The reeling Boston Red Sox visit Turner Field in Atlanta tonight for the start of a four-game, home-and-home set with the Braves. Rick McNair profiled the previous home of Atlanta baseball, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, yesterday.
Seventeen years after moving into Turner Field, a stadium younger than 14 of its Major League contemporaries, the Braves want out. The team had the stadium built for them (via the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games), with a slew of luxury suites and club seats, and now, following a two-decade lease that expires at the end of 2016, they’re headed for nearby Cobb County and a trove of public financing.
It’s a smart business decision for the Braves, of course — any arrangement involving an infusion of $300+ million of somebody else’s money is probably a good deal. Since the city currently owns Turner Field, the Braves can’t perform the modern rituals of selling naming rights or getting their hands on the parking money. They’ll get to play their own ballgame in the ‘burbs. Good for them. But it still doesn’t take the stink off of bilking of the public for an upgrade over a 17-year old ballpark.
The construction of Turner Field was a coup for the Braves. They got out of the old donut of “The Launching Pad” and into a modern home that was originally the 85,000 seat site of the 1996 Olympics, converted into a baseball-only facility. The capacity was smartly cut to around 50,000 but that hardly mattered since the Braves have ranked in the bottom half of the National League in attendance for the majority of the life of the stadium, despite the fact the team dominated the NL East for much of that period (proper hat tip to John Schuerholz and his staff for that).
I visited Turner Field in 2012 as part of a multi-city baseball road trip: Atlanta, Miami, St. Petersburg and Washington, DC. Of the four ballparks, Turner was most like Nationals Park, a sparkling facility that opened in 2008. It’s a great place to watch a game; very much the modern baseball facility.
Well, except for another ritual, one that’s stuck in the 80’s or 90’s or any decade but this one — the “Tomahawk Chop” music that plays seemingly every time the Braves get on base. They got nine runs on nine hits the game I attended; you can imagine how tiring that got, particularly thundering through an empty vessel with an official turnout just north of 17,000. It was probably more like 10K.
The organization can blame poor attendance on accessibility issues (lack of access to public transportation), or alternatively on the city’s inability to develop the neighborhood surrounding Turner into something that appeals to their fan base (a thorny discussion, to say the least).
But Cobb County has long resisted the public transit options the new stadium will desperately need, particularly since the traffic in the neighborhood mirrors the snarled situation in metro Atlanta that plagues the current iteration. It’s debatable how the new digs will measurably improve the fan experience. And while the Braves are selling out for the suburbs and all that public money, will the ballpark experience an attendance sellout?
Cobb County’s got an awful lot riding on that gamble.