New Stadium Fever

November 25, 2013

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.


  • Vince says:

    There are 10 NFL home games. Each team hosts two preseason games and although it’s not necessarily NFL-caliber talent, it’s NFL prices for tickets (and concessions, parking, etc. as well). It’s another great con by professional sports.

    • Stephanie Liscio says:

      Great point…I forgot about the preseason games. And you’re right – since it’s full prices it is a pretty awesome deal for the teams.

  • Chris Burnham says:

    I had this same thought when the Braves move was announced. I believe the stadium will remain in use, but with technological advances being as they are now, and that they are being introduced to our lives in a far more quicker pace than ever before, stadium shelf lives aren’t going to be as they once were. Sport franchises need to entice the paying public entrenched in an HD world. It’s clear that the Braves didn’t believe that their facilities were up to snuff.

    If the Indians were to follow suit, I would have to believe that they’d put a lid on the place for early-season and late-season weather issues. To this day, I still don’t quite understand the reluctance to do so during the infant stages of the Gateway Complex’s planning. Sure, money and all that, in a city that has had a great deal of difficulty in finding enough of it, but in a decade from now, roofs would be pretty commonplace.

    It’s hard to imagine that a stadium that was first constructed when I was in HIGH SCHOOL would be considered old when the Browns and Indians shared a facility that was generations old and was literally crumbling (like the problems they have in Oakland) and no one gave it any thought.

    But TV has changed how we view everything now, and it appears that teams are really trying to stay in step with it all. If it comes at the cost of demolishing a still functional building that is likely missing only a few amenities that could likely be put in manually and at relative little cost, it appears the owners are willing to take the road of potential excess to entice the fans.

    The days of consistently winning as a team’s main draw is apparently long gone. It’s a competition with a person’s couch now.

    • Stephanie Liscio says:

      It’s a good point that you make about the constant need to upgrade. I think not just because of technological advances (which is obviously the primary reason) but to keep up with everyone else. “Well, *they* have a new stadium so now we look out of date and uncool.”

      Even though you’re exactly on point with your reasons (they need to keep up not just with other teams, but with TV and other entertainment options) I think I’d have less of a problem with the whole thing if the owners were willing to foot the bill. Sure, I’d still probably roll my eyes and complain (I do that even when there’s nothing that bad!) but hey…it’s their money, they can spend it how they wish. I’ve seen estimates for this Braves stadium that put the total cost around $650 million, with $450 million of that coming from public funds. I feel like it’s the equivalent of going to my family and telling them I wanted a nice new house, because mine is kind of small and was built in 1975. Oh, and I’d like for them to pay the majority of the price, because they’ll get to use it too. Plus I’m more sympathetic to places like Oakland, where they have sewage spraying everywhere (or whatever gross thing is going on).

      • Chris Burnham says:

        As I said below, I do not see the Dolans paying for significant upgrades or a brand new stadium out of their own pockets. Remember how stunned we were when they were paying “big money” last winter and it was more or less mid-priced by overall league standards?

        Yeah, if the Indians feel the need to with a new building, Paul will have his feet up while dragging on a Cuban cigar and cackling maniacally.

        I’d love to be wrong.

    • Nathaniel Price says:

      I live in a northern suburb of Atlanta, and I did get the opportunity to see my Tribe play the Braves this year. It would’ve been nice to have a 20 minute drive instead of a 45 minute drive. From what I understand, the Stadium will be torn down, not remain in use. The Braves say they are leaving because they wanted to have a facility, or group of facilities that would be an entire year-round money maker and there wasn’t room for that at Turner Field. The new stadium will be smaller and there will be restaurants, shopping, concerts etc. all owned by the Braves. I will note that the Cobb County Council has not yet given final approval of the plan, so it’s technically not a done deal yet.

