There’s an old proverb that says, “a fool and his money are soon parted.” No group does more to try and make this point true over and over and over than the lords of Major League Baseball.
This is the group that, in their infinite wisdom, saw fit to give Alex Rodriguez a $252 million contract to play baseball. This is the same group that renegotiated that deal for a new $275 million total when he opted out of his original ridiculous pact before it expired.
And these are the same geniuses that are currently spending hundreds more millions trying to suspend A-Rod and void a large chunk of his latest deal because of allegations of performance-enhancing drug use – something they willingly ignored or indirectly endorsed after the strike of 1994 in an effort to bring fans back to ballparks.
Ballparks are front and center of the newest nonsensical decision by baseball owners. Specifically, the owners of the Atlanta Braves.
The N.L. East champions announced Monday they’ve secured property in Cobb County where they’ll build a new stadium that will open for the 2017 season. This will replace Turner Field, located in downtown Atlanta.
The Ted, as it’s known because of enigmatic former owner Ted Turner, just completed its 17th season as the home of the Braves. That’s far from ancient by any standards. As somebody who makes annual visits to Turner Field, I can say it doesn’t have all the bells, whistles and other amenities of some newer ballparks. But it’s in no way lacking in fulfilling the duties of a quality major-league stadium, and is far superior to a dozen other parks currently in use.
In the past 13 seasons, the Braves have drawn 32,725,900 patrons to Turner Field, an average of more than 2.5 million annually. That easily puts them in the top half of MLB’s home draws and attendance has risen the past two years.
In spite of that, the Braves are crying poor about the price renovations needed for the park. They claim it will cost $150 million to make routine improvements and $200 million to truly enhance the fan experience. Keep in mind that these are also the people that willingly agreed to contracts that will pay a combined $27,250,000 to B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla next season – two of the worst position players in the big leagues – so their judgment about the fan experience must be taken with a grain of salt.
When the Atlanta Fulton County Recreational Authority balked at taxing their constituents more to line the pockets of a multi-million dollar pro sports team, the Braves did what any good business partner would do. They became free agents, making their services available to the highest bidder. In this case, that’s Cobb County, which will reportedly pony up $450 million in taxpayer funding to help pay for the $672 million new facility. Where’s the extra $222 million coming from? Why the Braves, of course.
I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure that would cover the reported costs for Turner Field renovations. So why invest in a new park rather than make the “necessary” improvements to the one you currently occupy and claim to have already invested $125 million in improvements?
Make no mistake, this is a money grab, pure and simple. There’s nothing wrong with the Ted as a stadium. It’s centrally located and easily accessible by several major roadways – for Atlanta residents, fans who live in the suburbs or those coming from South Carolina. It’s also accessible via MARTA, the public rapid transit system in Atlanta.
While there are traffic and convenience issues, the only people who won’t have a problem getting to the new park are residents of Cobb County. Even some of them will likely get stuck in the notorious traffic snarls. The new stadium will be located at the interchange for two of Atlanta’s busiest interstates, I-75 and I-285, which has been plagued by major traffic problems for years.
As for MARTA, please don’t make the well-to-do residents of Cobb County laugh in your face. They prefer to do that behind your back. MARTA doesn’t even serve Cobb County, which has long rejected efforts to bring rapid transit to the suburbs and offers its own limited, bus-only system.
A move to a location that’s harder to reach seems to make as much sense as directly alienating the majority of your fan base. But if you look a little closer, you’ll see why the Braves are ready to abandon Turner Field when its 20-year lease expires following the 2016 season.
What it’s lacking, in the eyes of the Braves’ ownership, are the ancillary money-making enterprises. They want control and ownership of the parking lots surrounding the stadium, or at least a vested share of them with their partners – the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority. They also want a share of restaurants, retail shops, hotels and entertainment facilities around the ballpark, where they can continue to make money off their brand. That’s why the Braves said that they’ll develop the remaining parcels surrounding the new stadium, crafting a world-class entertainment district featuring retail, restaurants and hotels. They’ll also charge you to use any of them.
It’s not enough to charge exorbitant fees for tickets, food and souvenirs inside the walls of the ballpark. Going to a game for a family of four can cost as much as the down payment on a new sedan.
The Braves’ ownership wants to make you pay – a lot – for anything involved with the fan experience. That’s why the new stadium will actually have fewer seats to watch a game. By leaving the 49,743-seat Turner Field for the proposed 42,000-seat facility, it would seem that they’d be leaving money on the table.
That’s not the case. Fewer seats will drive up demand for the number of tickets available, which will actually allow the Braves to gild the lily twice. They’ll charge anyone the face value of the ticket when it’s originally purchased, then they’ll get to charge whatever they like in the secondary-ticket market, something that’s moving away from fan-based vehicles and toward team-owned and MLB-endorsed businesses with partners like Ticketmaster, a corporation known for doing everything but picking up its consumers by the ankles and shaking them in the hope that loose change falls out of their pockets.
So fewer seats will likely increase the bidding or rates for remarketing the tickets, enough to make you lose your appetite for that $11 hotdog.
As for transportation issues, don’t worry, the Braves have you covered. They plan to have a “circulator” bus system to get fans around the site of the planned stadium. I’ll offer a guess of who will own, operate and benefit from the bus service – the Braves.
This move could also be a case of jealousy. It’s possible the Braves upset that their neighbors, the Falcons, are getting Atlanta’s support for a new – and equally unnecessary – stadium. But who can blame them for feeling jilted? If Atlanta is willing to be extorted for the chance to tear down a couple of churches for an NFL team, certainly a baseball team with 10 times as many home dates is worth a lousy hundred million or two.
With the move all but done, the next item up for bidding is naming rights to the new stadium. While some soon-to-be-in bankruptcy protection insurance company will likely give it a homey name like Zaxxon Field, I’m more interested in what the nickname will be. While the original Yankee Stadium was known as “The House that Ruth Built,” I nominate the new Cobb County park to be referred to as “The House that Loot Built.” Because it’s all about money. Yours, mine and whoever else’s the lords of baseball can get their mitts on.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.