You’ve probably heard by now that the Atlanta Braves plan to leave relatively new Turner Field (first used by the Braves in 1997) for a new ballpark in suburban Cobb County. Even though this move doesn’t directly involve the Indians, I still feel that it’s something worth discussing for several reasons. The Browns have been in the news recently for their desire to make $120 million worth of improvements to FirstEnergy Stadium. You don’t have to look far from home anymore to find a team either trying to win approval for a new stadium, or to receive a significant amount of money to repair/enhance their current digs. The other reason I think it’s an interesting topic for Cleveland fans is the fact that Turner Field is actually newer than Progressive Field. Will this start a trend where 15-20 years is the ceiling for a stadium’s life span? Will it start a trend where cities now have to compete with suburbs in order to have a ballpark? Or is Atlanta a unique case, and we’re unlikely to see this play out in other cities across America?
Stadium construction has had fairly well-defined “periods” over the past 100 years or so. You had the wooden ballparks of the late nineteenth century, which were replaced by the steel-framed ballparks of the early twentieth century. Many of the parks during this time period were on the outskirts of downtown within primarily residential neighborhoods – places like League Park in Cleveland, Wrigley Field in Chicago, and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Then you move into the cookie-cutter, and more bland multi-purpose stadiums of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Walk into any one of these parks, and you could hardly tell the difference between all of them on the surface. A lot of these parks were in downtown areas, often they were connected to “urban renewal” projects meant to revitalize the area.
As a child, I remember growing up during the 1980s hearing about how “blasphemous” these multi-purpose parks were when compared to older baseball parks. They usually contained artificial turf rather than grass, and they lacked the character of the unique and quirky older parks. People would talk about what a shame it was that the old parks were demolished for these new, sterile facilities that often housed both baseball and football. I always had the impression that we were stuck with these parks; the others were just part of a bygone era. All of that changed in the early 1990s.
When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in Baltimore in 1992, it marked a return to the unique, eclectic style of the early twentieth century. However, it came with a caveat – I’ve seen it listed as one of the best things to happen to happen to baseball, and I’ve also seen it listed as one of the worst things to happen to baseball. It was good in the sense that it got rid of the impersonal behemoths that had dotted the landscape in cities across the country. It was bad in the sense that now every city wanted their own Camden Yards, and teams often wanted local taxpayers to foot at least a portion of the bill. So during the 1990s and 2000s, you saw tons of cities (including Cleveland) abandon their old parks for shiny new ones. In a number of cases, cities built both baseball and football parks in order to keep both teams happy. Cities (and subsequently fans and taxpayers) were almost blackmailed into giving teams what they wanted – nobody wanted to see their team pack up and move to another city. When you’re passionate about your sports team, you’d be willing to do almost anything to keep them from abandoning you for a new locale. Old Municipal Stadium is one of the reasons the Browns listed for moving to Baltimore – they just didn’t want to play in such an old facility, especially when the Indians and Cavs had new buildings.
It really never seems to matter that a number of studies claim there are no obvious economic benefits to a city for building these new parks. The jobs that will be created are often low-wage, temporary positions during a sports season. Plus you have to consider that jobs will be taken away from another location (in this case, Turner Field). There will be a number of good construction jobs to come out of it, but those are temporary as well. Fans don’t necessarily spend more money at a new ballpark, according to research, so it’s just a reallocation of their spending. Even if the team were to leave town, the argument is that people will still take part in some leisure activity, whether it be the theater, another sport, etc. so that money is still floating around the local economy. Any losses still wouldn’t be outstripped by the millions of dollars of construction debt. In Glendale, Arizona, to try and cover the costs of their new hockey arena, the town is considering putting city hall and the police station up as collateral in order to continue funding the new stadium. (Which typically has sparse attendance from local fans).
Stadiums typically can’t survive on their sports teams alone – they rely on filling seats during the empty days in the schedule with concerts, outside sporting events, etc. If you look at it that way, basketball and hockey arenas are likely to be filled more frequently. Take Quicken Loans Arena for example – they have home Cavs games, Lake Erie Monsters games, (at times) Cleveland Gladiators games, as well as a number of concerts and shows. Football stadiums seem to be more pointless to me, because there are only eight NFL home games, and they’re less likely to draw music acts because of their enormous capacity.
With Turner Field, you have a park that was actually constructed for the 1996 summer Olympics, and converted to the Braves facility by the start of the 1997 season. It’s a lovely park, but there are complaints that the neighborhood around the stadium is “iffy” and that it’s tough to get there because of traffic. The Braves pointed out that the vast majority of their fans happen to live in Cobb County and the northern suburbs. In their minds, it just makes sense to move the stadium to the center of their ticket base. While they’ve made this whole move sound like a brilliant idea, there is another side of the story.
