We are in the midst of Winter, although you couldn’t tell it where I live. The temperature has been in the 70s for about a week and a half and the grass is actually getting green in places. Hey, give me an excuse to get out the John Deere.
While we will likely pay the price for this “warm” January later, there is a sure sign that spring is on the way. On February 14th, Major League Baseball pitchers and catchers report to spring training in either Florida or Arizona. After a couple of weeks of workouts, spring training games begin in early March and the season opens on the first Sunday in April.
When it opens, as has been the trend lately, at least one team will begin play in a brand new stadium. Baseball owners have been more aggressive than any major sports owners in leveraging their connection to their current city to get a new home. Only six (6) teams – the Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Angels, Athletics and Royals play in stadiums that were built before 1989. Granted the Royals Kaufman Stadium has been given a facelift while retaining the distinctive water fountains in the outfield, and the Angels Stadium which is across the street from Disneyland has also undergone renovations. The Cubs are trying to update Wrigley Field as much as possible, but there’s no way the Cubs ever move out of Wrigley or build a new stadium. Ditto for the Red Sox, as Fenway Park is the Major’s oldest stadium having opened in 1912. Major League owners apparently prescribe to that old John Madden maxim that if a cow can’t eat it, a man shouldn’t play on it. Only two stadiums, Toronto’s Rogers Centre, and Tropicana Field in Tampa – the undisputed worst ballpark in baseball – use artificial turf.
This year’s “new home” belongs to the Atlanta Braves who will christen SunTrust Field by hosting their final spring training game against the New York Yankees on March 31st, with a crowd consisting only of season ticket holders, before it opens for good to the general public on April 14th.
For most of their existence the Braves played in one of the “cookie cutter” all purpose stadiums that sprung up in the 1960s and 1970s for the purpose of housing both baseball and football. Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, along with Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium stood as icons of the all purpose stadiums of the past. Those stadiums have long gone the way of the dinosaur as owners sought to increase the fan experience in a truly baseball environment.
Thanks to the 1996 Olympics, the Braves found a new home in 1997 when the new Olympic Stadium was converted into “Turner Field” named after former Braves’ owner Ted Turner. The Braves signed a 20-year lease on Turner Field which was located just a few steps away from Downtown Atlanta. With just a few years to go on the lease, the Braves made it clear to Atlanta that Turner Field- which team officials contended was built on a smaller budget to keep costs down for the Olympics – was either going to need a severe structural upgrade, or the Braves would need a new home. In addition, baseball crowds were subjected nightly to the world famous downtown Atlanta traffic nightmare, and as nightmarish as traffic was, the parking at Turner Field was worse. Often fans had to park in dirt fields and after the game was over, just try getting out as there was absolutely no traffic officers anywhere in sight.
By the time the Braves’ owners – Liberty Media Corporation – made their desire to leave Turner Field known to Atlanta officials, the City had already agreed to help Falcons owner Arthur Blank build the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium next to the Georgia Dome. With Atlanta unwilling to build two new stadiums, Cobb County came to the rescue. Cobb County agreed to kick in $398 million to the construction of a new stadium in the suburbs. The Braves contributed $230 million. The Braves signed SunTrust Bank – which has a major part of its financial operations in Atlanta – to a 25 year naming rights agreement. SunTrust will hold 41,500 fans which is 9,000 less than Turner Field making it a more intimate environment, there will be 30,000 parking spaces within 2 miles of the stadium, and it is right next to a major highway. That’s good and bad in that the famous Atlanta traffic extends to Cobb County. In response, the Braves agreed to move the start times of all Monday through Friday games to 7:35 p.m. from their 7:05 time at Turner to allow fans more time to make it to the stadium. The stadium will also be surrounded by retail spaces, bars, restaurants and office space. Comcast (the worst cable company in America by the way) will place its Southeast Regional Headquarters in a 9-story office building next to the stadium.
The move to the suburbs also has to do with appealing to a certain portion of the fan base. The Braves’ owners have made no bones about the fact that their fan base is largely white. When the Braves’ decided to move from downtown Atlanta, team Executive Vice President Mike Plant was quoted as saying that playing downtown “doesn’t match-up with where the majority of our fans come from.” Braves’ officials have also said the new stadium will be the near the “geographic center” of their fan base. In other words, African Americans don’t go to baseball games so we don’t need to be downtown where it’s mostly African Americans.
The Braves – like most teams who build new stadiums – will get a bump in attendance because of the new ballpark. They will need it because the owners decided a few years ago after the retirement of legends like John Smoltz and Chipper Jones to blow up the roster and rebuild with younger players through their own farm system or trades. Predictably, the product on the field has been pretty poor for a couple of years. This from an organization that won its Division every year from 1991 to 2005, six more consecutive titles than the Yankees who won 8 from 1998 to 2005.
Unlike a lot of other major sports, baseball is and forever will be a local or regional draw with only a few franchises, the Cubs chief among them, having a “national brand”. I still contend you are just not going to find a lot of Atlanta Braves fans in Seattle or fans of the Arizona Diamondbacks anywhere but Arizona if they even exist there. So, the environment in which a team plays is absolutely critical to putting butts in the seats. Since 1989, 24 teams have built new stadiums. The first to do so was Toronto which built the “Skydome” now Rodgers Centre in 1989. Although the Skydome got off to an inauspicious start. The team built a hotel in the stadium which overlooked the playing field. That’s a great idea except they forgot to tell guests that the windows weren’t one way and the Skydome crowd was quickly treated to a young couple having sex. Nothing like scoring in front of 50,000 people. I’ll bet that guy became an instant legend among his buddies.
The Braves are the Majors’ first new stadium in 4 years since the Marlins built Marlins Park in Downtown Miami in 2012 which features a poolside bar in Center Field. The Marlins Stadium – the third smallest in the majors with just 37,442 seats – was built for the team after the Marlins ownership threatened to move to San Antonio or Las Vegas – with mostly tax payer money.
The building wave won’t stop anytime soon as what were once new palaces are showing age and the owners are wanting new homes. Just last November, voters in Arlington, Texas approved increasing taxes to partially fund a new $1 billion retractable roof stadium for the Texas Rangers. The Rangers Globe Life Ballpark is only 23 years old, but it’s completely outdoors and Rangers fans have complained for years about the oppressive summer Texas heat. I’ve been there and it’s not a myth. The new home will be air conditioned and more importantly like other Major League teams with new digs, it will be new and it keeps the team in the City of its identity because if you don’t build a team something new, someone else certainly will.