By Neil deMause
NBC Sports blogger Craig Calcaterra had the line of the week on Monday, when he tweeted: "With my son at the orthopedist to get his cast off. Have the Braves moved again since I left?"
For sports fans and followers of the stadium world alike, the shocking thing about the Atlanta Braves' Monday morning announcement of plans to move to suburban Cobb County -- heretofore probably best known as "the place that adopted Newt Gingrich when his old district was eliminated" -- was only partly about the suddenness of the announcement, which came after several months of talks that somehow remained completely under the radar. The other common reaction was, "The Braves? Didn't they just get a new stadium?"
It may seem like only yesterday that the Braves were departing the Launching Pad for brand-new Turner Field, which then-Braves-president Stan Kasten declared on the day it opened to be "a baseball stadium for the ages" and "the greatest baseball stadium ever built." But 1997 is a lifetime ago in the frenetic world of modern stadium construction. Today, 16 of the other 29 MLB stadiums are newer than the Braves' home, and it's sports nature to want the shiny things the kid next door has -- something that was foreshadowed back in April when team execs dropped hints that they'd like some upgrades to their current home, and would prefer it if they were paid for by, you know, somebody else.
Still, there are plenty of baseball parks older than Turner, including the entire first wave of the current stadium boom: the Toronto Blue Jays' Rogers Centre, the Chicago White Sox' U.S. Cellular Field, the Baltimore Orioles' Camden Yards, the Cleveland Indians' Progressive Field, the Colorado Rockies' Coors Field. And with the Braves apparently set to skip out on their lightly pre-owned stadium after a mere 20 years, it raises the question: Is this just the opening salvo of teams with '90s-era homes getting back on line for the stadium-go-round?
Certainly the Braves have special circumstances. First and foremost is their lease, which for unfathomable reasons Atlanta officials only negotiated to run for 20 years, rather than the 30 that is more typical in new stadium deals. (The city did manage to get the Braves to agree to kick in about $200,000 a year worth of parking fees to pay for neighborhood improvements, which looks like less of a victory now that those fees are set to evaporate in three more years.) The Braves are moving because they can move, a freedom that Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, with his unbreakable lease running through 2027, can only look upon and salivate.
There's also the location of Turner Field, which by normal baseball standards is ideal -- near to downtown and public transit, yet easily accessible via highway -- but which the Braves have griped is short on parking and too long a haul for their fans in the northern suburbs. (The brand-new Home of the Braves stadium-plugging website features a nifty map that shows that the team's fan base is already a suburban one.) Still, the current stadium site is only about ten minutes from the new one, and actually an easier drive for the many suburban fans who work downtown; the new site, meanwhile, is completely off the public transit grid. So unless "significantly increased access to the site" is -- I'm trying but failing to think of a delicate way to say this -- Georgia code for "won't have to risk seeing any poor black people while walking from the parking lot," it's a bit of a puzzler why the Braves are eager to become the first MLB team in 40 years to move farther from their city's downtown.
Then, too, Turner Field is -- let's be frank -- no Camden Yards as far as baseball shrines go. It's a standard-issue modern facility that was cleverly retrofitted for baseball out of Atlanta's stadium for the 1996 Olympics, resulting in a building that has all the requisite cupholders and food courts but not a ton of charm. (Though that's something that could be said for a lot of modern mallparks.) There's also been some griping from team execs that the Olympic-sized field makes for more-distant-than-usual front-row seats. Seriously, though, nobody spends hundreds of millions of dollars on an entire new stadium just because there's too much foul territory, not when you can just wedge in some extra seats to fill in the gap.
But then, the Braves likely won't be the ones spending the hundreds of millions here. The true wild card in this move is Cobb County, which, though details are beyond sketchy, is reportedly set to provide $450 million in financing toward a $672 million stadium. And while that wording leaves a lot to be explained -- "financing" could mean anything from a loan to "here's the keys to our public treasury, we'll be back in the morning" -- early indications are that the county plans to dedicate substantial taxpayer money going toward the Braves' new home. Abandoning your nearly new home for a freshly built one in a more fashionable location with all-new appliances is one thing; doing so when somebody is actually agreeing to pay two-thirds of your mortgage is another.
So it's entirely possible that the Braves will be an outlier, and that Camden Yards, Progressive Field, and the rest will happily outlive their Carrousel age. But there have already been signs that the rest of the '90s-stadium cohort is getting ready to demand, if not new homes in the suburbs, at least major upgrades to their existing stadiums: The Indians owners have been talking for a couple of years now about seeking public funding for upgrades to the former Jake, likely by extending the cigarette and alcohol taxes that paid for the building in the first place. And while it's hard to picture the Orioles threatening to move to Towson or the Rockies to Englewood, the Braves moving to Cobb County sounded crazy 48 hours ago, too.
If nothing else, this is a reminder of something that University of Michigan sports economist Rod Fort told me more than a decade ago, when the Orlando Magic were looking to ditch their then-12-year-old arena for a new one on the public dime. (It took them another nine years, but they finally got the Amway Center built in time for the 2010-11 season, just one year past the old building's two-decade mark.) I'd noted to Fort that it used to be expected that a new stadium would last 30 to 40 years, but that number seemed to be outmoded; what did he think the reasonable shelf life was for a stadium today?
He replied, without missing a beat: "I don't see anything wrong, from an owner's perspective, with the idea of a new stadium every year." So long, that is, as he's not the one paying for it.
While the White Sox, Indians, and the like may not be able to find suburban counties quite so eager to throw money at them, the Braves' move does provide them with a great new storyline for subsidy shakedowns. Baseball, after all, has found itself in a bit of a threat shortage: Ever since the Montreal Expos occupied Washington, D.C., in 2005, MLB teams have lacked a big, empty market to frighten local officials with, as the NFL has successfully done with Los Angeles. (The best vacant market for MLB is almost certainly now -- irony alert -- Montreal.) Now, though, teams can gesture vaguely in the direction of Atlanta, or just show up to lease talks carrying one of those foam tomahawks, and everyone will get the message: Make us happy or we'll split for the suburbs.
All this is presuming that Cobb County manages to pull off this stadium coup. Though county commission chair Tim Lee is promising unanimous approval in just two weeks, everything we know about stadium-building is that $450 million simply doesn't materialize out of thin air that quickly. But coupled with the Los Angeles no-longer-of-Anaheim Angels' recently announced plans for a new stadium that would come with free development rights to 150 acres and a get-out-of-taxes-free card, it's certainly an indication that the baseball team owners who were gifted with new or renovated home during the start of the stadium craze are preparing to go back for seconds. Hold on to your wallets.
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Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.