  • Drew says:

    I live in Richmond, VA where we are having a stadium situation of our own, but on a much smaller scale. The AA affiliate of the San Francisco Giants play here at a very outdated, ugly facility in one part of town. Fans are supportive of the team, as the Flying Squirrels draw more than 6,600 fans per game, for 2nd best of all the AA affiliates. As part of urban renewal effort, they are trying to relocate the stadium from uptown to downtown on top of a historical slave-trading site. Along with thew new stadium, they plan to build 750 more apartments, a hotel, and a grocery store that is badly needed in the area. I am torn on the subject, because the site that they want to develop is an eye-sore of empty gravel, abandoned buildings, broken concrete and the neighborhood desperately needs a better grocery store. But, on the other hand, the neighborhood has been booming lately. New restaurants are popping up, the nearby educational hospital is always expanding, bringing more yuppies to town. I am unsure that the stadium is actually needed to revitalize the area, but the mayor seems hellbent on it. It is very interesting to see the lack of economic benefits that happen because of a stadium and I think this would likely be the case if the stadium does relocate downtown.

    • Stephanie Liscio says:

      That’s actually a very interesting scenario, particularly the mayor’s big push to build this stadium. I think there’s allure for politicians to make a stadium the “defining moment” of their careers. I’m sure some of it’s because they have political ambitions beyond their current post, but with others I think it’s just about leaving a legacy.

      It reminds me of when I was in college at Pitt. I believe it was the student government for my year (I graduated in 2001, so the ‘ol memory is a little foggy and I don’t have time to go look it up right now) that decided to build a giant bronze (I think it’s bronze) panther outside of the student union building. I think the thing cost like $10,00-$15,000 which isn’t that insane, but is still a fair amount of money when you consider it’s a statue. But hey, they’d been saving, etc. although the money ultimately came from the student activities fee in our tuition. I remember someone from the group saying at the time something along the lines of “this will be the best thing the student government has ever done for Pitt.” I remember one kid I worked with saw that quote and said, “Congrats…you’ve created something everyone can now pee on when they’re drunk.” Another person I worked with wondered if the money wouldn’t have been better spent going to a charity, or to set up a small scholarship fund. What my former co-workers weren’t considering is that the statue was a visible, tangible item that people could look at and say “wow, the student government from 2001 put this here.” It seemed like a much more bold way to cement your legacy, and I view this stadium stuff as kind of the same when it comes to politicians.

    • JimM. says:

      I live 30 mins outside Richmond and used to go to that ballpark all the time. Hate to see it go (it is a dump though). The whole city needs a “renewal project,” Richmond is the tip of the iceberg with guards to entering the poor south.

  • Ryan McCrystal says:

    This is an interesting discussion. I’d love to see a map of the Indians ticket sales similar to the one the Braves have circulated. Atlanta has a North/South split similar to Cleveland’s East/West.

    Being closer to fans could drive up walk-up ticket sales. Given the demographics of Cleveland and the location of the stadium, there’s probably a fairly small portion of ticket purchasers that live with 15 minutes of the stadium.

    If the Indians rebuild, it would also be interesting to see the size of the new stadium. Would they go for something like 35,000 to create a better atmosphere? Or keep it around 42+ to allow for bigger crowds?

    • Chris Burnham says:

      My guess would be that they go as small as feasibly allowed by MLB standards. It’s a tough draw where they sit right now. Unless they become an annual contender again, I find it hard to see the days of selling out on even a semi-regular basis being something they can count on with how the stadium is constructed.

      To be honest, I fear relocation is a bigger threat than having to deal with the logistics of a new building in a city where it would be a tough sell unless it is funded privately. That ain’t happening under the Dolans.

