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The Braves Seek Out Suburbia

Cinematic baseball wisdom holds that if you build it, they will come.

The Atlanta Braves seem to want to add a caveat: “…as long as you build it in the right place.”

In a move that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution characterized as “stunning,” team officials announced this week that the Braves will leave their downtown Atlanta home for Cobb County, a suburban area northwest of the city whose largest city is Marietta.

The Braves have played in downtown Atlanta since they moved from Milwaukee in 1966, but their current home, Turner Field, is newer. It was built for the 1996 Olympics and became the Braves’ park in 1997. The team said it will relocate for the 2017 season, the first opportunity to do so after its 20-year lease at Turner Field expires.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Turner Field. Its only major drawback is that it is not enclosed, making it hard to play, or sit through, a day game in Atlanta in July. But the Braves are not leaving because of the weather. (The new field will also be open-air, team officials have said.) The website the team launched to explain the move cites “certain issues that are insurmountable and will only become more problematic over the years.” These include inadequate parking and a lack of mass transportation.

I assume these are real issues, but I suspect the Braves have other considerations in mind too. Money is high on the list, as usual. Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed released a statement following the Braves’ announcement saying that keeping the team in downtown Atlanta would have cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars.” He claimed that Cobb County is kicking in a subsidy of $450 million for the new ballpark, a figure neither the Braves nor Cobb County would confirm. Quoting Reed, ESPN reported yesterday that the city plans to tear down Turner Field once the Braves leave.

Still, the Braves did not choose Cobb County for ease of getting around it offers. Like most of metropolitan Atlanta, the area around the proposed stadium is frequently gridlocked, even without the additional traffic a major-league venue would generate. As for mass transit, skeptics immediately noted that the MARTA transit system does not serve Cobb County.

But the green suburban hills have other advantages, foremost of which is proximity to the Braves’ fan base - a largely suburban crowd whose children play softball and hardball on immaculately manicured fields. Baseball is struggling to attract young players in urban areas, where basketball is especially popular. In some places, like Atlanta, the central city is not where most of the fans live, especially those who can afford major-league prices. Derek Schiller, a Braves executive, said that they new stadium would be “near the geographic center of our fan base.”

The Braves understandably want to get as many of those fans to the ballpark as possible. Despite the Braves’ consistent success on the field, they don’t draw crowds particularly well at their current home stadium. In 2013, they averaged 31,465 attendees per home game, though Turner Field can hold just under 50,000. The new Cobb County stadium will seat approximately 41,000 to 42,000.

Downtown Atlanta now lags in the nationwide trend of revitalizing urban cores. Unlike Miami, which is filled with shiny new condo towers, Atlanta has not attracted a big pool of new downtown residents in recent years. Atlanta is also a high-crime city by national standards. Very little happens downtown after dark. The city center hollows out as people take to the enormous freeways to get out of town, or to more popular urban neighborhoods like Buckhead, Little Five Points and Druid Hills.

While I can’t fault team management, the Braves’ departure looks like a financial disaster for the city. The Braves and Turner Field were one of the primary draws into Atlanta’s urban center. The decision also reinforces the position of skeptics who argue that publicly financed sports facilities don’t add much value to an established big city, whether the stadiums are built for the Olympics (as in Atlanta or, this year, in Rio de Janeiro) or for professional sports franchises.

A big-league team can, however, put a smaller municipality on the map. This has happened in Arlington, Texas, which hosts the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Cowboys. It has happened in Anaheim, Calif., which is the home of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and an NHL team, the Anaheim Ducks. It may soon happen in Marietta. As Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, Atlanta’s loss will be Cobb County’s gain, making it “a major destination point in the entire southeast.”

Downtown partisans can take solace in a consolation prize of sorts - a new downtown stadium that is on the drawing boards for the city’s National Football League franchise, the Atlanta Falcons. The team plans to move a short distance from its current home, the 21-year-old Georgia Dome that sits on the edge of downtown.

Football is more popular nationally than baseball, and nowhere is the difference more stark than in Georgia, where even high school teams get their scores reported on the metropolitan daily’s front page. No doubt many would argue that the NFL is the treasure chest and baseball’s Braves are the consolation prize. But the Falcons only play eight regular season home games a year, compared to the Braves’ 81. They also play mainly on Sundays, when traffic is less of a factor. You can get people to travel almost anywhere for an NFL game, but an eight-date schedule is not much to build a city around.

The Braves are a day-in, day-out attraction. It is too bad the city does not offer a more attractive downtown locale in which to keep them.

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