixed-use" lots in the area making any difference.
One interesting change that could come from the move is the franchise dropping the name "Braves" and the tomahawk from its logo. I mean, if you're going to rebrand, why not go all-in? Speculation around town abounds that the team will soften its quasi-offensive nickname -- though it only occasionally draws protest, certainly not nearly to the degree that the nickname of the Washington, D.C., professional football team does.
That being the case, whether the franchise actually pulls the trigger on a name change will probably come down to whether doing so will make more money than dropping the existing brand will cost. As the move north proves, everything in sports boils down to turning a dollar into two. Meanwhile, the Braves say that they will also be selling naming rights to their new home, surprise surprise, so prepare yourselves for Delta Field or Coca-Cola Park.
Someone will have to tell me how it looks.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.