    • Stephanie Liscio says:

      I was thinking about that recently, and actually was discussing it with someone. Because the development Cobb County and the Braves are describing, that will pop up around the new stadium, sounds very similar to Crocker Park to me. So we tossed Westlake out there, just for the sake of argument. When I really got to thinking about it though, I would still attend games if they moved to (let’s say) Westlake. No matter what, I’m still going to go to games. However, I think I’d probably curtail my attendance and probably cancel my season ticket plan. I’m one of those morons that complain about going to the other side of the river and act almost like I’m going to another planet (unless it’s the near west side like Tremont, Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway, etc.) It takes me a half hour to get downtown, but it would probably be more like an hour to get all of the way over to there. So you’d almost have to alienate some portion of your fan base, even if you’re willing to write it off because it’s small by comparison to the center/majority of your fan base. I think (last I heard) Atlanta was going for a much smaller park too…not just because of atmosphere, but because they’re hoping it will increase demand and ultimately drive up ticket prices. They’re going to have fewer parking spots than Turner Field too (which is odd, because lack of parking was one of the “issues” they listed) although supposedly there will be off site lots and they’ll drive you in on little trams, like amusement parks use in their parking lots.

      • Swift says:

        Geography does matter, at least a little. I go to a lot more Captains games than Aeros (sorry, Rubber Duck) games, because I live in Lake County and it is 15 minute drive versus 1 hour plus. Look at the Cavs in the old Coliseum versus Downtown.

        I’d guess that if the Indians moved from Downtown, it might make a small difference in my attendance, maybe up or down a game at most (depending on if they were closer or further). But for the metro population as a whole, I think it would be a wash.

        Its hard to separate the move from Municipal Stadium to The Jake and its impact on downtown development versus everything else that went on. I suspect, for example, it hurt the Flats but helped the area around the corner of Ontario and Carnegie. But again, for the downtown as a whole, it might be neutral or slightly positive.

        I still say replacing a less than 20 year old stadium, wherever you put it, is crazy.

    • Sean Porter says:

      What I’d love to see, but I know this would be a huge undertaking, is the elimination of roughly 50% of the luxury suites at Progressive Field. I believe there are roughly twice the number of suites at Progressive than PNC Park in Pittsburgh, which pushes the upper deck damn near the stratosphere.

      I think Ryan is on to something, and I think 38,000 seats in Cleveland would be sufficient. This could be accomplished by eliminating the third deck in right field, which is a ghost town for roughly 95% of Indians games anyways. It’s a great park, but it could be even better and more fan-friendly.

      • Stephanie Liscio says:

        I’ve heard that they are looking into eliminating suites…they already got rid of some with the children’s play area and the luxury club, but I think there were some additional proposals. I didn’t hear about a timeline, or how likely it actually was (since some of this stuff never gets past the planning stages).

        It’s unsightly, but they could always tarp the right field deck like they do in Oakland, or like the Pirates used to do at Three Rivers in the late 80s and 90s.

  • James Edgar says:

    When the Braves news broke, I asked my brother about it (he lives there, just north of downtown). He said it was teh usual tripe – team says we need new/upgraded stadium, and the public has to pay for all of it. Atlanta told them to pound sand. So they worked out the Cobb county stadium. Turner Field is right next to where Fulton County Stadium used to be, in the middle of a ghetto, a full mile away from the nearest public transit stop. Now they are talking about imploding Turner Field and building some mixed-use development complex on the site.

    Here in Charlotte where I live, there is 1 exception to the “stadiums don’t generate much economic development” principle. Charlotte was like every other large city in the 80s-90s in that downtown was an office park that was deserted after 5 PM. When the Final Four came here in ’94, the locals cooked up a street festival for downtown to hide the fact that there was no life there after work hours. It was such a success, the Speed Street festival was created for the Memorial Day NASCAR race here, and the Panthers decided to build their stadium in the downtown area. Soon as that thing went up, everything exploded – new residences, restaurants, bars and shops started going up. If the Panthers stadium was never built, it’s likely none of it would have happened. Now the AAA Charlotte Knights start playing ball downtown next year. (You can bet the world I will be there for all the games with the Clippers – it will be the one time I won’t be rooting for the home team. Go Tribe prospects!).

