Ballpark business as usual for the Braves and MLB

Scott Cunningham

So the most shocking news of the week was going to be that Yasiel Puig got left off someone's Rookie of the Year ballot, except the Braves are moving in 2017. You know, 20 years after they moved into a brand-new ballpark. Granted, they're moving only 14 miles up the freeway. But this is unprecedented. Didn't we all think that with the possible exception of a new home for the A's and/or the Rays, we wouldn't see another new ballpark for at least another decade or so?

But the Braves had a 20-year lease at Turner Field, and the City of Atlanta wouldn't give them what they wanted. So they're moving to Cobb County, where a giant swath of trees will make way for a 41,000-seat ballpark and a giant swath of parking lots. I suspect the local sqirrels aren't big baseball fans right now.

So what happened in Atlanta? From The Atlantic's Mark Byrnes:

Meanwhile the Falcons [are] getting a new stadium too, one that will receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the city. Perhaps that explains why Mayor Kasim Reed seems so willing to let Cobb County spend hundreds of millions on the Braves, saying earlier today, "given the needs facing our city and the impact of Turner Field stadium on surrounding neighborhoods, that was something I, and many others were unwilling to do." Local writer Thomas Wheatley of Creative Loafing Atlanta, concurs, telling us that "having the [Falcons] stadium deal, then following it with a big subsidy for the Braves would have probably been politically unfeasible."

For a region famously in love with all things suburban, today's unexpected announcement is not only a reminder that pro sports teams keep finding avenues for publicly subsidized projects. It's also a sign that suburban-loving Atlanta still loves its suburbs as much as ever.

Look, I live in Portland. I did enjoy my time in Atlanta a few years ago, but it wasn't somewhere I would actually want to live. Because it seemed like just about the worst place in the world if you didn't have a car. And I didn't have a car. You talk to people down there and all they do is complain about the traffic, but it also seems to be a source of civic pride: Sure, it's horrible but it's our horrible and you can keep your New Urban walking lifestyle to yourself.

Yeah, I know. Typical Pacific Northwest elitism. Guilty as charged. And the truth is that Turner Field is not particularly appealing. It's architecturally uninspiring, and it's a long walk from downtown and the nearest light-rail station. Like so many urban ballparks, Turner Field seems to have done very little to actually create jobs or energize the surrounding neighborhood. You know, as so often advertised.

We've long noticed that the Braves' attendance hasn't quite matched their performance. This year, despite cruising to a division title, they finished exactly in the middle of the National League: behind seven teams, and ahead of seven. When I've mentioned this before, natives usually cite the horrible traffic. Still, as Byrnes points out, "There are three different highways in walking distance from the stadium."

That's true. But looking at this lovely map the Braves released, it seems the new ballpark will be more convenient for more of their ticket-buying patrons. And the map actually understates the impact of the move, because they should now sell even more tickets to those lucky suburbanites.

Good business move? Yeah, probably. But this makes a great deal of sense for the City of Atlanta, too.

Supposedly, a baseball team benefits a city financially in two ways.

One, there's the economic activity created by the ballpark and the attendant jobs. But we know that's mostly a lie; most of the jobs in the ballpark are short-term and low-paying, the economic activities in the surrounding neighborhoods are greatly exaggerated, and there's a huge opportunity cost to the city, with all that land occupied by a ballpark and parking lots that generate little tax revenue (because of sweetheart deals).

Two, there's the prestige of having a baseball team. I don't know if anyone's ever tried to measure the economic impact of this, because it's probably immeasurable. But people believe there's some benefit, and maybe that's enough to make it true. But the City of Atlanta derives that immeasurable benefit as long as the team is close to the city. They'll still be called the Atlanta Braves, and Atlanta remains a major-league city. Basically, this is a win-win for Atlanta; they get to keep their Braves, and don't have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for the privilege.

Meanwhile, the good suburbanites of Cobb County can presumably afford this big dollop of corporate welfare, and-- oh. I just saw this, from last May:

Cobb County’s school board approved a 2013-14 budget Thursday night that will result in five furlough days for all employees, the loss of 182 teachers through attrition and a slimmer central administration staff.

--snip--

Since March, board members and administrators have been at a crossroads on how to close an $86.4 million budget deficit largely caused by state austerity cuts and reduced local property tax collections.

--snip--

The school district’s administration predicts the system still would have to cut at least $60 million out of the budget for 2014-15.

(h/t: Field of Schemes)

The County is cutting nearly $150 million from the schools budget over two years, yet somehow there's 400-some million dollars of corporate welfare on the table? Because for all the talk about "mixed-use" and "year-round" development, there's no way Cobb County comes close to recouping its "investment" in the Braves. The math just doesn't work. The math never works, unless you're the sports franchise. Because hey, free money.

I started off thinking this is one of the worst things ever, got most of the way toward thinking it's not, and now I'm back to worst ever again. Which is what I always wind up thinking about these deals. What Selig and His Merry Band do isn't as disgusting as the NFL's brain-injury coverup, and it's not as disgusting as the NCAA's various perfidies. Mostly because, for all of our complaining, the free ballpark money is generally disbursed by freely elected public officials, with only the usual, mostly legal low-level bribery and coercion.

But it's something to think about, the next time some baseball team announces with great fanfare that it's donated a million dollars to some charity or another. It's appropriate to applaud these announcements. With one hand. While the other hand punches ourself in the head to remind ourself, Hey, that's our money.

Or rather, was our money. We gave it to the guys are who giving it away. Well, a very tiny percentage of it, anyway. Hey, another win-win!

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