Does anyone in Georgia’s Cobb County own a calculator — or even a smartphone with a calculator on it?
If so, why didn’t Cobb County officials bother to do any math before offering to pay for the Atlanta Braves’ new ballpark, SunTrust Park?
Less than two months into Major League Baseball’s season, the novelty of the Braves’ new home has worn off — if it ever existed. A park that holds 41,149 has been averaging fewer than 30,500 fans per game. We’d say that’s a marked improvement over the roughly 25,000 to 29,000 the Braves had been averaging in their old home at Turner Field since 2014, but considering that the Braves announced their intent to abandon that stadium in 2013, those numbers feel a bit deflated.
And you can’t blame it on their 16-21 record. The Braves had a losing record and failed to make the playoffs in both 2006 and 2008 — and still drew over 31,000 fans per game. And that was in a ballpark that opened in 1997 and had far fewer amenities than the Braves’ current home. While the Braves and their parent company — $20 billion media conglomerate Liberty Media
— are inextricably tied to the new stadium and would be easy scapegoats for its slow start, officials in Cobb County shoulder much of the blame.
The park wouldn’t have been built without land and money provided by Cobb County. The county borrowed $376 million in bonds — including nearly $300 million that will be paid out of property taxes — barred opponents from speaking against that levy, shrouded the deal in secrecy to prevent a public vote, pried another $9.9 million from the county to build a pedestrian bridge over a highway to their convention and arts center and prevented private businesses from selling gameday parking spaces within a half mile of the field under the guise of “safety.”
The rest of the SunTrust Park project’s $1.1 billion cost — $672 million —came from Liberty Media. It includes more than $180 million in rent payments over the next 30 years, and $550 million for the surrounding mixed-use development known as Battery Atlanta.
The $376 million from Cobb County will be offset somewhat by the Braves’ rent payments, but $14 million in infrastructure spending, $10 million for the “Cumberland County Improvement District” benefits for businesses, $75 million in road improvements and $30 million for unforeseen traffic control costs may be tougher to recoup.
If Cobb County was convinced that the Braves were actually concerned about traffic or the lack of a MARTA subway connection to its stadium — complaints that arose during the Braves’ stay at Turner Field — this new ballpark did little to assuage those fears. Traffic at the intersection of I-75 and I-285 near the Cumberland Mall remains as formidable as ever — even after the four-lane Windy Hill-Terrell Mill Connector road designed to alleviate traffic around the new ballpark site bulldozed the homes of 31 homeowners.
The Braves have been remarkably — almost disturbingly — candid about their motivations for building SunTrust Park and the surrounding Battery Atlanta mixed-use development. Of all their gripes about Turner Field, their concerns about not securing space around the stadium for the exclusive use of their sponsors and partners were most visibly addressed by their new facility. The Braves paid $400 million for Battery Atlanta, brought in Braves-sponsor Comcast
as a core tenant to fill a nine-story office tower with its Central Division headquarters, had Comcast web the whole place with Ethernet cable and brought in a host of Braves-friendly businesses. Sponsors Coca-Cola
and LiveNation get Battery Atlanta’s Roxy Theatre venue built right into the complex, partner Omni Hotels gets a facility on the site and longtime sponsor Delta Air Lines
gets club boxes and a parking lot in its name. The Braves also got to handpick restaurant and retail tenants including Wahlburgers and Harley-Davidson
With a whole lot of help from Cobb County, the Braves diversified their portfolio far beyond their on-field product. To them, this isn’t about SunTrust park and a sports venue — it’s about SunTrust Park, Battery Atlanta, a Braves-specific destination and a 365-day revenue stream.
Cobb County residents, for their part, are less than pleased with this deal. They voted out county commission chairman Tim Lee — who’s been made a scapegoat by some of his former colleagues as well — after opponent Mike Boyce just kept pummeling Lee over his role in the ballpark deal.
Now, in what ballpark proponents billed as the nexus of ticket-buying Braves fandom, roughly a quarter of fans are voting with empty seats on a nightly basis. Unfortunately, the only thing they’re hurting is their county’s ability to pay back its enormous stadium debt in anything resembling a timely fashion. After all, it’s Cobb County that invested in a ballpark for a foundering team. The Braves and Liberty Media invested in what’s always worked for Greater Atlanta: Office space and high-end malls.
Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Huffington Post and Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.