    But this past summer, the Panthers asked for $300 million for upgrades to their stadium. No open threats of moving were made, but when the city balked, the mayor of LA just happened to be in town for the first preseason game. So the city caved and gave the Panthers everything they wanted. Like you said, the LA threat is always there for NFL teams.

    It’s hard to tell where all this will lead. You have the Braves ditching a 17-year-old stadium, and you have the world champions about to play their 103rd season in their stadium. I guess it depends on how the stadium is perceived. I can’t imagine the Orioles playing anything less than 50 years in Camden Yards, because it was the first of the last wave of new stadiums and fans of many teams seem to revere it. The Braves probably found it easier to ditch the Ted because for all the championships they won while there, they never won a World Series there. For the Tribe – as bad as they may have been from 2009-2012, they have more playoff appearances in 20 years at Progressive than they did in the previous 50 at Municipal Stadium. So I think us fans have a much higher opinion of it.

    • Stephanie Liscio says:

      Oh wow, I missed that bit about the Panthers…thanks for mentioning that. I’m trying to keep track of the upgrades too and not just new construction.

      My husband and I were actually discussing recently if the Cubs would really leave Wrigley if their proposed improvements weren’t approved, or if they were just threatening to get the money. So it’s an interesting point to mention stadiums that may be considered “hands off” when it comes to new construction. Teams bank on the emotional pull of fans to get their demands, but some of these stadiums also have an emotional pull that could work against them. I couldn’t see the Orioles moving any time soon either. An odd/interesting thing about Municipal is that it wasn’t really embraced at the beginning or the end of its existence, but it hung on for a long time. The one Negro League team was even really unhappy about when their deal to rent League Park fell through in 1939 and they had to play at Municipal. Made like it was the worst thing in the world that they’d have to play there instead!

      I spent 6 years living between Harrisburg, Pa. and Baltimore, so I lived for when the Aeros and Indians would come through there! I also felt like I finally had someone to cheer for.

  • Swift says:

    The idea of replacing a 16 year old stadium is offensive to me. The idea that we should spend several hundred million dollars every 20 years is crazy.

    Nuts to all the owners: if you think it makes economic sense, then pay for it yourself.

    Replacing the old Municipal Stadium made sense, but that was a 65 year old building. Give me a wake-up call in 2044 and we’ll see about replacing Progessive Field (or whatever it is called by then). Doing some upgrades every 10 or 20 years – sure. Replacement – no.

    • Stephanie Liscio says:

      Amen. If the stadium is falling apart, I’m on board. If they’re willing to pay their own money…as I said above, I’d still say it was dumb, but they could do what they wanted with their money.

      I keep wondering what will happen if the Cobb County thing goes through as planned and ends up being a disaster for some reason. Will the discussion shift to moving back to Atlanta again? (although last I heard, they were going to sign a 30-year lease with Cobb County).

      • Swift says:

        You know, your point about the lease is interesting.

        If this starts becoming a trend, I would expect that cities that do agree to pony up stadium money will start insisting on longer leases than they have now. If Cobb County isn’t stupid, they are not going to want someone stealing the Braves from them in 10 or 20 years, after they spent $450 million. Might we start seeing 30 or 40 year leases?

        • Stephanie Liscio says:

          It would be one way to combat this kind of stuff. I’m not 100% certain, but I think a tight lease is kind of clogging things up in Tampa. They’ve alluded to their interest in moving to Montreal, but there’s no way they could get out of the lease to move there for at least several years. So they keep asking for a new park, but I gather that they don’t have a lot of leverage at the moment.

          • Chris Burnham says:

            Tampa just re-upped their lease not too long ago, much to the surprise of “People in the Know.” So the whole Tampa-to-Montreal thing is nothing more than a pipe dream unless something drastic happens.

            I do know that Montreal wants the Expos back. They’ve been hit with absence making their hearts grow fonder.