First of all, the Braves finished 13th in attendance in 2013 with an average of 31,465 fans per game. For a team that supposedly has trouble drawing, those are fairly healthy numbers (although probably aided by the fact that they’re an annual contender). I’m sure the Indians would kill for those attendance numbers. The next issue is the traffic – the idea that it will be easier to get to a suburban stadium as compared to an urban ballpark. However, the proposed park will sit just off the interchange of I-285 and I-75 which is an extremely congested stretch of road even without game-day traffic. Cobb County also lacks the public transportation infrastructure that one would find in Atlanta proper, so it’s highly unlikely that it could serve as a viable option to help alleviate traffic congestion. Because it’s the land of suburbs and strip malls, you’re probably going to be forced to park in team-owned parking lots; the free meter spots and other tricks to save money may not work in the suburbs.
The other thing that seemed unusual to me about the Braves’ move is the fact that the news came as a shock to pretty much everyone. I even spoke with my cousin, who lives in Cobb County about a 25 minute drive from the proposed site, and she was caught completely by surprise. Even folks in the area had no idea this was coming. Maybe it also feels shocking because there’s always a certain degree of public theater with these proposed stadium moves, as teams dole out their ransom demands through the media. That did not happen in this case. When there will be about $450 million in public money going into the new park, with at least some of it expected to come through new taxes or a reallocation of current taxes, it seems kind of shocking that the public didn’t have some form of input in the matter. (Although as we saw in the Pittsburgh case, the public’s will can be circumvented. Plus we haven’t seen the ground formally broken yet for this new park, so there could still be speed bumps in the road.) The last point of contention is a bit tougher to determine, because it involves a number of “what-ifs?” The Braves criticized the city of Atlanta for not building up the area around Turner Field. At the same time, you often hear people spout the “build it and they will come theory” of businesses naturally gravitating toward a new park. Even though Cobb County claims they will build up the area around the new ballpark, there may be no way to guarantee that. Even if Atlanta had built up the area around Turner Field, there’s no definitive proof that it would have been enough to keep the team from accepting a sweetheart deal elsewhere. There are already claims that this stadium deal won’t provide much benefit to Cobb County in a financial sense, although it’s still early and they’re still working on many of the financial details.
While Atlanta probably is a unique situation, since its park was a former Olympic park, and because Atlanta and its environs are such an expansive area, it doesn’t mean that other teams won’t steal their game plan. It’s something that we’ve already seen to some degree during spring training, as suburban community is pitted against suburban community in order to draw teams within their boundaries. The Cubs’ old spring training facility in Mesa, HoHoKam, was just built in 1997; they will move into a brand new complex elsewhere in Mesa for the spring of 2014. While the NFL always has the Los Angeles boogeyman to hold over cities’ heads, there aren’t many viable boogeymen left in MLB. It’s typically believed that Portland, Oregon, and Las Vegas wouldn’t be able to support a team, and the oft-mentioned Washington, D.C. finally has a team again. You’ve heard some discussion about a team taking major league baseball back to Montreal (most often the Rays), but otherwise there aren’t a lot of options. Just about 10 years ago, MLB even seriously considered eliminating two teams through contraction. However, if teams can use the suburbs as a legitimate boogeyman for relocation, you’re opening up another whole avenue of potential ransom demands for cities.
The Indians drew an average of just 19,961 fans per game last year, 28th in baseball (just Miami and Tampa Bay drew fewer fans). For the most part, there have been very few fears that the team could pack up and move away from Cleveland. The Indians, who do not own Progressive Field, just renewed their contract with the park in 2008, meaning they’re contractually obligated to play there until 2023. Plus they play in the beautiful, relatively new Progressive Field and it seemed preposterous that they would abandon such a new facility. But that facility is actually three years older than the one the Braves will abandon, and demolish, in just a few short years. Is it possible that we could see a similar scenario in Cleveland in about 10 years? It’s impossible to know. But with all of the new stadium plans (especially if we see more like the Braves’ Cobb County plans) are we likely to see new construction explode to even greater lengths than we’ve already seen? Or will these projects actually push fans, taxpayers and communities in the opposite direction and cause them to put their foot down when it comes to new publicly funded stadiums? We have at least a few years before Indians fans might be faced with that question. While I still don’t see it as likely that they’ll move or demand a new stadium, I’ll be watching the stadium battle in other cities with interest.